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The Hidden Costs of Going Viral

Kogod School of Business professor Itir Karaesmen Aydin breaks down how social media impacts supply chains.


Kogod School of Business professor of information technology and analytics Itir Karaesmen Aydin.


For over six months, starting in 2022, there was a nationwide shortage of Ozempic, a medication prescribed to control high blood sugar. 

Prescriptions in the US reached an all-time high in the last week of February 2023, with over 373,000 prescriptions filled. That’s an increase of 111 percent compared with the same week in 2022. Of these, more than half were new prescriptions.

So what’s behind the high demand and low supply?

While supply chain issues are partly to blame for the shortages, the sudden high demand for these drugs has also been fueled by celebrities and social media buzz claiming the drug’s effectiveness for weight loss— – instead of its primary use as a diabetes medication. 

Variety reported that Ozempic was the “worst kept secret in Hollywood" for weight loss. When asked how he looked “fit, ripped, and healthy,” Elon Musk tweeted that he was taking Wegovy, a similar medication to Ozempic. “My anti-aging doctor just hands it out to anybody,” Chelsea Handler said in a recent interview, claiming that she initially didn’t even realize she was on it. And on TikTok, the hashtag #Ozempic has been viewed hundreds of millions of times.

We spoke to Professor Itir Karaesmen Aydin about how social media and supply chains intersect.

First, why does a drug shortage matter? Professor Karaesmen Aydin explains that a shortage of drugs for common chronic illnesses such as diabetes can have dire consequences for patients.  When a product is known to be in short supply, pharmacists and doctors can determine the closest substitute product to meet the needs of their patients. “High demand for one particular brand can have a snowball effect in case of shortages,” she said.

The problem becomes a serious issue with severe health implications when adequate and affordable substitutes are not available in the entire industry. Ozempic is an example of that.”

Itir karaesmen aydin

Itir Karaesmen Aydin

Professor of Information Technology and Analytics, Kogod School of Business

Additionally, some worry that as a drug becomes increasingly popular for off-label uses, it will be taken less seriously as a critical medication (vanity versus diabetes). 

Influencers and celebrities online have been significant factors in driving demand for this drug. 

According to Karaesmen Aydin, businesses can consider and respond to the marketing power of social platforms like TikTok in two ways: the benefit in the short run and the benefit in the long run.

The effect of influencers or social media platforms can be enormous in a short amount of time (e.g., if a video goes viral). The question is: is it worth it for a company to take this short-term opportunity?

Pharmaceutical companies can scale up production to match the supply with the demand if their supply chains are flexible; they can use their limited resources to produce more of one drug and less of the other.

Flexibility gives a company the ability to rapidly respond to market needs.”

Itir karaesmen aydin

Itir Karaesmen Aydin

Professor of Information Technology and Analytics, Kogod School of Business

“We have seen this with the COVID-19 vaccines. Not only did the drug companies develop new vaccines in record time, but they were also able to scale up production to produce millions of doses and distribute them fast— – although this did require a significant investment,” said Karaesmen Aydin.

In the case of a drug like Ozempic, a company has to figure out whether it can mobilize its resources or rely on third parties to increase production to catch up with the demand.  A key question is: what happens if the demand goes down as fast as it went up?  

Karaesmen Aydin notes an infamous supply chain phenomenon: the bullwhip effect. This happens when shifts in demand cause more considerable shifts in production with a lag, causing businesses to end up with zero inventory when they need it and surplus inventory when they don't. She notes that for pharmaceutical companies, a surplus would cause massive waste because products have short shelf lives; you cannot keep products in stock indefinitely to meet future demand. 

As consumer trends become increasingly viral in nature, companies need to do two things to stay resilient and responsive: first, build a flexible supply chain; and second, build better analytical models to predict the short-and long-term demand shifts. “A company can be flexible, but poor demand forecasts will prevent the company from making the best use of their flexible resources,” said Karaesmen Aydin.

Telehealth companies have also benefited from the increased demand in this consumer cycle. Digital health companies make medications like Ozempic easier to obtain by providing prescriptions online…but, as Professor Karaesmen Aydin explains above, just because access to a prescription is more accessible, having the drug in hand is a separate journey.