Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are not proven Covid-19 treatments
Two videos shared hundreds of times on Facebook feature a Kenyan doctor alleging that two drugs -- ivermectin on its own and hydroxychloroquine in combination with zinc and azithromycin -- are effective in treating Covid-19. But the claims are false: there is no scientific evidence that either medication can help treat the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
In a video posted in English on March 17, 2021, Kenyan doctor Stephen Kimotho Karanja claims that two sets of medication can help treat Covid-19: the anti-parasite drug ivermectin on the one hand, and a mix of the anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, with zinc and azithromycin on the other.
He makes the same claim in his native Kikuyu language in a second video posted on Facebook on March 24, 2021.
“Covid-19 can be treated. The following drugs are the ones that may be used because they are available, they are cheap, and they can be found in Africa, in Kenya, and in other countries at any time. The backbone is a medicine called ivermectin, normally used for worms, but it is very important in the treatment of Covid-19. The other medicine is hydroxychloroquine, so-called HCQ. When used together with zinc 50 milligrams, it weaponises the zinc, which destroys the Covid-19 virus,” he says in the videos.
The post introduces Karanja as chairman of the Catholic Doctors Association, which released a statement in March calling Covid-19 vaccines "unnecessary" and "unsafe".
AFP Fact Check debunked a number of false or misleading claims made in the statement here.
Ivermectin studies ‘inconclusive’
Scientists are working hard to find treatments and vaccines to help treat and prevent Covid-19, which has killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide since it emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019.
Ivermectin is a medication used to fight various parasitic infections. In the US, ivermectin tablets are prescribed to treat parasitic worms, and creams and lotions are used for conditions like head lice and rosacea. However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved ivermectin to treat or prevent Covid-19.
The FDA recently cautioned against “a growing interest” in ivermectin to treat humans with COVID-19.
“The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses,” it said on March 5, 2021.
The WHO also advised that ivermectin was only to be used to treat Covid-19 in clinical trials, in guidelines published on March 31, 2021.
“There is no evidence to support the use of ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19. Ivermectin is approved for human use to treat parasitic worms but has not yet been approved to treat or prevent COVID-19. Clinical trials are ongoing to determine the safety and efficacy of the drug in treating COVID-19,” the UN health agency told AFP Fact Check.
Viral Facts Africa -- a WHO-backed initiative aimed at tackling health misinformation in collaboration with fact-checking partners like AFP Fact Check -- addresses false ivermectin claims in this short clip:
Nairobi-based epidemiologist Emanuel Okunga said more trials were needed to determine the drug's efficacy.
“To be sure about the effectiveness of ivermectin, we need to conduct larger clinical trials, which we don’t have at the moment” he told AFP Fact Check.
Dozens of ivermectin trials underway around the world are listed on this US database.
Hydroxychloroquine ‘little to no impact’
Hydroxychloroquine made headlines last year when public figures including former US president Donald Trump and controversial French doctor Didier Raoult falsely touted the drug as a “cure” for Covid-19, see here and here.
Karanja is also not the first physician to suggest mixing hydroxychloroquine with other drugs to treat Covid-19. In July 2020, a video of US-based doctor Stella Immanuel went viral when she claimed that she had successfully treated more than 350 Covid-19 patients with a combination of hydroxychloroquine, zinc and azithromycin.
Trump helped spread the footage of Immanuel by sharing it on his now permanently-suspended Twitter account. AFP Fact Check debunked Immanuel’s remarks here.
No medical studies support the claim that hydroxychloroquine -- either on its own or mixed with zinc and azithromycin -- cures Covid-19.
The WHO strongly advises against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for treatment of COVID-19 of any severity.
“Evidence from these studies shows that hydroxychloroquine has little to no impact on illness, hospitalisation, or death. There is also no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective in preventing or treating COVID-19 when mixed with zinc, azithromycin or any other medicine,” the WHO told AFP Fact Check.
Last June, the FDA revoked the emergency use authorisation that had allowed hydroxychloroquine from the Strategic National Stockpile -- the US national repository of antibiotics, vaccines, chemical antidotes and other critical medical supplies -- to be used to treat hospitalised Covid-19 patients.
And in August 2020, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases also cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 patients. The agency makes clear in its Covid-19 guidelines that “antibiotics do not treat viral infections”.
Antibiotics don’t treat viruses
Azithromycin, marketed as Zithromax, is a commonly prescribed antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia, infections of the nose and throat such as sinus infection (sinusitis), skin infections, and strep throat. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses like the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
In December 2020, British scientists concluded, based on preliminary data analysis from the UK’s RECOVERY Trial, that azithromycin had “been found to have no meaningful clinical benefit for patients hospitalized with severe forms of the disease”.
Unproven zinc claim
Zinc is a nutrient that can help the immune system fight off infection. It also assists the body in making protein and DNA, and it is important in infant and childhood development.
AFP Fact Check previously debunked claims about “cures” for Covid-19 such as zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D, including here. Zinc has been widely touted as a supplement to prevent and cure Covid-19. While there is some evidence zinc helps the body fight colds, the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says “scientists don’t know if it helps ease Covid-19 symptoms”.
Dr Okunga noted that taking zinc does not prevent or treat Covid-19.
“So far, studies show that zinc is not effective in treating Covid-19, and self-prescription with zinc is dangerous,” he said.
The US National Institutes of Health warns against taking high doses of zinc to prevent Covid-19, pointing to a lack of evidence and potential side effects, including irreversible neurological conditions from long-term use of supplements.