New Delhi: The University of Oxford has launched a large study to investigate the use of Ivermectin for Covid-19 treatment despite several experts suggesting that the anti-parasitic drug does not work against the virus.
The new study also comes amid guidelines across the world, warning against the use of the drug.
Doctors in India had widely used the drug during the second phase of the pandemic but the government had on 7 June dropped it from its list of advised treatment.
Even Merck, the company which produces Ivermectin, had noted in a statement in February that there was a lack of scientific basis for the drug’s potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19.
Despite all of this, however, scientists continue to investigate Ivermectin’s efficacy in treating Covid, chiefly because of the drug’s low cost, well-established safety profile and widespread availability.
Cheap, safe and available
While doctors in India are divided on the efficacy of Ivermectin, they admit it is cheap, safe and easily available.
Dr Kabir Sardana, a dermatologist at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, told ThePrint that he has recently written to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) listing a number of studies that support the use of Ivermectin in moderate to mild Covid patients.
“The drug works in the initial phase of the disease when the virus is still multiplying,” Dr Sardana told ThePrint, alleging that pharmaceuticals are trying to push more expensive drugs instead.
Dr Desh Deepak, a pulmonologist at the same hospital, said the drug had little effect but added that it is easily available and is considered safe.
“There is no perceptible effect of the drug on Covid patients. We prescribed the drug to all our patients during the second wave because we know that the drug is not harmful,” he said. “However, the disease in these patients progressed as independently as they would otherwise (without Ivermectin).”
Dr Shital Poojary, a dermatologist who has been handling Covid patients at the K.J. Somaiya Medical College in Mumbai, said that Ivermectin was extensively used in the first wave when not much was understood about the virus.
“We did see mild to moderate Covid patients benefit from Ivermectin treatment. We did not see any concerning side effects in our patients,” Dr Poojary told ThePrint.
Similarly, Dr Sandeep Garg, professor of medicine at the Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi, said that the drug showed some promise, but clear scientific evidence is still lacking.
Dr Garg said that since Ivermectin is a safe drug that has been used in the Indian population extensively for deworming over several decades, private practitioners were using the drug.
“The drug can be used at a physician’s discretion, but we are not saying that it should be recommended,” Dr Garg said. “I know some doctors who got Covid even after getting vaccinated. So, many are still taking the drug as prophylactic out of fear.”
Dr Deepak, the RML pulmonologist, however, said that if Ivermectin was indeed useful, doctors would have gathered better evidence by now. “This is since its use has been so widespread for so long,” he said.
He, however, added that although studies had not yet conclusively shown that Ivermectin helps Covid patients, it is also true that the available data does not decisively prove that the drug is completely useless.
Studies backing Ivermectin
There have been some controversial studies backing the use of Ivermectin.
A team from Monash University in Australia found that the drug can reduce viral loads in cells within two hours. Experts, however, said that the levels of the drug used in these studies were not safe for human consumption.
A review article published in the American Journal of Therapeutics has been used by US physicians Pierre Kory, Paul E. Marik, and others to support the use of Ivermectin.
However, an earlier version of the article had been rejected by another journal due to “a series of strong, unsupported claims based on studies with insufficient statistical significance”.
Moreover, the US physician Marik has had a chequered medical history. He has been discredited for claiming to have found the cure for sepsis using a combination of hormones and vitamins. A review of trials using this protocol last month could not confirm the benefits of this treatment.
In March this year, Marik was reprimanded by the Virginia Board of Medicine and ordered to complete additional education in prescribing practices after it was found he had prescribed drugs to people who were not his patients.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth Subramanian)