Weight Watchers set to add anti-obesity drugs
Company gets into meds with startup purchase
WeightWatchers – for more than 60 years the standard bearer of diet and exercise programs for weight loss – is getting into the medication business.
The company is purchasing a yearold telehealth startup called Sequence, which will give patrons the option to request anti-obesity medication along with their monthly membership.
The details of precisely how the medical care will be integrated into the behavioral health system have yet to be worked out, said Gary Foster, WeightWatchers’ chief scientific officer.
But after the deal closes this spring, WeightWatchers’ members will get the option to request a telehealth visit to discuss medication. If eligible, Sequence’s technology will speed the process of applying for insurance coverage for the drugs.
“As a brand leader, we have a responsibility to … look at recent advances in the science and treatment of obesity and think about if and how they fit in our WeightWatchers’ ecosystem,” Foster said. “We decided this was one that was worth incorporating.”
Obesity expert Dr. Caroline Apovian said she’s skeptical weight loss can be well managed without an in-person physical exam, but praised the move into medication.
“Kudos to them for doing this,” said Apovian, who co-directs the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
A new class of drugs has been shown to help people shed 15% to 20% of their excess weight.
“Lifestyle (change) is very important but it’s not going to help people keep the weight off and that’s the key,” said Apovian, who serves on the scientific advisory board of Novo Nordisk, which makes one of the new drugs.
WeightWatchers will acquire Sequence for a total of $132 million in a deal scheduled to be finalized this spring, according to a joint news release from the two companies.
Sequence, which launched in late 2021, had about $25 million in annual revenue from approximately 24,000 members as of last month. It offers an automated preapproval process to help patients get coverage for weight-loss medications.
“For those who have insurance coverage, you’ll be able to ascertain insurance coverage in short order,” which can be challenging for many medical offices to handle and has been a major roadblock for accessing medications, Foster said.
Today, only about 20% to 30% of private insurance plans cover weight-loss medications and government programs do not, Apovian said.
The drug Wegovy (generically called semaglutide), which can help people lose as much as 15% of their body weight, costs about $1,300 a month. Mounjaro (tirzepatide), a $1,000-amonth diabetes medication being tested for weight loss, has shown it can help people lose about 20%.
Foster said he also was impressed with how Sequence’s customers spoke about the quality of the service and how easy it was for them to access care. The company has a limited history and did essentially no marketing, he said, but still managed to accumulate more than 20,000 members.
“We’re always looking for how we can better serve people with weight management that is scalable, science-based and effective,” Foster said.
Weight-loss medications aren’t for everyone, he said, but for the people for whom they’re appropriate “we want to make sure that process gets done well.”
In one study of 150 WeightWatchers members, participants lost about 6% of their body weight after six months, with one-third of the most active members losing at least 10%.
The new generation of medications, which manipulate natural hormones that regulate fullness, can lead to much greater weight loss.
Foster described this class of drugs, called GLP-1 agonists, as “a significant inflection point in the treatment of obesity.”
While most people who lose weight through diet and exercise regain the weight, medications are expected to be taken indefinitely to keep pounds from creeping back.
“This is not a short-term fix,” said Dr. Christopher Still, an obesity medicine expert and director of the Geisinger Obesity Institute. “Once you stop these medications, you take away that barrier of appetite and your appetite comes back and the weight comes back.”
WeightWatchers’ purchase is “a great idea,” according to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian weight-loss specialist, who takes some funding from Novo Nordisk.
“We have a world that treats obesity like a disease of willpower and a health care system that’s not trained in the medical management of obesity,” he said.
In the past, WeightWatchers has contributed to the false notion that lifestyle change can lead to enduring weight loss for many people, Freedhoff said, while in reality thousands of genes and hormones undermine weight loss efforts. “Thankfully, we are finally in an era of safe, useful, tolerable medications that can lead to long-term clinically meaningful change.”