The drug Ivermectin, which has been touted by some as an effective coronavirus treatment even though it is clinically unproven, is at the centre of a legal battle in South Africa as some medics want it licensed for human use, as Pumza Fihlani reports.
Many South Africans are desperate for something that could ease the impact of a predicted third wave of coronavirus infections.
With a vaccination programme that has not yet covered all the most vulnerable, there are concerns that the continent’s worst-hit country could suffer more as the temperature cools down with the approaching winter.
More than 52,000 people have died with coronavirus and though new infections are now low, they are not disappearing.
It is in this context that Ivermectin – a drug that is used to treat parasitic worms – has gained a lot of attention. Some doctors have been prescribing it to patients with coronavirus, saying that they have seen anecdotal evidence that it can alleviate some of the worst effects of Covid-19.
However, South Africa’s medical regulator, the drug’s manufacturer and some of the country’s most eminent scientists have all warned against using it to treat coronavirus.
It has now become popular on the black market – millions of tablets have been intercepted in South Africa since the beginning of the year with the illicit network extending as far as China and India.
Before the link to coronavirus was made, 10 Ivermectin pills would cost about $4 (£2.90) – the price has now increased 15-fold for the same packet.
But the use of Ivermectin for coronavirus treatment has divided opinion in the country.
The pill is currently not licensed for human use by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), it is only registered to treat parasites in animals.
Despite this, some doctors began using the drug at the peak of South Africa’s first wave in July last year.
‘People were dying’
Prof Nathi Mdladla, the head of the intensive care unit at Durban’s George Mukhari Academic Hospital, is one of a handful of doctors who have been calling for the use of Ivermectin in desperate cases.
“At the height of the first wave, a lot of hospitals both public and private and GP practices in South Africa were using Ivermectin,” Dr Mdladla told the BBC.
“People were dying and doctors were looking at many treatment options to try and save lives. Ivermectin was one of the drugs doctors repurposed.”
The idea had come from Latin America where doctors in some countries were using it. More recently, some studies have suggested it could be effective but more research was needed.
But it was not until the second wave late last year that the authorities got wind of this and clamped down on its use, forcing doctors who had been prescribing it to stop, fearing sanctions from the authorities, Dr Mdladla added.
He believes this response has been unhelpful, particularly to families who cannot afford the pricier treatment options.
News Source: BBC News