As constituents clamor for ivermectin, Republican politicians embrace their cause
When state senators in South Carolina held two hearings in September about COVID treatments, they got an earful on the benefits of ivermectin — which many of the lawmakers lauded along the way, sharing experiences of their own loved ones.
The demands for access to the drug were loud and insistent, despite the fact that federal regulators had just issued a strong warning against using the drug to treat COVID-19.
One member of the public, Pressley Stutts III, reminded the panel that his father, a prominent GOP leader in the state, had died from COVID just a month before. He believed ivermectin could have helped. But doctors at the hospital wouldn't even discuss it, he said.
"I went every bit as far as I could without getting myself thrown in jail trying to save my father's life," he told the panel, as lawmakers offered their condolences.
"What is going on here?" he asked, with the passion in his voice growing. "My dad's dead!"
The pleas to public officials have been building. And now they're beginning to act, largely to satisfy their conservative constituents.
Ivermectin is a generic drug that has been used for decades to treat river blindness, scabies and even head lice. Veterinarians also use it, in different formulations and dosages, to treat animals for parasites like worms.
After the pandemic began, scientists did launch some clinical trials to see if ivermectin could help as a treatment for COVID. Some of those are still ongoing. But most doctors won't currently prescribe it as a COVID treatment, citing the poor quality of the studies to date, and two notorious "preprint" studies that were later taken off the Internet because of inaccurate and flawed data.
On Aug. 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert reminding clinicians that ivermectin is not an FDA-approved treatment for COVID, noting the insufficient evidence of benefit, and pointing out that increased use of ivermectin had already led to accidental poisonings. Vaccination, the CDC reiterated, is still the best way to avoid serious illness and death from the coronavirus.
Trading ire and insults over ivermectin
But many Americans remain convinced that ivermectin could be beneficial, and some politicians appear to be listening to them, rather than the current scientific consensus.
"If we have medications out here that are working — or seem to be working — I think it's absolutely horrible that we're not trying them," said Republican state Sen. Tom Corbin as he questioned doctors who had also come to the statehouse to push back against the ivermectin frenzy.
The doctors challenged the implied insult that they weren't following best practices: "Any implication that any of us would do anything to withhold effective treatments from our patients is really insulting to our profession," said Dr. Annie Andrews, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who has been taking care of COVID patients throughout the pandemic.
But instead of listening to the medical consensus, politicians in states like South Carolina are taking their cues from doctors who disagree with that consensus. In their hearing, state senators patched in a call from Dr. Pierre Kory.
Last year, Kory started a nonprofit called the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, which promotes ivermectin. He says he's not making any money off of prescribing the drug, though the nonprofit does solicit donations and has not yet filed required financial documents with the IRS.
Kory acknowledges his medical opinions have landed him on "an island."
Dr. Kory first testified about ivermectin to a U.S. Senate committee last December. That video went viral. And even though it was taken down from YouTube, his Senate testimony prompted patients across the country to speak up and ask for ivermectin when they fell ill.
By late August, outpatient prescriptions had jumped 24-fold. Calls to poison control hotlines had tripled, mostly related to people taking ivermectin formulations meant for livestock.
Pro-ivermectin doctor says he's been pushed to the medical margins
Dr. Kory says he has effectively lost two jobs over his views on ivermectin. At his current hospital in Wisconsin, where he runs the ICU two weeks a month, managers called him to a meeting in September, where he was informed he could no longer prescribe ivermectin. He'd been giving it to "every patient with COVID," he says.
"After the pharma-geddon that was unleashed, yeah, they shut it down," he told the South Carolina lawmakers. "And I will tell you that many hospitals across the country had already shut it down months ago."
Framing the ivermectin fight as a battle against faceless federal agencies and big pharmaceutical corporations appealed to Americans who were already suspicious of the science behind the pandemic and the approved COVID vaccines.
Kory suggests success stories with COVID treatments in other parts of the world have been suppressed in an effort to promote the vaccine.
However, in an interview with NPR, Kory said he regrets the flashpoint he's helped ignite.
"I feel really bad for the patients, and I feel really bad for the doctors," he told NPR. "Both of them — both the patients and doctors — are trapped."
Patients are still demanding the treatment, but even doctors sympathetic to their wishes are being told by their health systems not to try it.
Ivermectin interventions become conservative rallying cry
Now conservatives in elected office are sensing political payoff if they step in to help patients access the drug. State legislatures, including those in Tennessee and Alaska are debating various ways to increase access to ivermectin — with proposals such as shielding doctors from repercussions for prescribing it, or forcing pharmacists to fill questionable prescriptions.
The Montana State News Bureau reported that the state's Republican attorney general dispatched a state trooper to a hospital in Helena where a politically-connected patient was dying from COVID. Her family was asking for ivermectin.
In a statement, St. Peter's Hospital said that doctors and nurses were "harassed and threatened by three public officials."
"These officials have no medical training or experience, yet they were insisting our providers give treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the FDA and the CDC," the statement added.
On Oct. 14, the Republican attorney general in Nebraska addressed the controversy, issuing a nearly 50-page legal opinion which argues that doctors who consider the "off label" use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine for COVID are still acting within the parameters of their state medical license, as long as they obtain appropriate consent.
Some patients have filed lawsuits to obtain ivermectin, with mixed success. A patient in Illinois was denied. But other hospitals, including one in Ohio, have been forced to administer the drug against the objections of their physicians.
Even as they gain powerful political supporters, some ivermectin fans say they're now avoiding the health care system — because they've lost faith in it.
Lesa Berry of Richmond, Virginia, had a friend who died earlier this year of COVID. The doctors refused to use ivermectin, despite requests from Berry and the patient's daughter.
They know better now, she says.
"My first attempt would have been to keep her out of the hospital," Berry says. "Because right now when you go to the hospital, they only give you what's on the CDC protocol."
Now, Berry and her husband have purchased their own supply of ivermectin, which they keep at home.
This story is a partnership with NPR, Kaiser Health News and Nashville Public Radio.
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