Head Lice Drug Ivermectin Shows Promise In Treating COVID-19

'Finding a safe, affordable, readily available therapy like ivermectin if it proves effective with rigorous evaluation has the potential to save countless lives,' said a researcher.

close-up shot of a human scalp
rudolf_langer / Pixabay

'Finding a safe, affordable, readily available therapy like ivermectin if it proves effective with rigorous evaluation has the potential to save countless lives,' said a researcher.

A drug that has traditionally been used to treat head lice is now showing promise as a possible treatment for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, ABC News reports.

The anti-parasitic drug ivermectin has been around since the 1970s, first used to treat cattle, and later to treat humans. Originally used to treat a parasitic infection in people, it also turned out to be an effective treatment for head lice, and has been used as such for decades.

And though COVID-19 isn’t a parasitic illness in the strictest sense, two clinical tests on two continents show that its method of destroying the parasites’ genetic material may work the same way in destroying the novel coronavirus’ genetic material, slowing the spread of the virus and giving the patients’ immune system time to fight off the disease.

In an Australian study, researchers found that the drug killed off the virus in as little as 48 hours, and in some cases, even as little as 24 hours. However, the results were confined to samples of the virus in test tubes under laboratory conditions, and not in actual human patients.

“We found that even a single dose could essentially remove all viral RNA by 48 hours and that even at 24 hours there was a really significant reduction in it,” said researcher Dr. Kylie Wagstaff.

a scientific laboratory
  jarmoluk / Pixabay

Dr. Nirav Shah, an infectious disease expert with the NorthShore University HealthSystem, notes that previous studies of other drugs have shown promise in test tubes but failed to work in humans. However, with severely limited options in the toolkit for fighting COVID-19, ivermectin definitely seems to be a candidate for human trials.

“Finding a safe, affordable, readily available therapy like ivermectin if it proves effective with rigorous evaluation has the potential to save countless lives,” Shah said.

In fact, a study of the drug with actual human test subjects is already under way across the Pacific Ocean, in Utah. Specifically, the drug is being used in COVID-19 patients who are so sick that they’ve been placed on ventilators.

Dr. Amit Patel, the lead author of a University of Utah team investigating the use of the drug, says that it’s shown some promise in treating those patients.

“We noted a lower mortality and reduced healthcare resource use in those treated with ivermectin,” Dr. Patel wrote.

Dr. Christopher DeSimone, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, notes that promising results in two, limited studies are one thing, and a satisfactory round of double-blind, clinical studies under scientifically rigorous conditions are another.

“There is some optimism — but I would remain cautious,” he said.