An English woman who bought a weight-loss medication on social media told the BBC she ended up in the emergency room after vomiting blood.
Maddy, 32, became seriously ill after using an unlicensed version of semaglutide — the active ingredient in Ozempic — purchased on Instagram.
A BBC investigation found unregulated sellers offering semaglutide as a weight-loss medication, without a prescription, online.
The report also found that the medicine is offered in beauty salons in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool.
Doctors say medications purchased from unregulated and illegal sources are dangerous — and can contain potentially toxic ingredients.
Demand for Ozempic, a drug indicated for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, soared last year after it dominated headlines as a kind of “secret Hollywood treatment” for weight loss.
The drug reduces blood sugar levels and slows the exit of food from the stomach.
The drug’s growing popularity has led to a surge in prescriptions off-label (outside the official label indications) for weight loss, which triggered global supply problems and created a shortage for diabetes patients.
In the UK, as pharmacies struggled to get hold of the drug, an illicit gray market selling semaglutide “diet kits” began to flourish online.
Delivered by mail, these kits usually come with needles and two vials — one with a white powder and the other with a liquid — that must be mixed before the medicine can be injected.
The package was delivered via courier to Maddy after she searched Instagram for a “quick fix” to help her lose weight before an event.
“In general, I have difficulty losing weight. I’m not one of those people who can change their body easily,” she says.
Maddy discovered The Lip King, a company run by Jordan Parke.
Lip King’s Instagram profile is flooded with transformation photos of women with newly slimmed bodies and screenshots of text messages from customers praising the product. Maddy decided to test it.
After a brief exchange of messages with Parke and a £200 bank transfer, Maddy received 10mg of semaglutide without any specific consultation or questions about her health.
She also received a video on WhatsApp with instructions on how to mix and inject the medicine, along with dangerous advice that advised her to take a higher dose than recommended by health authorities.
Shortly after the first injection, Maddy became “extremely ill, bedridden and vomiting.”
In a text message, Parke said vomiting was normal and that she should take pills to ease the nausea.
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A few weeks later, when the nausea passed, Maddy tried the drug again — this time before bed.
“I was woken up by vomiting,” says Maddy.
“It was bad. I was vomiting all night, to the point where I was vomiting stomach acid, blood and white foam.”
She went to the emergency room the next afternoon, where she was given fluids to treat dehydration.
“Maybe I’m too dramatic, but I thought I was dying. I was literally devastated, crying to my mother. I was also very angry because no one told me about these side effects,” she says.
“I did my own research, but I didn’t see anywhere that anyone was suffering at this level.”
The BBC made several attempts to contact Parke, but he did not respond.
Parke is one of many illicit sellers offering semaglutide through social media. To find out what’s really in the drugs, the BBC purchased unlicensed semaglutide from several sellers and sent the products for laboratory testing.
The results showed inconsistencies in what was actually in each sample. Although most of the products had semaglutide, the bottles from two different sellers did not contain any of the active ingredient, and almost all of them, including those purchased from the Lip King profile, did not have the full dose that had been advertised.
Ozempic is available on the NHS (the UK health system) strictly for patients with type 2 diabetes. In Brazil, it is approved and available for purchase in pharmacies.
Wegovy, another medicine that contains semaglutide and is prescribed specifically to treat obesity, will be offered on the NHS to people with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 35 and, exceptionally, to some people with a BMI of 30 and problems with weight-related health. This version is also released in Brazil by the National Health Surveillance Agency, Anvisa.
Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk is the only company approved to sell and market semaglutide, under the brands Ozempic and Wegovy, but is now fighting online sales of counterfeit versions.
The company says it is working to “proactively identify and remove websites, ads or social media accounts that sell counterfeit semaglutide” and has conducted “in-depth investigations into copyright infringement, criminal networks and sellers illegally diverting our products.”
But the BBC found that some sellers whose websites and profiles are blocked often create new platforms, with new names, soon after.
Online sellers try to get around the law by saying that the product being sold is “unfit for human consumption” or “for research purposes only.”
Public law expert Gerard Hanratty says: “You can put a lot of different things on a label. It doesn’t mean the product is legal and that it complies with regulations.”
He says sellers would need to prove they are providing the product for research purposes and not for human use for the warnings to be valid.
Sales in beauty salons
A documentary released by BBC Three, The Skinny Jab Uncovered (“The Weight Loss Injection Revealed”, in free translation) found unapproved versions of the drug that are sold in beauty salons on some of the main British streets.
Undercover reporters visited four beauty salons in Manchester and Liverpool and, in some establishments, were given dangerous advice about drug mixes and dosages.
In a lounge, one of the journalists was told, “Well, if you take a high dose, you just won’t want to eat anything else, but you might feel sick. But that won’t be dangerous.”
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says it has received reports of people ending up in hospital after using fake Ozempic pens, which are also flooding the market, with more than 300 units seized since January.
Endocrinologist Barbara McGowan, consultant on a study funded by Novo Nordisk that tested semaglutide to treat obesity, says licensed drugs — such as Ozempic and Wegovy — undergo “very rigorous” quality controls before being approved for use. .
She warns that buyers using semaglutide from outside the legal supply chain “could be injecting anything.”
“We don’t know what the excipients are — that is, the other ingredients that accompany the medicine, which can be potentially toxic and harmful, [ou] cause an anaphylactic reaction, allergies and, worse, even significant health problems or perhaps death,” she says.
McGowan says medications like semaglutide can cause “significant side effects” such as nausea in some patients, which is why appropriate medical support and monitoring is necessary.
“It’s not just about the prescription. There is a whole list of comprehensive care that needs to be received from healthcare professionals,” she adds.
‘Huge health risks’
Dale Dennis, a personal trainer from East Yorkshire, UK, sells 10 mg bottles of unlicensed Ozempic in addition to premixed pens.
Dennis advertises the product on social media, encouraging buyers to send messages on WhatsApp to place an order.
The company he runs, Raw Peptides Limited, is listed as a company engaged in the sale of “new cars and light vehicles”.
The BBC contacted Dennis for comment – however, after initially agreeing to speak for the report, he canceled the interview and sent a message with an expletive.
He also wrote: “I definitely earn per week what you earn in salary for the year.”
Dr Simon Cork, senior lecturer in physiology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, emphasizes that semaglutide is not a short-term weight loss solution and is only suitable for people with obesity.
“That [o uso estético] It can be seen as selfish because these people understandably want to lose some weight, but the medication has not been tested or designed to help individuals in this situation.”
He says mixing and injecting weight-loss medications at home carries “enormous risks.”
“The vast majority of the population is not qualified or trained to administer injectable medications. And licensed Ozempic or Wegovy, which you buy in pharmacies, come in predefined quantities,” he says.
“You press a button and you get the correct dose of the medicine. You are not injecting a set amount for yourself.”
Vials of semaglutide sold illegally over the internet do not have the protections and safety locks available in official medicine to prevent patient overdoses.
Tilly, 22, decided to stop using the semaglutide she bought on TikTok after accidentally injecting twice the amount she was supposed to.
“When the medicine arrived, there were no instructions, which completely confused me… I sent a message to the company and asked what I should do with it.”
“And they told me: ‘Join a Facebook group,'” he says.
“I felt the worst hangover ever. It was like I had a really bad headache. I felt sick and stressed because I had taken too much,” says Tilly.
The MHRA says it will use its powers to protect the public and will take “appropriate enforcement action, including, where necessary, prosecuting those who put their health at risk”.
The agency’s chief security officer, Alison Cave, warns that purchasing semaglutide from illegal suppliers “means there are no safeguards to ensure the products meet our quality and safety standards, and taking such medicines can put your health at risk.”