The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning Americans not to take veterinary formulations of a drug called ivermectin to treat COVID-19. Ivermectin can be used to treat parasites in animals like cows and horses, but it is not an anti-viral drug and is not approved to treat or prevent the novel coronavirus. However, thanks to a recent flood of misinformation, people have been ingesting versions of the drug made for livestock, according to the FDA, resulting in some serious health consequences.
In humans, “very specific doses” of ivermectin tablets are approved to treat two conditions caused by parasitic worms, according to the FDA. In animals, ivermectin is approved to prevent or treat certain parasites in a number of animal species. Of course, the formulations and dosages of ivermectin prescribed to a human and, say, a horse, are very different, which is one reason why it’s a really bad idea to ingest veterinary versions of the drug.
Drugs formulated for large animals, like horses and cows, often have a really high concentration of the active ingredient that is appropriate for an animal of that weight. But such a large dose can be “highly toxic” in humans, who weigh hundreds of pounds less than livestock, the FDA explains: “Taking large doses of this drug is dangerous and can cause serious harm.”
Overdosing on ivermectin can cause symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, itching, and hives (a sign of an allergic reaction), or low blood pressure. Toxic levels of ivermectin may also result in issues with balance, seizures, coma, and even death.
But it’s not just about the risks that come with large doses of ivermectin; many of the inactive ingredients in drugs formulated for animals have not been studied for safety in humans or have only been studied in much lower quantities. “In some cases, we don’t know how those inactive ingredients will affect how ivermectin is absorbed in the human body,” the FDA says, meaning that the inactive ingredients could make the active ingredient (i.e., ivermectin) even more potent and potentially harmful.
Despite these risks, enough people are taking livestock formulations of ivermectin that the FDA took to Twitter this weekend to remind people that they are, in fact, people. “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” tweeted the FDA. In fact, the agency has received “multiple reports” of people who were hospitalized after ingesting ivermectin formulated for horses.
The previous day the Mississippi State Department of Health issued an alert to medical providers stating that at least 70% of recent calls to the state’s Poison Control Center were from people who took formulations of ivermectin for animals that they bought at a livestock supply center. The state has also received at least two reports of people hospitalized with ivermectin poisoning.
Beyond these glaring risks, there’s the issue that even human ivermectin is not an approved treatment for COVID-19 (or any viral infection). In vitro studies suggest that the drug may have some properties that could help fight viruses, including Zika, HIV, yellow fever, and SARS-CoV-2, according to the National Institute of Health’s COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines. Other studies report that ivermectin may have anti-inflammatory properties. However, no clinical trials have found a clinical benefit from using ivermectin in actual patients sick with these viruses, per the NIH.
This isn’t to say ivermectin has absolutely no potential value when it comes to treating COVID-19; it just means there just isn’t enough evidence to say one way or the other, according to the NIH, so it’s not something people should be trying to treat themselves with. There are a few clinical trials underway looking at the drug as a COVID-19 treatment, per the NIH, so we will know more in the future. But for the FDA to even think about approving ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment (or preventive drug), it would need to see strong evidence from large-scale, well-designed, high-powered trials—and we simply don’t have that yet.
In the meantime, everyone’s best bet at protecting themselves from COVID-19 is getting vaccinated and following basic public health precautions, like masking and social distancing. And of course, sticking to drugs made for the right species.
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