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Sen. Ron Johnson doubles down on unproven early COVID-19 treatments, including ivermectin

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Ron Johnson

Sen. Ron Johnson

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson on Wednesday continued to tout unproven treatments for COVID-19, including the much-maligned use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, even after federal health authorities warned against unauthorized use of the drug to treat the disease.

In a statement, Johnson blasted the media and public health officials, and said not enough attention in the medical community has been placed on early treatment of COVID-19.

Pfizer says new data suggests a third dose of its COVID vaccine can strongly increase protection against the delta variant.

“Unfortunately, because of the dereliction of duty of our federal health agencies and too many in the medical community ignoring early treatment, some Americans have resorted to obtaining veterinary ivermectin out of desperation,” Johnson said. “The solution lies in developing and offering early treatment of COVID, not in slandering and defaming those of us who strongly advocate for this common sense approach to saving lives.”

Johnson for months has advocated for the consideration of drugs unproven to treat COVID-19 — such as the anti-parasitic medication ivermectin or malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine — as potential therapies for people who have contracted the disease.

Ivermectin is typically used to treat parasites in humans and animals. However, the FDA said it is particularly concerned about multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.

In a health advisory last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned clinicians and the public that ivermectin is not currently authorized or approved by the FDA for treatment of COVID-19, and that the National Institutes of Health has also cited insufficient data.

Yet, there has been a 24-fold increase in ivermectin prescriptions compared to before the pandemic, according to the CDC.

In his Wednesday statement, Johnson said he has never advocated for people using veterinary ivermectin, and criticized recent CDC guidance which he said has “provided media and political groups a talking point to slander health care professionals investigating the drug and those, like me, who are willing to seek a second opinion in search of solutions.”

Physicians in Wisconsin and across the nation have criticized Johnson and others for touting the use of ivermectin and other unproven treatments for COVID-19, especially given the existence of safe and effective vaccines.

Limited viability

Dr. Scott Walker, a family medicine physician in Prairie du Chien, said whether for veterinary or human use, the underlying ivermectin drug is still the same. In human doses, ivermectin can still cause side effects.

“It’s approved range of uses is very limited,” Walker said. “It’s not demonstrated to have any effect on COVID-19, and it is known to be dangerous, especially at higher doses.”

Walker said Johnson should be promoting safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines instead of unproven treatments. Despite no evidence showing ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19, Walker said he’s recently heard from a pharmacist who received a large shipment of the drug.

Walker said it’s possible the increase in ivermectin prescriptions is driven by easy online access. People may also be getting ivermectin from livestock or farm supply stores, where it can come in highly concentrated forms more dangerous to humans.

Dr. David Gummin, medical director for the Wisconsin Poison Center, said the center has received a slight uptick in the number of calls regarding ivermectin. He said the center has received 17 calls regarding potential ivermectin poisoning so far this year, compared to 10 by this time last year, and 11 the year before that.

Gummin said some people may feel the medical community is trying to withhold information on the use of ivermectin and other unproven COVID-19 treatments. But he said the reality is that there simply isn’t sound evidence to indicate people should use such drugs to treat COVID-19.

COVID outcomes chart

Risks outlined

Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health chief quality officer and an emergency medicine physician, said ivermectin in humans is typically used to treat parasites, such as roundworms and nematodes, and also can be effective against lice. He said the medication is more frequently used in countries with lower standards of sanitation and food safety. In the U.S., he said the medication is more often used in livestock and pets to treat conditions such as heartworm.

Pothof said misinformation over the use of ivermectin may stem from early in the pandemic, when some suggested ivermectin could be used to treat viruses. There was a large Egyptian study, never peer-reviewed, that suggested a significant benefit to using ivermectin, but the study was withdrawn due to concerns over plagiarism and falsified information, Pothof said.

Studies so far indicate there’s no benefit to using the drug for COVID-19.

“Anything you take has a risk, so if there’s no benefit, and only risk, we shouldn’t be doing that to people,” Pothof said. “Doctors do not experiment on their patients in the U.S.”

He said ivermectin can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. At higher doses, the medication can cause low blood pressure, seizures, coma or even death. Pothof said that while there are new antibody therapies that may help prevent severe COVID-19, the best course of action for people without COVID is to get vaccinated.


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