Attempted imports of a drug typically used to de-worm livestock but latched on to by people opposed to Covid-19 vaccines globally have spiked here, sparking warnings from experts and health authorities.
Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that has been around since the 1970s, is produced by major international pharmaceutical company Merck largely to prevent and treat heartworm in livestock and pets, and in other forms certain tropical diseases in humans.
It was briefly trialled in the early, desperate stages of the pandemic before any other options were available, but was quickly found to have no scientific evidence and be potentially very dangerous if self-prescribed.
Merck itself also strongly advises against anybody using the drug to treat Covid-19.
Despite this, the drug has been promoted by people largely through social media, and largely by conspiracy theory and far right groups, as an alternative Covid-19 treatment.
Medsafe, which approves imports at customs for authorised prescribers (usually medical practitioners but also to MPI for animal treatment), confirmed to the Herald attempted imports were increasing.
In a normal month Medsafe would record one or two attempted imports and approve one.
In 2020 alone there were 18 consignments attempted and referred to Medsafe, containing ivermectin.
In the first four months of this year there were eight attempted imports, with one approved.
Then in May there were 10 attempts, 26 in June, 31 in July, and 38 in August up to the 24th.
Out of the 114 attempts this year 12 were approved, and another two referred to MPI.
Given the timing and trends overseas, vaccinologist and University of Auckland associate professor Helen Petousis-Harris said it was likely people were attempting to use it as a treatment here.
"It is a horrible thought that people are importing de-wormer as an unproven treatment for Covid-19.
"Well-controlled studies have assessed the utility of this vet medicine in Covid-19 patients and found no effect and potential harm."
A Ministry of Health spokeswoman confirmed they had been seeing an increase in "attempted importations of ivermectin by individuals".
"Ivermectin is not approved for use in New Zealand to treat Covid-19," she said.
"There is no clear evidence that it is effective and it may cause serious harm in some people.
"The Ministry of Health strongly recommends the public do not buy and treat themselves with Ivermectin for Covid-19.
"When ingested in high doses, ivermectin can have a serious effect on humans, with symptoms including low blood pressure, worsening asthma, severe autoimmune disorders, seizures and liver damage."
A Ministry review of potential Covid-19 treatments found a very low possibility of the drug being of any use, while also carrying risks.
The spike in demand here mirrors trends around the world including in Australia where there has been a tenfold increase in imports, sparking a warning from the Department of Health calling it "dangerous".
The US Food and Drug Administration recently had to tell the public not to take the drug, with increased calls to poison hotlines from people who had taken ivermectin and at least one hospitalisation.
"You are not a horse," the FDA said in a tweet. "You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it."
Petousis-Harris said the drug had its roots as a treatment for Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic when there were no scientifically-proven treatments nor vaccines, and with cases escalating and patients dying in their thousands medical professionals were desperate.
"During this time all sorts of things were given a go, including ivermectin," she said.
"Unfortunately, when proper studies were conducted [on ivermectin] most of these failed.
"There are medicines that are proving effective, ivermectin is not one of them. In fact, the manufacturers are not recommending it."
In a statement, producer Merck said its company scientists had found there was "no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies".
There was "no meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with Covid-19 disease" and a "concerning lack of safety data in the majority of studies".
In Aotearoa posts can be seen across social media discussing and promoting ivermectin as a Covid-19, generally alongside anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine messages.
The Herald has seen such messages associated with some of the major anti-lockdown protest groups and some of their leaders, some with medical credentials themselves and the ability to import the drug.
"There is a lot of misinformation going around on the internet about various unproven treatments for Covid-19," Petousis-Harris said.
"This is probably appealing to people who do not trust the health authorities and do not want vaccines.
"Please do not take medicines that are not approved for use that might hurt you.
"There has also been a surge in poisonings reported when people take this medicine.
"If you want to prevent Covid-19 it is cheaper, easier and safer to get a vaccine that has been rigorously tested and used in billions than ingesting all manner of potential harmful substances that have been proven not to work."