Seriously, Y’all. Stop It.
Pharma wants to empower patients to make informed healthcare decisions, but patients also need to be protected from misinformation
Stephanie Sutton | | Opinion
Earlier this year, I had a conversation with Mike Petroutsas – GSK’s Senior Vice President of US Oncology – about patient centricity, patient engagement, access to treatment, and disease awareness and education. Mike also talked about the rife misinformation about medicines and vaccines for COVID-19, and how it is important for the pharma industry to “build back trust in the healthcare system and in our medicines” (1).
A recent case in the US emphasizes his point. In August 2021, unvaccinated Jeffrey Smith was placed on a ventilator after becoming ill with COVID-19. His wife, Julie Smith, requested that he be treated with ivermectin (2). Ivermectin has attracted a great deal of attention in the research community for COVID-19, but it remains unproven. A preprint paper recently reported that ivermectin could reduce the chance of death in COVID-19 patients by more than 90 percent; however, the paper was later withdrawn due to flaws in the data (3). The FDA has created a page on its website titled “Why You Should Not Use Ivermectin to Treat or Prevent COVID-19 (4). In a tweet to promote the page (5), the FDA also said, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it.”
When the hospital refused to dispense ivermectin as a treatment, Julie filed a lawsuit to force treatment. On August 23, 2021, a judge ordered the hospital to treat the patient with ivermectin. In early September, the court order was overturned, with the judge stating that the medical and scientific communities do not support the use of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19.
Smith’s case is not the first lawsuit around ivermectin and likely won’t be the last. Patients have rights and the pharma industry has often spoken of patient empowerment, but patients also need to be protected from clear misinformation and unproven medicines. Julie took advice from the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, a not-for-profit that believes ivermectin can successfully treat COVID-19 – and constantly seeks funding donations from the public. Members of the alliance wrote a paper promoting the benefits of ivermectin, but it was rejected for publication (6) (leading to an outcry of “censorship” from followers of the alliance). The alliance has had numerous posts removed from social media websites due to accusations of disseminating misinformation.
There is a known trust issue in the pharma industry that must be addressed. Patients need to feel that they can trust medicine manufacturers and regulators, rather than seeking out other avenues where there is a strong risk of misinformation. Pharma companies must continue to improve their reputation amongst the public, ensuring that they are engaging with patients and giving patients information about medicines and diseases so that patients can make informed decisions – in collaboration with reputable healthcare practitioners, of course.
It's important not to mock cases like Julie’s. In the May issue of The Medicine Maker, Nicola Wainwright gave her opinion on the importance of open discussions about the risks and benefits of medical treatment – and how these can help counter problems such as vaccine hesitancy (7). “Unthinking criticism of those who are hesitant about the vaccine is not helpful – and it misses the point,” she wrote. “There are reasons they are hesitant – and those reasons need to be explored. For these concerned individuals, an honest and open discussion will be of considerable benefit. If nothing else, it can help counteract incorrect information obtained during uninformed discussions with friends and relatives, and from the conspiracy theories and scare-mongering that abounds, particularly on social media.”
- The Medicine Maker, “Think of the Patients” (2021). Available at https://themedicinemaker.com/business-regulation/think-of-the-patients
- The Washington Post, “Ohio judge reverses colleague’s decision on covid patient’s ivermectin treatment: ‘Judges are not doctors’” (2021). Available at https://wapo.st/2Vq7O4Q
- Nature, “Flawed ivermectin preprint highlights challenges of COVID drug studies,” (2021). Available at https://go.nature.com/3jU9HjG
- FDA, “Why You Should Not Use Ivermectin to Treat or Prevent COVID-19,” (2021). Available at https://bit.ly/2X8wFen
- Twitter, U.S. FDA (2021). Available at https://bit.ly/3lc5bwB
- The Scientist, “Frontiers Removes Controversial Ivermectin Paper Pre-Publication,” (2021). Available at https://bit.ly/3l4JgHz
- N Wainwright, “The Right to Decide,” The Medicine Maker (2021). Available at https://themedicinemaker.com/business-regulation/the-right-to-decide