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Ivermectin fans gain powerful advocates despite no proof it fights COVID

NOEL KING, HOST:

Ivermectin is a proven treatment for some things. It is not a cure for COVID-19. That's the medical consensus. But still, there are people who want to use it for that reason. And there are elected officials who are helping them get it. Here's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Public officials are acting after getting an earful on ivermectin, mostly from the families of patients. And some are deadly serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESSLEY STUTTS: What is going on here? My dad's dead.

FARMER: Pressley Stutts' father was killed by COVID. He was a GOP leader in South Carolina. And Stutts says ivermectin could have saved him, but doctors wouldn't even discuss it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUTTS: Went every bit as far as I could without getting myself thrown into jail trying to save my father's life.

FARMER: Stutts was among a line of speakers pleading with state lawmakers to do something. Republican legislatures from the Southeast to Alaska have been debating how to increase access to ivermectin. It's been used for decades to treat river blindness, scabies and even head lice, and there are clinical trials underway to see if it could help with COVID. But mainstream medicine won't touch it.

In August, the CDC warned against it. That doesn't make sense to state Senator Tom Corbin, who questioned pediatrician Annie Andrews in a recent hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM CORBIN: If we have medications out here that are working or seem to be working, I think it's absolutely horrible that we're not trying them.

ANNIE ANDREWS: I'll just comment that any implication that any of us would do anything to withhold effective treatments from our patients is really insulting to our profession.

FARMER: But instead of listening to the medical consensus, states like South Carolina are phoning doctors on the fringe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PIERRE KORY: Hello, Dr. Kory.

GENE HOGAN: Dr. Kory, this is Gene Hogan with the South Carolina Senate.

FARMER: Dr. Pierre Kory, last year, started a nonprofit that promotes ivermectin. He says he's not making any money off of it but has not filed required IRS financials. He acknowledges his opinions put him on an island.

Dr. Kory gave a 10-minute pitch to these lawmakers. He first testified about ivermectin to a U.S. Senate committee last December. That video went viral, prompting patients across the country to speak up and ask for ivermectin when they fell ill.

By late August, outpatient prescriptions had jumped 24-fold. Poison control calls had tripled, mostly related to people taking medication meant for livestock. Dr. Kory has lost two jobs over his views on ivermectin, and his own hospital in Wisconsin no longer lets him prescribe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KORY: After the pharma-geddon (ph) that was unleashed, yeah, they've shut it down. And I will tell you, many hospital systems across the country had already shut it down months ago.

FARMER: The framing as a battle against faceless federal agencies and Big Pharma has appealed to those who are suspicious of the COVID vaccine. Kory suggests the shots have been promoted partly by suppressing success stories from other parts of the world with COVID treatments. However, in an interview, he says he regrets the flashpoint he's helped ignite.

KORY: I got to tell you, I feel really bad for the patients and I feel really bad for the doctors. And I'll tell you why. Both of them - both the patients and doctors - are trapped.

FARMER: Still, patients are demanding the treatment, and conservatives in elected office see benefit in helping them get it. Holly Michels leads the Montana State News Bureau.

HOLLY MICHELS: The hospital statement's like, three elected officials questioned our medical judgment and told us to prescribe medication that's not approved.

FARMER: Michels broke a story about Montana's Republican attorney general dispatching a state trooper to a hospital in Helena, where a politically connected patient was dying from COVID. Her family was asking for ivermectin.

The attorney general in Nebraska has also spoken up for ivermectin. Some patients have gone to court. One was denied ivermectin in Illinois. Another was granted the therapy in Ohio.

Even as they gain powerful advocates, some ivermectin fans say they're sidestepping the health care system. They've lost faith in it. Lesa Berry of Richmond, Va., had a friend who died earlier this year of COVID. The doctors refused to use ivermectin. Berry says she knows better now.

LESA BERRY: My first attempt would have been to keep her out of the hospital. Because right now, when you go to the hospital, they only give you what's on the CDC protocol.

FARMER: Now, Berry has her own ivermectin supply at home.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "BEARDS OF THE PATRIARCHS")

KING: That story was a partnership among NPR, Kaiser Health News and Nashville Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "BEARDS OF THE PATRIARCHS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.