JOHANNESBURG, 27 March 2021 – A drug allegedly effective in treating COVID-19 faces a medical and legal battle in South Africa, as medics seek emergency use authorization.

The drug, Ivermectin, has been used so far to treat parasitic worms, but has more recently been touted as effective against the new coronavirus.

Testing for COVID-19 as South African Variant Takes Off Like Wild Fire - Photo IOL

Testing for COVID-19 as South African Variant Takes Off Like Wild Fire – Photo IOL

While it is not licensed for human use, it has gained a lot of attention, with many touting its success in bringing them back from the brink as they laid sick, reportedly dying from COVID-19.

With more than 52,000 people in South Africa dead from virus and thousands newly-infected everyday, both patients and relatives caring for them are desperate for “anything” that can stem the fast-rising death toll.

Responding to their despair, some South African doctors have been prescribing Ivermectin to patients with coronavirus, citing anecdotal evidence that it can alleviate some of the worst effects of COVID-19 to justify their action.

Africa Surpasses 108,000 COVID-19 Deaths - Photo AP News

Africa Surpasses 108,000 COVID-19 Deaths – Photo AP News

A third wave of the virus dominated by the South African variant and delay in swinging off a vaccination campaign has left citizens desperate to try anything.

Fears have grown that South Africa, currently Africa’s worst-hit country, could see the death toll rise shaprly as temperature cools down ahead of its approaching winter season.

Campaigners for Emergency Use Authorization for Ivermectin - Photo BBC

Campaigners for Emergency Use Authorization for Ivermectin – Photo BBC

South African Approves Ivermectin - Photo Bloomberg

South African Approves Ivermectin – Photo Bloomberg

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.

Ivermectin is very popular in the black market, with illicit networks stretching from South African through India to China manufacturing and selling it illegally.

As demand has skyrocketed, the drug’s price has soared 15-fold from about four U.S. dollars per pack of ten pills to $60 for the same pack.

Dr Nathi Mdladla - Photo Webinar Jam

Nathi Mdladla – Photo Webinar Jam

One of the doctors who has openly called for the use of the drug in desperate cases of COVID-19 is Nathi Mdladla, the head of the intensive care unit at Durban’s George Mukhari Academic Hospital.

“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,” Mukhari added.

Advocacy groups who want to see the drug licensed for use in humans and medical professionals who are both opposed or supportive of its use in humans are scheduled to make their case before the High Court in Gauteng where an emergency hearing is expected soon.

Advocates of emergency use authorization say the only matter in dispute is the quality of studies into the effectiveness of the drug.

South Africa Accounts for Nearly 50 Percent of All African Deaths - Photo SABC News

South Africa Accounts for Nearly 50 Percent of All African Deaths – Photo SABC News

So far, it has been used on animals in South Africa and is only recommended for human use by the World Health Organization to treat river blindness.

Last December, South Africa’s drug regulator, SAHPRA, prohibited its use on humans, urging doctors to get approval through a special “compassionate use” application which allows an unauthorized drug to be prescribed in dire situations.

“There is insufficient evidence for or against the use of Ivermectin in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19,” SAHPRA said at the time.

Illegal Use of Ivermectin Soars along with Prices and Profits - Photo Health Policy Watch

Illegal Use of Ivermectin Soars along with Prices and Profits – Photo Health Policy Watch

“The fight is about the quality of the studies that have been done so far. What we’re saying is that in a pandemic, you can never be in a position to actually generate these high-level, long studies, because it means in the meantime, you watch people die,” Dr Mdladla argued on the BBC.

Without formal authorization and with desperation rising as infections and deaths rise, South Africans are sourcing Ivermectin from the black market where, as SAHPRA recognized last December, the “quality cannot be guaranteed”.

As of Saturday, South Africa has confirmed 1.54 million cases of COVID, with 52,602 fatalities and 1.47 million full recoveries, according to latest data by the country’s health ministry, the World Health Organization, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and Johns Hopkins University Hospital.

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