UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — As U.S. health officials face challenges in getting more Americans vaccinated for COVID-19, some people in Northeast Ohio are turning to a controversial alternative treatment.
Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug, developed in the late 1970s, commonly used in humans to treat scabies and for deworming livestock. But its use as a therapeutic for COVID-19 gained traction following a U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee hearing on alternative treatments, convened by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) last December.
Dr. Pierre Kory, a pulmonologist from the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, made some bold claims about ivermectin.
"It basically obliterates transmission of this virus," he declared. "If you take this, you won't get sick."
Kory is leading the charge for widespread use of ivermectin, citing studies from around the world touting it, as he called it, "a miracle drug" against COVID-19. Sixty-five-year-old Joan Richelson, of University Heights, is a believer.
"We started taking it on a prophylactic basis," Richelson told 3News, adding her whole family began taking ivermectin months before four family members contracted COVID, including her 97-year-old mother-in-law. All four, whom she described as high risk for coronavirus, suffered minor symptoms and recovered from the virus in two days.
Richelson is convinced ivermectin spared her family from severe illness "because it just couldn't happen to four different people who are high risk." So, could it be a silver bullet, or is it just snake oil?
"We simply don't know," Dr. Keith Armitage, infectious disease expert and medical director of the Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine and Global Health at University Hospitals in Cleveland, said. "Until we have more data, it really cannot be recommended as part of routine therapy. The high-quality studies--the reasonable, randomized, controlled studies that are looking into ivermectin--so far have been disappointing."
Armitage believes it's too early to discount or endorse the drug before we get results from large clinical trials by researchers who are epidemiologists and experts in infectious diseases (which Kory is not). Armitage said the small studies cited by Kory are not enough to make a conclusive determination on ivermectin.
"That being said," Armitage noted, "it is widely being used right now in India, so we should know more soon."
On Monday, the state of Goa in India began offering ivermectin to all adults in a desperate attempt against a brutal COVID surge amid a dire vaccine shortage in the country. Goa health officials made the recommendation despite the World Health Organization's advising against it.
In March, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against using ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19, which reads in part:
"The FDA’s job is to carefully evaluate the scientific data on a drug to be sure that it is both safe and effective for a particular use, and then to decide whether or not to approve it. 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."
However, the buzz over the drug has even led some to dangerously turn to the veterinary formulation of ivermectin for animals. At Tractor Supply Co. in Macedonia, ivermectin horse paste intended for animals up to 1,500 pounds sits on store shelves, where a warning sign is prominently posted. It reads, "Despite media reports that ivermectin could potentially be used to treat people with COVID-19, these products are not safe or approved for human use and could cause severe personal injury or death."
According to the FDA, at least three people have been hospitalized after self-medicating with the veterinary formula of ivermectin.
"My true frustration about a drug like ivermectin is that people use it as an excuse not to get vaccinated," Armitage said. "There's overwhelming data that the vaccines are safe and effective. There's no data that a well-qualified, objective person could recommend for or against it, at this point."