Ivermectin, a cheap, over-the-counter drug that fights parasites in people and livestock, is being used by many to treat COVID-19—but there is no evidence to suggest it works. Photos via Getty
All over the world, people desperate to stave off the worst COVID-19 outcomes are turning to a deworming drug, typically used in livestock, that hasn’t been clinically proven to fight the virus. Anti-vaxxers, particularly in the US, have made matters worse by wrongly peddling ivermectin, a cheap, over-the-counter drug that fights parasites in people and livestock, as an alternative COVID-19 treatment to vaccines.
Misinformation about ivermectin continues to make the rounds on social media, with some videos logging more than a million views. (TikTok, Facebook, and Reddit have been flooded with COVID disinformation since the pandemic began.)That means a deluge of conflicting information has hit the public, resulting in concerning and hard-to-track global use of the medication to treat COVID-19. Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, a University of British Columbia epidemiologist, told VICE World News it’s not unusual for people to seek out unsubstantiated treatments for illnesses. “We see this in a lot of incurable diseases. Certainly with cancer people go to foreign countries to seek foreign treatments with not a lot of evidence to back it up,” Hoption Cann said. But “it’s sad when you do have an effective intervention (vaccines) and people avoid that for something that isn’t proven,” he said, as is the case with the pandemic. Earlier this week, a police captain in Georgia who refused to get vaccinated—and took ivermectin instead—died of COVID-19. Even some health care officials and other authority figures around the world support the use of ivermectin, despite the glaring lack of evidence, as well as warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid using the drug to treat COVID.
“Given the number of deaths that have occurred from the disease, it’s perhaps not surprising that some consumers are looking at unconventional treatments,” the FDA wrote in its statement. “Though this is understandable, please beware… Using any treatment for COVID-19 that’s not approved or authorized by the FDA, unless part of a clinical trial, can cause serious harm.”An overdose of ivermectin can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, coma, and even death. At the start of the pandemic, researchers rushed to test as many drugs as possible to determine whether COVID-19 treatments already exist. Ivermectin was one of them, Nature reported. So far, there is no substantiated evidence to suggest it’s an effective treatment against COVID-19. Yet, some health care professionals and others are touting the anti-parasite drug: South African medics have thrown ivermectin at COVID, while Australia reported a 10-fold increase in ivermectin shipments. In the US, a Buffalo, N.Y. judge keeps ordering hospitals to administer it, and in the Canadian province of Alberta, people have even flocked to feed stores and purchased ivermectin brands that are specifically for cattle, therefore even more unsafe to use. One store there even took the product off shelves to keep it away from customers.
The Indian state of Goa has also offered it to all adults, while there’s been mass uptake of ivermectin all over Latin America.It’s worth noting that unlike the anti-vaccine crowd in rich countries like the US, many people in poorer countries simply don’t have access to vaccines. The inability to access meaningful and safe treatment might make them more inclined to seek out alternative options, Hoption Cann said. “A lot of people that may be fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated, if they get COVID, they often have no symptoms, or very mild symptoms, so obviously they're not going to seek that sort of thing,” Hoption Cann said. Meanwhile, in poorer countries, “so few people have received vaccinations, they’re still using alternative therapies to hopefully overcome their illness.”Regardless of the motivation for using ivermectin, health agencies have repeatedly issued statements saying it’s not safe to use the medication to treat COVID-19 at this time. “The current evidence on the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 patients is inconclusive. Until more data is available, WHO recommends that the drug only be used within clinical trials,” a WHO statement says.
In March, top WHO official Janet Diaz said the mandate “applies to patients with COVID-19 of any disease severity.”Merck, the manufacturer of the 40-year-old drug, has said that there’s no evidence that ivermectin has any use for battling COVID-19. A 2020 scientific study suggested the medication could help people avoid death caused by COVID-19, but concerns around data manipulation and plagiarism ultimately resulted in the paper being pulled on July 14, 2021. Today, little evidence suggests it’s a good tool to fight COVID-19.A surgeon based in Edmonton, Alberta, Dr. Michael Chatenay, told CBC News he and a colleague have had patients request ivermectin to treat COVID."I was, to be honest, shocked but not surprised because the conspiracy theory websites and social media have been abuzz with this crazy theory," Chatenay said. "It's worrying… For people that are already scared, or are worried about getting vaccinated, they're looking for and grasping onto these treatments that could potentially be harmful.”
The misguided use of ivermectin is but one example in a series of COVID-19 falsehoods. Last year, former U.S. President Donald Trump said he was taking daily doses of a malaria drug, while health care professionals questioned its efficacy and warned of harmful side effects, including heart problems. Several doctors, including U.S. top doctor Anthony Fauci, rushed to tell people to avoid using unproven medications. “What we’re having is a populist treatment, instead of an evidence-based treatment,” Patricia García, global health researcher at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru, who is running a clinical trial testing the drug, told Nature.Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.