On a recent Sunday afternoon in pandemic-stricken Manila, Kyle Lim’s family was visited by relatives who raved about a drug called ivermectin, a form of which is used to treat parasites in animals.
But they were not praising its veterinary benefits; they were convinced it protected people from COVID-19.
His 50-year-old mother bought the medicine in February after being persuaded by a family friend who supposedly recovered from the virus after their doctor prescribed it. Kyle, who had not contracted the virus, was eventually pressured into taking an ivermectin pill after a heated family debate about its scientific benefits.
“They watched me and made sure I swallowed it,” he told VICE World News. “I felt sort of weak and all I know is I slept earlier than usual that night.”
Ivermectin is emerging as the latest front in the global battle over COVID misinformation. But in the Philippines, it is becoming popular at a time when vaccines are scarce, trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic is shaky, and hospitals are overwhelmed. Politicians and social media influencers are also promoting the drug despite warnings from experts that it doesn’t work.
A recent study showed that the number of Google searches in the Philippines for ivermectin and related keywords shot up nearly 700 percent in March when compared to the month before. Meanwhile, searches around vaccine registration remained low.
“We can see that a lot of Filipinos are really in a desperate state because we are in a desperate situation,” Isabelle Karina Romualdez, executive at tech firm iPrice Group, which conducted the research, said.
As of Friday, April 9, the Philippines had the most number of active coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia with more than 167,000 people currently infected. At least 14,119 have died from the disease since it spread to the country more than a year ago.
“We can see that a lot of Filipinos are really in a desperate state because we are in a desperate situation.”
Hospitals in Metro Manila and nearby provinces are at full capacity. Local news reports have described patients dying either at home or outside hospitals while waiting for an available bed. For proper care, some patients have traveled as far as 180 miles to a less busy hospital.
One of the main issues with ivermectin is the is confusion over different versions of it. In the United States, for instance, a version is approved for humans to treat tropical diseases and lice. But not COVID. It also comes in different concentrations and sizes, including pill and powder form, raising concerns over proper dosage sizes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has listed a range of side effects, while the World Health Organization advises it only be used in clinical trials.
Pharmaceutical giant Merck, which manufactures ivermectin, said in a statement that its scientist found “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19.”
In the Philippines, it is not registered for use on humans, meaning it is illegal to sell and market it in the country. But that has not stopped its growing popularity. Users believe it is an effective shield that can prevent them from catching COVID or help them recover faster.
One infectious diseases specialist who recently made rounds in various Metro Manila hospitals spoke to VICE World News about the problem, requesting anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media.
The doctor said some of her patients had sought telemedicine consultations, mostly from wellness practitioners, after contracting the virus. They were prescribed ivermectin. But the belief in its benefits delayed the patients from seeking medical help early.
“When they come to me, it’s too late. COVID has badly affected their lungs already as shown in their X-ray,” the doctor said.
“We really cannot rely on ivermectin,” she added.
There is little secrecy around it either.
During a public hearing in March in the Philippine House of Representatives, Dr. Allan Landrito, one of the most vocal proponents of ivermectin, told lawmakers he personally crushed up some 25,000 pills and distributed doses to at least 8,000 patients without a permit.
Elderly residents wait for their turn to get the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 in Manila on March 30, 2021, after the government imposed stricter lockdown, as hospitals in the capital struggle to cope with a surge in coronavirus infections. Photo: Jam STA ROSA / AFP
“My patients are begging me to treat them. I am just giving prophylaxis to patients, early treatment," Landrito said in his defense.
After a warning from authorities, Landrito has stopped selling the drug. But it may be too late as a market for it thrives on chat groups, social media and e-commerce sites.
A Facebook group seen by VICE World News contained posts selling ivermectin for as low as $7.5. The veterinary version can also be purchased through online markets like Lazada.
Lawmaker Mike Defensor, who has no medical background, has advocated for the use of ivermectin and announced that his office will start distributing it for free to his constituents. After pushback from the medical community, he reversed course and said he would start distribution only if official guidelines are in place.
After the televised Congressional hearing, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration also announced that an unnamed hospital was issued a compassionate special use permit to treat COVID patients with ivermectin. This bolstered claims from advocates, who equated it with full-fledged approval.
But Dr. Janette Garin, a former Philippine health secretary and now a lawmaker, criticized the move by the Philippine FDA.
“This is a bad precedent, this is a very scary precedent,” Garin told VICE World News.
Stressing that she is not against Ivermectin, she said the decision gave people “false hope” and confuses the government’s messaging.
Dr. Eric Domingo, the director general of the Philippine FDA, disagreed. He told VICE World News that because ivermectin is being studied in ongoing clinical trials, it is eligible for compassionate use.
Meanwhile, Filipinos are doing their own research.
Kyle, whose family made him take the drug, said his relatives do not normally fall prey to misinformation, noting that his mother gets her news from reliable mainstream media outlets. But after a friend’s advice, videos on YouTube, and various online testimonials crediting it as a cure, she was convinced.
“If you ask me, this is a sign of desperation,” he said. “Our government is basically apathetic at this point towards the COVID-19 response, and with no clear direction from above and a lot of incompetence from our own leaders, I feel people are finding quick and concrete solutions on their own.”