Alaskans are making a run on a livestock deworming medicine called ivermectin to treat COVID-19 despite warnings from health officials who call the drug not only unproven but potentially dangerous for people.
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration say they have received multiple reports of patients who required medical support and hospitalization after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.
The Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University, which also serves Alaska and Guam, is fielding a substantial number of calls about ivermectin, according to officials there. The center says it has managed nine cases linked to “intentionally misusing” ivermectin in its region so far this month.
At Kenai Feed & Supply, a rush on the drug prompted the store to limit sales to one per person “unless we know they have horses or cows,” said longtime employee Tara Janik.
People tell her the off-brand use of the drug to treat the virus is “all over Facebook,” Janik said. Others try to convince store employees they’re buying for their animals, but don’t know what they weigh.
Shoppers are buying tremendous amounts at one time.
“One person bought 15 of the tubes of paste for horses,” she said. “One tube treats a thousand pounds of horse. So I’m not sure what they plan to do with it.”
State health officials continue to say the most effective treatment against COVID-19 is not getting a serious case of it in the first place by getting vaccinated. Otherwise, Anchorage and state officials say monoclonal antibody infusions for COVID-positive patients early on can help prevent severe illness.
“Please don’t use ivermectin to treat your COVID-19,” Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said at a briefing Wednesday. “Please consider using monoclonal antibodies because that’s where we have the best data at this time.”
Kenai mayor defends drug
Alaska Mill and Feed in Anchorage normally sells a couple dozen boxes of ivermectin in an entire year, according to store manager Kelly Fuller. But for the last six weeks, the anti-parasitic has flown off the shelves.
The store sold its last supplies of ivermectin on Monday, Fuller said. “I mean, we don’t even have any more in stock.”
That was the same day an elected official publicly endorsed the use of ivermectin in treating COVID-19 — for the second time.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce Pierce has twice defended use of the drug, first at last week’s borough meeting and on Monday during a radio show on KSRM radio.
“Call it creative medicine. Call it what you want. I call it saving lives,” Pierce said during the “Sound Off” program Monday. “Here’s where I’m at. I think there’s hearts and heads here at the table and we’re making decisions about them and what I would want my doctor to do is to look at all options across the spectrum and look at the research that’s been done.”
He also called ivermectin “very inexpensive” and touted it as an alternative to vaccination.
Last week, Pierce also excoriated Central Peninsula Hospital for what he said was the improper treatment of COVID patients, including failure to use drugs like ivermectin, according to the Kenai Peninsula Clarion.
Pierce didn’t return requests for comment this week.
Drug manufacturer: ‘Concerning lack of safety data’
The FDA has approved ivermectin in both people and animals for some parasitic worms and for head lice and skin conditions. The FDA has not approved its use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans and has urged people to not use it to treat COVID-19.
Taking too much ivermectin can cause nausea, diarrhea, low blood pressure, itching and hives, dizziness, balance problems, seizures and even death, according to the Oregon Poison Control Center. Ingesting ivermectin formulations that are designed for animals is especially dangerous, as veterinary medications are often more concentrated and many of their ingredients aren’t considered safe for human use.
Merck, the drug company that manufactures ivermectin, in February issued a statement saying researchers found no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19 from pre-clinical studies and no meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with COVID-19 disease. The company also cited “a concerning lack of safety data” in most studies.
If prescribed for humans, ivermectin is usually a one-dose prescription at far lower levels than people are using it now, and over one day instead of weeks, state pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins said Wednesday.
Both the FDA and the Infectious Diseases Society of America are “straight up recommending” against the use of the medicine in COVID-19 treatment, Cutchins said. He’s previously asked why Merck would forego the financial benefit from marketing the drug for viral treatment if ivermectin worked?
“I will say that we would all love it if ivermectin was a good effective treatment against viruses,” he said. “Ivermectin is used for worms.”
That said, it’s possible ongoing clinical trials could show the drug brings some benefit, Cutchins said.
“And if the trials that are ongoing show it to be beneficial, I’m sure the Infectious Diseases Society of America and me, myself, will come out and tell you that data has changed,” he said.