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Ivermectin most commonly treats certain animals, like horses, for worms. You can buy a one-dose tube on websites like TractorSupply.com for $3.99.
But now, the anti-parasitic drug is being touted as a treatment for COVID-19. At least one person has even poisoned themselves with the veterinary version, ABC News reported.
The FDA has approved versions of ivermectin for use in humans for some parasites, lice, and even rosacea—but not as a COVID treatment. The National Institutes of Health also says the drug is an accepted treatment against parasites and tropical diseases but not viruses like COVID-19.
The issue with using the drug for viral infections is that an extremely high dose would be needed, according to Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at McMaster University. At that point, the patient would likely experience dangerous side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues and neurotoxicity, or brain and nervous system damage.
The drug also comes in a range of concentrations, and in different forms, like liquid and powder, making precise at-home measurements extremely difficult for the average person.
“At the concentration needed to inhibit the growth of the virus, it’s really, really hard to achieve in humans without getting into toxicity, side effects, and overdose range of this drug,” Chagla said. “Your problem is now that the drug is so far into mainstream culture with YouTube videos and conspiracy sites trying to push this drug in really high doses.”
In December, Dr. Pierre Kory, founder of the outspoken Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, told a Senate committee that ivermectin was a “wonder drug” for COVID-19 and called for the government to review its use as an accepted treatment. But the larger medical community quickly deemed that opinion misleading and even false.
A month later, the alliance put out a press release encouraging doctors to prescribe ivermectin for COVID-19, partly because the FDA might then approve it. The group had conducted its own analysis of ivermectin on COVID-19 patients, but the editors of Frontiers in Pharmacology didn’t accept it for publication.
Clips of Kory’s comments to the Senate made their way to YouTube and were viewed more than 1 million times, according to the Associated Press. Since then, YouTubers and Twitter users have continued to share the alliance’s perspective. Members of the public are now even buying veterinary-grade versions of the drug and taking amounts up to 50 milligrams at home without medical guidance, according to Chagla.
“Your problem is now that the drug is so far into mainstream culture with YouTube videos and conspiracy sites trying to push this drug in really high doses.”
“It’s almost a deja vu moment from when the pandemic started and we started using hydroxychloroquine and people started going to aquarium stores and overdosing on it,” Chagla said. “It’s almost the same, except people are going to veterinary stores now.” (People wrongly thought chlorine tablets sold for fish tanks contained the drug.)
Several studies do show that ivermectin can stop the replication of the virus in a lab setting, but there’s no robust evidence on how the drug would work as a treatment for humans outside of a controlled environment. The FDA and National Institutes of Health have even released guidance against taking veterinary-grade Ivermectin and warning that it’s unsafe.
Poison control centers across the country are also instructing people not to take the drug—and if they do, to call. The Missouri Poison Center highlights that one study about ivermectin being passed around wasn’t conducted on humans, and the University of Connecticut’s poison control website has an FAQ section on COVID-related poisoning, with one question that asks, “Can I take my dog’s ivermectin to keep the COVID-virus from infecting me?” That’s a hard no.
A few promising clinical trials of ivermectin for use against COVID-19 are underway in Brazil and South Africa, which is already allowing ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19, along with Zimbabwe. But Chagla says it’s imperative to wait for the results of further testing in the U.S.—and definitely don’t go to your local farm supply store to stock up.
But that hasn’t stopped some doctors, like a few in South Florida, from moving ahead with prescribing ivermectin, even as they call for more trials.