Early’s Farm and Garden Centre in Saskatoon is sold out of ivermectin, a medication used for deworming horses. Spencer Early, the shop’s owner, says he’s pretty sure some of the people who have been buying the drug, many of them new and unfamiliar customers, aren’t using it on livestock.
Mr. Early has heard the stories of people turning to the animal form of ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19 – a phenomenon that has prompted warnings from regulators in Canada and the United States that the drug could be dangerous if taken in quantities meant for large animals.
In smaller doses, ivermectin is sometimes used in humans to treat parasites such as scabies and lice. But it is not approved to treat COVID-19.
“Whatever they’re doing would probably be considered an off-label use, so that’s up to them. We don’t get into a conversation with them about what they’re doing or how they’re applying it,” Mr. Early said.
“I don’t get too excited about it. I’m not condoning it. I’m not recommending it. I just happen to be a person who has a business that sells it.”
Ivermectin is the latest unproven COVID-19 cure to receive attention on social media. Its popularly has been boosted by Fox News hosts, American politicians, and a handful of Canadian public figures, including Independent MP Derek Sloan and former Alberta Conservative MP Rob Anders.
The medical consensus against using the human version of the drug to treat COVID-19 appears to have led some people to consider trying the animal-grade version. Several feed stores and Alberta’s veterinarian college have all reported some instances of people seeking it to treat the virus. In Alberta, provincial law limits who can buy ivermectin.
The initial interest in the drug was driven by a preprint study that found it could dramatically reduce COVID-19 deaths. But the paper wasn’t peer reviewed, and it was later retracted over concerns about its data. Other studies have found ivermectin is not effective against COVID-19, though more research is currently under way.
Health Canada issued an advisory this week about “concerning reports of the use of veterinary ivermectin’' to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“Canadians should never consume health products intended for animals because of the potential serious health dangers posed by them,” the department said in the statement.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been more blunt. In a tweet last month, it said: “You are not a horse.” It urged people not to use ivermectin – in any form – to treat COVID-19.
Drug maker Merck, which sells ivermectin for human use under the brand name Stromectol, issued a statement in February that said there was “no scientific basis” to support the use of the drug to treat COVID-19.
Regulators for veterinarians, pharmacists and doctors in British Columbia, Ontario and several other provinces told The Globe and Mail they have not issued any formal guidance about ivermectin and haven’t received any reports or complaints about people seeking it for COVID-19.
Phil Buote, the deputy registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, said the regulator has heard from only one vet in the province about someone asking for ivermectin. He said the association is considering a notice to veterinarians reminding them that it would be illegal to provide medical treatment to people, though he noted that the association’s members are well versed in the law.
In Alberta last month, Mr. Anders, the former MP, spoke at a rally for Mr. Sloan, who was ejected from the Conservative caucus at the beginning of the year and is now campaigning in the federal election with no party affiliation. Mr. Anders told the audience that he found a doctor to prescribe ivermectin. He complained that medical professionals were being threatened with punishment for helping patients obtain the drug.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul has promoted ivermectin. And on Wednesday, Joe Rogan, who hosts one of the world’s most popular podcasts, announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and taken ivermectin, along with other drugs, to treat it.
American states such as Mississippi and Texas have reported significant spikes in calls to poison control because of ivermectin use.
Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta who studies medical misinformation, said there appears to be an overlap between those promoting ivermectin and those who are opposed to vaccines or other public-health measures.
“I think is what’s going on with ivermectin is ideology, plus misinformation, plus in-group thinking, plus the embrace of conspiracy theories,” he said.
He said the phenomenon is similar to the furor over hydroxychloroquine, which former U.S. president Donald Trump promoted as a COVID-19 treatment despite a lack of evidence that it was effective.
Prof. Caulfield said statements from agencies such as Health Canada and the FDA can actually feed into conspiracy theories, because adherents may see those admonishments as proof that governments and pharmaceutical companies are lying about the pandemic. But he said official warnings are still useful for reaching people who are genuinely searching for reliable information.
With reports from Emma Graney in Regina and The Canadian Press
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