Ivermectin: From dirt to Nobel Prize

Is it me or is the medical world upside down and sideways these days?

I can live with the “It’s a hard no on the vaccine.”

What bothers me: Muddy information from doctors. Recently, an Arkansas doctor headlined for giving jail prisoners (and himself and his family, apparently) a multi-drug cocktail including ivermectin, a deworming pill, to treat – and prevent – COVID-19.

He’s the tip of the iceberg. The CDC reports ivermectin prescriptions went from 3,600 per week pre-pandemic to “88,000 prescriptions in the week ending Aug. 13, 2021.”

I’m not here to trash talk ivermectin. Quite the opposite, ivermectin colors my world sky blue.

It’s a story of hope, compassion, science at its best. A story dancing with heroes including – I hate to say it – a pharmaceutical giant. The two scientists who developed avermectin (ivermectin’s prototype), Satoshi Ōmura and William C. Campbell, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2015.

Ivermectin began in the dirt, literally. In the 1960s, Ōmura, a Japanese microbiologist, was hunting for new drugs. He collected soil samples around Japan, isolated bacteria that produced novel chemicals. Then he forwarded the more promising ones to Campbell, a parasite biologist at the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research, to be tested in animals. Together, they discovered avermectin (a [without] - vermin). Safe, versatile, and affordable, avermectin slays as a parasite worm-killer.

Ivermectin works by paralyzing nerves and muscles. Particularly sensitive are invertebrates (animals without backbones, like worms, insects, etc.). In the 1980s, ivermectin was used in animals successfully. Campbell suggested it be studied for parasites in humans.

The first target: river blindness, a leading cause of blindness worldwide. It’s caused by a parasitic worm transmitted by blackflies.

With a blackfly bite, the worms enter the skin, mature, and live up 15 years. The female worm can produce up to 1,000 baby worms daily. The babies move about the body, causing intense, debilitating skin itch. Some end up in the eyeballs which cause itch, inflammation, scarring, and blindness.

Ivermectin changes that. While it can’t kill the adult worms, it can kill the baby worms readily, and curtail the female’s fertility, like birth control. At-risk individuals only need to take one pill every 6 months to suppress the transmission and reproduction.

Merck, the maker of ivermectin, donated billions of doses to developing countries. In 40 years, river blindness has been eliminated in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, and controlled in many African countries. In 2019, the World Health Organization estimated 154 million people were receiving ivermectin.  

Then COVID-19 hit. A test-tube study on ivermectin and COVID-19 showed promise, but subsequent human studies are deemed flawed. We need large, well-designed trials to ensure drugs work.

With the continuing uptick in ivermectin use and poisoning, major health organizations and Merck all issued warnings. The FDA tweeted, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it.”

My advice: If you want to try ivermectin or other experimental treatments, go to clinicaltrials.gov and sign up for legitimate studies. There are thousands of ongoing COVID-19 studies, and as of today, five include ivermectin. An open mind is a good thing so long you’re alive and healthy.

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Volume 13, Issue 17, Posted 10:43 AM, 09.08.2021