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In one of the latest examples of coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories, an extract from a highly toxic plant is being peddled as a possible COVID-19 cure, despite no evidence and pervasive criticism from medical professionals.
Oleandrin, derived from oleander, a flowering shrub widely used in landscaping, has been touted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell as a therapeutic for COVID-19. Lindell, an avid Trump supporter who has no medical background, owns a financial stake in Phoenix Biotechnology, the company behind the oleander product. He told CNN that he participated in a July meeting with President Trump about the use of oleandrin as a potential therapeutic for the coronavirus, and that Trump was “enthusiastic” about the extract and wanted the Food and Drug Administration to “do its course.” But a coronavirus task force member told CNN that oleandrin has never been brought up during one of their meetings.
When asked by reporters on Tuesday, Trump said he has not been urging the FDA to authorize use of oleandrin to treat COVID-19.
“Is it something that people are talking about very strongly? We’ll look at it,” Trump said.
According to the New York Times, it may be possible for Phoenix Biotechnology to sell oleandrin as an over-the-counter supplement, which generally doesn't require approval by the FDA. Although the company wouldn’t be allowed to advertise the supplement as a coronavirus cure, some worry the attention oleandrin has received from those with close connections to the White House may encourage some Americans to self-medicate with it for COVID-19 therapy or prevention.
Even more worrisome is the possibility that people might ingest the raw oleander plant — which Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass cautions can be deadly.
“Just because something grows in nature does not make it safe,” Kass says. “If you take this plant and take it so you are overdosed, you may have symptoms like nausea, vomiting, headache and heart arrhythmias. When those heart arrhythmias get bad, you may start to pass out — and unfortunately, when those arrhythmias get so bad, they can kill you.”
“Right now, there are no medical indications to ever take the oleander plant.”
Oleandrin has been studied for its potential usefulness in treating a variety of conditions, but the results have been inconclusive. It has been considered as a possible cancer treatment, but the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York says that so far “clinical trials to evaluate the anticancer activities of oleandrin in humans are lacking.” The center said there is also a lack of scientific evidence to support oleandrin’s use in treating heart failure, hepatitis C and AIDS, and cautions patients against taking the raw plant, which “is highly toxic” and “may be fatal.”
There has been one non-peer-reviewed study on the potential benefit of oleandrin for COVID-19. Researchers with the University of Texas Medical Branch tested kidney cells from African green monkeys and found oleandrin was able to reduce the amount of COVID-19 produced by the cells. But Dr. Scott Weaver, a virologist and vector biologist at UTMB who contributed to the study, told Yahoo Lifestyle that oleandrin’s success on cells in a lab does not mean it will be an effective treatment for humans or animals.
“There are many drugs like this one that start out looking promising, but then fail later for a variety of reasons,” Weaver said.
“In the quest for treatments and cures for this virus, we might try a lot of ideas. And probably, that’s what these scientists were doing,” Kass says of the UTMB study. “They were trying an idea that they never expected would get into the hands of people looking for a quick fix.”
On Wednesday, Forbes reported that the U.S. Army had discontinued testing of oleandrin after “multiple iterations” of tests proved “inconclusive”; they have instead turned their attention to exploring other possible coronavirus therapeutics and treatments.
This isn’t the first controversial drug to be hyped as a coronavirus treatment. Hydroxychloroquine has been touted by many, including the president, as an “extremely successful” therapeutic, despite the fact that the antimalarial drug has not been proven to be effective against COVID-19 and may even cause health problems for those who take it.
Kass worries that when scientists and medical experts need to debunk each new “quick-fix treatment” that gets peddled without proof, it could corrode the public’s trust in the scientific community — trust she says we’ll need if and when a real treatment or vaccine comes along.
“We’re going to need to be able to convince Americans that it is a good idea,” Kass said. “And all of this misinformation and fake news, all this propaganda about easy treatments, quick treatments, things that are not proven by science — they make everyday Americans confused.”
And many Americans are already skeptical. A recent Gallup poll found that 35 percent of Americans said they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, even if it were FDA-approved and available to them at no cost.
“When you have a question about a medication, whether it needs a prescription or not, whether it comes from a plant or not, you need to ask your doctor. You need to look to scientists,” Kass says.
“If somebody goes on TV and tells you they have all the answers, something that’s been missed by all the scientists and all the doctors, you have to ask yourself, what is their motive? When you find out they have a financial interest in you taking a medication that hasn’t been approved by science, my best advice is to just walk away.”
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