It’s no surprise that in the midst of a raging global pandemic, which has infected more than 5.4 million people in the U.S., any mention of a potential way to stop COVID-19 gets attention. But as studies of Americans drinking bleach have made plain, endorsements of products that have not been tested for human consumption can prove extremely dangerous.
The latest snake-oil cure this week involves oleandrin, an extract from the North African and Eastern Mediterranean shrub Nerium oleander, which President Trump reportedly suggested that the Food and Drug Administration approve in July. Neither the Trump administration nor the FDA replied to a request for comment from Yahoo Life.
According to Axios, Trump was informed of it by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a major supporter of the president who has invested in Phoenix Biotechnology, the company behind the extract. Lindell, in a conversation with Yahoo Life, called oleandrin a “miracle drug,” but did not substantiate with further evidence. But experts in the fields of toxicology and virology say the opposite: that the drug is a potentially deadly substance that has not yet been studied on humans with COVID-19. Here’s what you need to know.
Oleandrin is highly toxic, and a popular method of poisoning in the U.S.
Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician in Ohio, says that oleandrin is the “most active compound” in the oleander plant, and — as a substance that’s highly toxic — is the reason the plant is so durable. “Every part of the plant is toxic, and that’s because of the oleandrin,” Marino tells Yahoo Life. He says the plant, which prefers warm temperatures, is commonly found in the Southwestern U.S., where it is sometimes used in a dangerous way.
“It is a popular method of poisoning someone or oneself,” says Marino. “So it is used in poisonings and then suicides or suicide attempts in the United States.” Data from poison control centers is difficult to obtain, but in one retrospective of nearly 6,500 toxic plant exposures, oleander was the second-most commonly involved plant.
Oleander poisoning is extremely dangerous and can be fatal
According to an information page from New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, oleander poisoning can occur when someone eats the flowers, leaves, stems or even twigs of an oleander plant. Consuming it can lead to symptoms ranging from diarrhea, hives and stomach pain to slow heartbeat, confusion and death.
Marino, who says it was “shocking” to see the extract be discussed as a COVID-19 treatment, elaborates: “It can cause effects pretty much head to toe. People very early on will get nausea, vomiting, vision changes, lightheadedness, dizziness, trouble walking. But then the bad toxicity is that it directly acts on your heart, so people will get low heart rate, low blood pressure, and that can lead to death.”
There is no scientific evidence that it is safe or effective in humans
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which hosts an information page about the extract, oleandrin has primarily been studied in the U.S. as a potential cancer treatment. But while it has shown the ability to “cause cell death in certain cancer cell lines” in test tubes, MSK notes that “it is unclear whether these effects can occur in the human body.”
The hospital, which is renowned for its cancer care, adds that it has not yet been safety tested In humans. “Clinical trials have not evaluated the anticancer activities of oleandrin in humans,” notes MSK, adding that there is “no scientific evidence” to support claims that it can treat “congestive heart failure, hepatitis C or AIDS.”
No research shows oleandrin can fight COVID-19 in humans
Thus far, there is only one study exploring the potential benefit of oleandrin for COVID-19, a non-peer-reviewed analysis from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB). The researchers tested the extract on kidney cells from African green monkeys and found oleandrin capable of reducing the amount of COVID-19 produced by the cells.
Although this may sound promising, Dr. Scott Weaver, a virologist and vector biologist at UTMB who contributed to the study, says it shouldn’t be misinterpreted. “An effect in cell cultures in vitro does not necessarily predict that the drug will be effective in animals or in humans,” says Weaver. “Of course, hydroxychloroquine also works well in vitro cell cultures, but several studies have shown no efficacy in infected people” with COVID-19.
Weaver adds that testing antivirals on cells in the lab is often the first step, and many times ends up being the last. “There are many drugs like this one that start out looking promising, but then fail later for a variety of reasons,” says Weaver. “Often if it’s a brand-new compound that hasn’t been tested at all in people, or even in animals, it turns out to be either not soluble enough or not distributed in the right way in the body of an animal or human or too toxic for use.”
Individuals should not try oleandrin on their own
Reports of individuals taking oleander either because of reading about it online or consuming it accidentally are common. A case report from 2016 describes a 60-year-old woman who self-administered oleandrin due to a “misunderstanding of herbal treatments” — thinking it would help cure her Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and malignant thyroid disease. Instead, she went to the emergency room with diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Another report from 2000 describes twin toddlers who died after eating oleander from a neighbor’s yard.
Marino says that anyone who considers it a potential treatment should know the facts. “At this point, there is no evidence to support oleandrin — or actually any other therapeutics — to treat or prevent COVID-19,” he says. “If people want to prevent COVID-19, what they need to do is wear a mask, try to maintain as much distance as possible ... and then also practice vigorous hand hygiene. Those three things alone have shown more benefit than any other therapeutic throughout this whole pandemic so far.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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