One store was forced to take the product off its shelves over fears for shoppers’ safety
Alberta feed stores say they’re receiving a deluge of callers asking to buy ivermectin due to misinformation that suggests the livestock dewormer can be used to treat COVID-19 in humans.
Lance Olson, manager of Lone Star Tack & Feed Inc., located just outside of Calgary, said false claims circulating about the animal medication have brought the wrong kind of attention to his business.
“It’s obviously not intended for human use in any way shape or form. It’s meant to get rid of worms in horses’ guts … so, these people see that ivermectin liquid, they search it, our website comes up and they give us a call thinking that we can just sell it to them,” Olson said.
“If you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t have animals that you’re going to use this on … given the circumstances surrounding this stuff it makes it very uncomfortable when people phone … so we’ve taken it off our shelves.”
Different forms of ivermectin are used to treat parasites, such as intestinal worms or lice, in both animals and humans.
The form of the drug used on humans is actually on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines because it is safe, inexpensive and effective — and has proven to be life-saving for treating some illnesses caused by parasites.
But, for multiple reasons, the livestock form of the drug should never be used on humans. One reason being that it is dosed for much larger organisms. Also, parasites are not the same as viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a virus.
Touted as possible cure
The largest study in favour of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment was retracted after concerns about data fabrication, plagiarism and ethical breaches.
Medical journal The Lancet has called for more study on ivermectin’s efficacy to reduce viral load or improve recovery, but said there is no drug that can replace preventative public health policies and large-scale testing for COVID.
No clinical studies have proven yet whether ivermectin can slow or stop the novel coronavirus from growing in human cells — but that hasn’t stopped right-wing media personalities and politicians from touting it as a possible treatment or cure for COVID-19.
In May, Calgary mayoral candidate Kevin J. Johnston suggested that people visit farm supply stores to buy livestock ivermectin, and Derek Sloan, who is running as an independent in the riding of Banff-Airdrie, has described ivermectin as a promising medicine during campaign stops and during debate in the House of Commons.
Former Alberta politician and talk radio host Danielle Smith, who previously falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19 (it doesn’t), suggested in a recent newsletter that information about ivermectin is being suppressed by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
AHS says its scientific advisory group has conducted a review to explore using ivermectin; the drug is not approved to treat COVID-19 in the province.
The group advises against taking ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment outside of clinical trials.
CBC News spoke with staff at two other feed stores in the Calgary area who confirmed they have been receiving multiple calls about ivermectin each week for months. CBC has agreed not to name the stores out of concern it could impact their business.
One store said at its peak it was receiving requests for one to two online orders per day from out of province, many to downtown Vancouver.
Olson said in recent months his feed store’s website has received thousands of searches for ivermectin, nearly seven times as many searches as for the company’s name.
In Alberta, a premises identification number is required for livestock owners to buy animal medications such as ivermectin. But Olson, and another store’s employee, said shoppers still attempt to circumvent that rule.
“Don’t put it in your body,” Olson said. “Don’t put things that aren’t tested on humans into yourself. It’s not worth it. And obviously, the studies are not there yet. So just leave it alone.”
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control warned the public after increased calls to poison centres with reports of severe illness caused by the medicine. In Georgia, a police officer who took ivermectin for livestock instead of getting vaccinated died of COVID-19, according to a report from Insider.
Feed stores aren’t the only place people are trying to acquire the veterinary medicine.
Dozens of social media posts appear to show Albertans attempting to or successfully acquiring ivermectin from online stores such as Amazon. CBC News has reached out to Amazon Canada to ask if it intends to continue to offer the product and if it will apply a warning label to those listings.
If taken improperly, ivermectin can cause vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, allergic reactions, seizures or even death, according to the U.S. FDA.
Surgeon says patients requesting drug, too
Dr. Michael Chatenay, a general surgeon at Grey Nuns hospital in Edmonton, said last week he treated a COVID-positive patient who asked for ivermectin.
“I was, to be honest, shocked but not surprised because the conspiracy theory websites and social media have been abuzz with this crazy theory,” Chatenay said. “We just tell them that there’s no proven benefit.”
Chatenay said shortly after, another patient made the same request of one of his colleagues.
“It’s worrying,” he said. “For people that are already scared, or are worried about getting vaccinated, they’re looking for and grasping on to these treatments that could potentially be harmful.”
Chatenay said the greatest preventative measure for COVID-19 continues to be vaccination.
Alberta is experiencing a surging fourth wave with nearly 10,000 active cases and a positivity rate over 10 per cent, but just 59 per cent of the province’s total population is fully vaccinated.
“I always try to emphasize that the safest and most well-studied method of preventing COVID infection is vaccination … not only does it help prevent infection, but it helps to reduce your chance of getting severely ill, being hospitalized, being sent to ICU or dying from COVID.”