A rural Manitoba billboard claiming a dewormer drug treats COVID-19 was investigated by Health Canada and ordered taken down, but the federal agency ultimately can’t stop people from improperly ingesting the substance.
This summer, as part of its efforts to crack down on illegal marketing about the novel coronavirus, Health Canada looked into complaints about signs in the Winkler area saying ivermectin treats COVID-19.
The federal agency sent a letter to the person who sponsored the ad and made sure it was removed, a Health Canada spokesperson told the Free Press in a statement.
"Upon Health Canada’s request, the company displaying these ads removed them immediately, confirmed that these ads were no longer being displayed and committed to refraining from engaging in this non-compliant act in the future."
However, agricultural doses of ivermectin are still readily available on feed-supply store shelves, and as long as the anti-parasitic medication is not being marketed or sold as a COVID-19 treatment, Health Canada has no jurisdiction over how customers use it.
At two Winkler-area agriculture supply stores, ivermectin paste for horses was offered for sale with no questions asked and no warnings it shouldn’t be used in humans, the Free Press observed on a recent visit.
There’s no evidence the anti-parasitic developed in the 1970s works to treat COVID-19 and there are serious risks of overdose.
Alberta requires purchasers to provide proof they own livestock, under a provincial Premises Identification program, before suppliers can sell ivermectin or any other agricultural medication.
No such rule applies in Manitoba. Some local feed supply stores have posted warnings, pulled the product off the shelves or stopped selling it online after becoming aware some customers intended to ingest it themselves.
Misinformation about its possible connection to COVID-19 has led to worldwide supply shortages of ivermectin, causing limited access to prescription anti-parasitic medication as well as livestock treatments.
Ivermectin is prescribed as a topical cream or in pill form to treat intestinal worms in humans. The global shortage of the drug, linked to people trying to use it as a COVID-19 treatment, has raised some concern among pharmacists who’ve had the issue on their radar for months, said Tim Smith, vice-president of Pharmacists Manitoba.
Manitoba pharmacists haven’t been fielding a lot of requests for ivermectin, but they’re aware of the problem, Smith said.
"Not in an overwhelming sense. The conditions that ivermectin treats are fairly rare, so seeing prescriptions for oral ivermectin is relatively uncommon. I have heard some reports of prescriptions coming in, but it’s something that’s on our radar more so than it’s something that we’re seeing a lot of."
No clinical trials of ivermectin have sought Health Canada’s approval to begin in Canada, but researchers elsewhere are still looking into the drug.
The only research that showed promising results linked to COVID-19 in humans, and spawned much of the misinformation about it, was later retracted. There were some reports ivermectin slowed the growth of the virus in test tubes, but only in concentrations that would be toxic for human consumption.
There haven’t been any reports of Manitobans overdosing on the drug, but it can cause a range of side-effects from gastrointestinal problems to respiratory failure, coma or even death.
"Ivermectin is being explored further, but at this time, there’s no reason to think that it is, or will be, an effective treatment against COVID-19 in humans," Smith said.
In the Rural Municipality of Stanley, which surrounds the city of Winkler and has the lowest vaccination rates in Manitoba, a highway billboard displays a web address (and no other text or mention of ivermectin) that appears to be linked to a COVID-19 misinformation group.
A Health Canada spokesperson said the agency is urging Canadians to report incidents of illegal advertising or illegal sales of ivermectin via its online complaint form at healthycanadians.gc.ca.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.