Utah Senate majority leader sees no problem filling Ivermectin prescriptions, but is it safe for COVID-19?

ST. GEORGE — The majority leader of the Utah Senate, who is also the owner of several drug stores, told St. George News recently that he has had his stores prescribing a drug previously used as a dewormer in humans and livestock to treat COVID-19. 

Photo of Stromectol, the brand name of ivermectin by Merck & Co. Inc. | Photo courtesy of Merck & Co. Inc., St. George News

That runs contrary to a statement on Tuesday made by the Utah Department of Health, which joined the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in warning that Ivermectin should not be used to treat COVID-19. 

Some doctors locally are still standing by Ivermectin, which is also sold under its brand name Stromectol, as a valid treatment for COVID-19. But others, including the head doctor of St. George Regional Hospital, say it shouldn’t be used. 

One thing they all agree on is that Ivermectin is not a way to prevent getting COVID-19 in the first place. More alarming is that, according to the Utah Poison Control Center, some people are purchasing the Ivermectin dose designed for horses from feed stores and ingesting it, which is resulting in some people being hospitalized for poisoning.

Among those in agreement that Ivermectin is not meant to prevent COVID-19 is State Sen. Evan Vickers, who is also the owner of Bulloch Drug, Township Pharmacy and other retail pharmacies in Cedar City. 

“It’s not a substitute for the vaccine. It is something that should be only used for treatment,” Vickers told St. George News in an interview earlier in the month.

Utah Sen. Evan Vickers at his store, Bulloch’s, in Cedar City March 24, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Nevertheless, the Cedar City Republican, who also serves as the majority leader in the State Senate, said his pharmacies are filling prescribing Ivermectin to COVID-19 patients. 

“There’s at least one pharmacy chain that won’t do it, but I don’t see anything wrong,” Vickers said. He added that while Ivermectin has been derided as a “horse dewormer,” there is a human-grade form. 

“It is used in humans. It tends to slow down the virus,” he said. “The challenge there is Ivermectin comes in a tablet form for humans but it comes in a paste form for animals and the doses are way off. The poison control center has seen a significant increase especially in those taking the veterinary form.”

According to the Utah Poison Control Center, there have been 4.5 times more Ivermectin poisonings in 2021 compared to 2020. And the center’s director Amberly Johnson said 56% of the exposures come from people using it to prevent or treat COVID-19. And half of them needed medical help afterward.

“Fifty percent of people who called us after using Ivermectin as a way to treat or prevent COVID-19 have received medical help because of the exposure,” Johnson said.

The potential for abuse and what they say is a lack of evidence for its effectiveness led to the Utah Department of Health issuing their Ivermectin warning on Tuesday. 

“I strongly encourage clinical providers to consider the harm they may cause if they provide Ivermectin to patients with COVID-19 infection,” state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said in a statement. “While there is no data showing it helps with COVID-19, there is very strong data showing it can do harm. I also encourage pharmacists to question any prescriptions for high-dose Ivermectin that is inappropriate for their clients.” 

Ivermectin’s purpose

File photo by Sergio Yoneda/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Ivermectin was discovered in 1975 as a chemical compound that could kill parasites according to information from pharmaceutical-maker Merck . That earned its discoverers the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine. But that discovery was about killing animal parasites and  like worms and insects that live off other animals.

The pill, human-grade form of Ivermectin is approved by the FDA to treat head lice, scabies, river blindness and other conditions caused by parasites. A stronger form used in horses and other livestock is used to kill heartworm in the animals.

A 2018 Swedish study said if the animal form of Ivermectin is taken by a human, it potentially can leave them with serious neurological damage including the inability to walk, coma or death. 

‘Lack of evidence’

As far as whether the human form of ivermectin is effective against COVID-19, there are several studies that say it is not, and one that says it is. 

But medical experts point out that study, from Australian researchers last October, only found that Ivermectin was able to inhibit the reproduction of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a petri dish. 

From left, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks with St. George Regional Hospital Administrator Mitch Cloward and Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll following a tour of the hospital’s COVID-19 wards, St. George, Utah, Sept. 3, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

There has yet to be a study that has shown Ivermectin helped treat COVID-19 in humans. An Egyptian study that said Ivermectin was a useful COVID-19 treatment was pulled after it was determined the researchers falsified material. And thus far, an analysis of other human trials has determined no effect from Ivermectin on COVID-19. 

However, Britain’s University of Oxford has been conducting a human trial since July that has thus far been inconclusive, and another trial was started last week in South Carolina. 

The lack of evidence thus far has left Dr. Patrick Carroll, the medical director of St. George Regional Hospital, unconvinced. 

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen with Ivermectin is it hasn’t been effective,” Carroll said. “I wish it would be, but data is demonstrating it is not beneficial.”

Carroll said that there is a great deal of misinformation – especially on social media – where claims are made that aren’t backed up by scientific research.

“The big picture as we’re treating patients is evidence-based medicine. What that means is we look at studies for what’s effective and not effective. We don’t just look at the conclusions, we look at their methods.”

An example, Carroll said, are studies which lack a large number of human subjects or test subjects.  

Also unconvinced on Ivermectin’s effectiveness toward COVID-19 is the maker of ivermectin itself. Merck released a statement in February saying there is  “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19” and also expressed concern about the safety of the use of Ivermectin to treat COVID-19.

The FDA said it has not authorized or approved Ivermectin for use in preventing or treating COVID-19 in humans or animals. The CDC has also released a health advisory against using Ivermectin to treat COVID-19 except in clinical trials.  

Nevertheless, there are doctors still prescribing Ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment locally. And there is one local person who recently recovered from COVID-19 who said ivermectin made a difference.

Recovering from COVID-19 with ivermectin

A Southern Utah resident who St. George News is not naming said they took ivermectin after it was prescribed by their doctor after they got COVID-19. While they were never hospitalized, they described COVID-19 as the “worst illness they had ever experienced.”

Photo by Paul Bradbury/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

But they said that pain subsided after ivermectin entered the picture.

“The day after taking my first dose, I felt an immediate relief from the extremely painful body aches that I had had for seven days. I do think it helped me get better,” they said. “It really might have been the thing that kept me out of the hospital. I was doing very poorly and was desperate when I finally decided to take it.”

The local resident noted it was the human-grade Ivermectin that came in a pill form and was prescribed, and not the veterinary form that is causing many poison control problems. 

“Luckily it just looked like a regular pill and didn’t have a picture of a horse on the bottle,” they joked. “Also, the doctor I went through said he had successfully treated a ton of COVID patients with the same protocol.”

No magic pill?

It has been seen that there may not be a one-size-fits all way of treating COVID-19. Even if Ivermectin is effective for one person with COVID-19, it may not be for another. And it also might mean medicines being used differently than their original purpose.

Such was the case for Cedar City man Kerry Gunter, who was near death of COVID-19 in the St. George Regional Hospital intensive care unit before a “Hail Mary” dosage of  the rheumatoid arthritis drug Xeljanz reportedly saved him

Medical workers fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic inside the St. George Active Life Center on Feb. 11, 2021. St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The best way to reduce to the chance of getting COVID-19, Carroll and other medical experts say, is getting the vaccine and wearing a face covering when physical distancing isn’t possible. And monoclonal antibodies is one of the few treatments for COVID-19 approved by the FDA and shown to help patients infected with COVID-19.

There have been other medicines touted as possible COVID-19 treatments that have proven to be snake oil.

Like Ivermectin, ebola drug Remdesivir initially showed promise inhibiting COVID-19 in petri dishes and ended up getting approved by the FDA as a COVID-19 treatment. However, its use in humans has proven to have little effect on shortening hospital stays and no effect on mortality. 

Even less effective was hydrochloroquine, an antimalarial drug, which not only had no effect on COVID-19 but was actually making patients sicker. 

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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