Horse selfies and calls to poison control: Bizarre Ivermectin craze hits B.C.

B.C. doctors and livestock businesses alike are bewildered to find themselves warning people not to take a veterinary medicine intended to treat intestinal worms in horses as a treatment for COVID-19.

Late Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada warned that Ivermectin – which is carried by animal feed stores and typically sells in a large syringe as a thick ingestible liquid for $10 to $15 – is a medicine for horses and other livestock and not safe or approved for human use.

“The drugs used in veterinary medicine have not been tested on humans, are not proven to be safe in humans,” explained Dr. Jennifer Grant, an infectious disease and medical microbiology specialist at Vancouver Coastal Health.

"It can cause diarrhea, nausea, dizziness … at levels we would be using for animals it can actually cause seizures, neurologic failure and even death.”

Online message boards and groups touting the drug as an effective treatment for COVID-19 argue Ivermectin is a drug approved for people, but Grant points out human-approved Ivermectin is a different formulation and is only suitable for the treatment of life-threatening parasitic worms, which are rare in Canada. 

Lab trials pitting the drug against the virus could not be replicated in real life since the quantities of the drug required to combat COVID-19 are not safe for people, she explained, and there’s no evidence it helps people sick with the virus. The Provincial Health Services Authority says nine British Columbians have called poison control after taking Ivermectin since March.

“If you have worms, it’s great for you,” said Grant. “If you have COVID, it really isn’t.”

FEED STORES REQUIRING PROOF OF LIVESTOCK

In a phenomenon seen across the U.S. and Canada, livestock feed and supply stores in B.C. are fielding inquiries about equine Ivermectin and have been screening potential customers as the drug is not approved or safe for human use.

"If they don't have a picture of their horse, they probably don't have a horse – and or they don't know how big their horse is, if they don't know what kind of horse they own,” said Megan Wilton of Westway Feed and Seed in Delta.

The store’s “horse selfie” test has allowed it to politely turn away customers and preserve the medication for those that need it. Livestock like pigs and cows need the de-worming medication regularly, with horses needing an Ivermectin treatment three to four times a year.

"There is a shortage of (veterinary) Ivermectin now; all our suppliers are out of stock," said Wilton. “We’ve had people asking for months, but demand this last month has been silly."

‘YOU ARE NOT A HORSE,’ BUT YOU ARE TARGETED BY MISINFORMATION

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control approached the Ivermectin situation with humour, tweeting: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it.”

Misinformation experts point out that the wrong and misleading social media posts pushing the use of Ivermectin or other unproven treatments aren’t typically motivated by altruism.

“Those currently promoting Ivermectin are taking advantage of the public’s understandable skepticism about pharmaceutical companies – and in some cases the government – to grow their own audiences and in some cases to hawk their own alternative products,” explained Devon Greyson, assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.

“There are very good reasons that we have government regulators who review the evidence and submissions from pharmaceutical companies,” they added. 

Greyson said disinformation merchants have identified the pandemic as a key marketing opportunity to promote their views, and have often been entangled in right-wing media.

“It’s important to note, though, that many of these right-wing media companies and hosts themselves have been following public health recommendations, such as getting vaccinated – even as they cast doubt on these recommenations to their audience,” Greyson said.

The BC Pharmacy Association tells CTV News it has not seen shortages or demand for the human-approved drug from COVID-19 patients. The association continues to follow guidelines to avoid using approved drugs off-label as experimental treatments for the coronavirus without any evidence they’re safe or effective in that context. 

“We have to remember chocolate is toxic for dogs and great for people and just because it’s good for an animal really doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a person,” added Grant. “The best way to prevent yourself from needing any sort of care for COVID is to get your vaccination … it is over 90 per cent effective in preventing the need for hospitalization and far more effective than Ivermectin has ever proven to be.”