Rep. Whiteford pushes experimental COVID treatments, doctor says it discourages vaccinations

By: - January 31, 2022 12:31 pm

Ivermectin, 3 mg tablet, as sold in the USA. Brand name: Stromectol, manufactured by Edenbridge Pharmaceuticals. It is also sold under brand names Heartgard and Sklice. | Getty Images

A Michigan House committee hearing turned briefly contentious last week when discussion veered into the topic of experimental drugs to treat COVID-19.

The conversation was sparked by House Bill 5637, introduced by state Rep. Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Twp.), which would make the state’s 2014 “Right to Try” Act for medical treatments inclusive of COVID-19 remedies that “remain under investigation.”

Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in West Michigan and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, said Friday that Whiteford’s bill is “giving credence to these weird conspiracy theories, because that’s what the people who they need on their side want to hear about.”

Whiteford’s bill did not receive a committee vote on Friday, but will be taken up once again by the committee on Thursday.

State Rep. Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Twp.) speaks during a House Health Policy Committee hearing, Jan. 27, 2022 | Screenshot

The current Right to Try Act, codified as Public Act (PA) 345 and PA 346 in 2014, makes it possible for Michiganders with an “advanced illness” to access and use experimental treatments that are under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The state defines “advanced illness” as a progressive disease or medical or surgical condition that entails “significant functional impairment,” is not considered reversible even with current FDA-approved treatments and will “soon result in death” if not for life-sustaining procedures.

Throughout the pandemic, many Republicans have rejected safe, free vaccinations against COVID-19 that have been approved by federal regulators, while latching onto other treatments for COVID-19, although they have not authorized for such use. Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are two popular examples.

For months in 2020, hydroxychloroquine was pushed by former President Donald Trump and right-wing media as a treatment for COVID-19. The antimalarial drug has been proven ineffective against COVID-19 and potentially harmful if used for unintended purposes.

Ivermectin is typically used to treat parasitic infections like scabies, onchocerciasis (“river blindness”) and others. Despite it also being ineffective against COVID-19, right-wing figures and media began pushing it as a treatment during summer 2021.

Whiteford’s bill does not specifically state certain medications. State Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine) was the first to inquire about ivermectin in particular during the Thursday hearing before the House Health Policy Committee.

Although COVID conspiracists claim it can cure the virus, the FDA has pleaded with people to not take ivermectin for COVID-19, stressing that it has not been approved or authorized by the FDA.

Whiteford insisted throughout the hearing that the bill is not specifically about ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine.

Dr. Rob Davidson, a West Michigan emergency physician and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care | Committee to Protect Health Care photo

Davidson said he has had one patient specifically ask him for ivermectin. Several more, while they were already hypoxic and being admitted to the hospital, admitted they had been taking it but declined to share where they obtained it.

Since Michigan’s Right to Try Act was written in 2014, it does not mention COVID-19. The bill seeks to insert that into the act.

Davidson also points out Whiteford’s bill does not specify that an experimental medication for COVID-19 should have passed through that requirement. It simply states that residents should be able to try medications that are meant to treat other conditions as a method of treating COVID-19.

“So what does that mean? Does that mean anything anyone has seen on Facebook or anything anyone’s uncle told them they felt worked?” Davidson said. He added that although Whiteford claimed her bill was not necessarily about ivermectin and other medications popularly promoted by conspiracy theorists, it is clear to him that it attempts to cater to that crowd.

Despite hearing out Allor’s inquiries about ivermectin in particular, state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) was cut off by Whiteford and committee Chair Bronna Kahle (R-Adrian) when she started talking about the medication.

“We’re going to keep our comments and questions pertinent to the legislation before us and I do recommend reading the actual bill,” Kahle said. Pohutsky asked again if she could continue asking her question, and Kahle responded with “no, not right now, thank you.”

In a text message Friday, Pohutsky told the Advance that the bill serves no real purpose other than to perpetuate right-wing conspiracy theories.

“This bill doesn’t do anything to substantively change the Right to Try Act. It only serves to perpetuate conspiracy theories about COVID treatments that are at best ineffective and, at worst, dangerous,” Pohutsky said.

State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) speaks during a House Health Policy Committee hearing, Jan. 27, 2022 | Screenshot

“The fact that I was prohibited from asking pertinent questions just demonstrates that this legislation is about feeding a narrative, not helping Michiganders,” she added.

Davidson said he is sure Whiteford, Allor, Kahle and others have been getting calls from constituents about experimental treatments like they mentioned, but the lawmakers should be shutting those down instead of allowing conspiracies to fester.

“Their response should be, ‘Well, that doesn’t work for COVID, but vaccines do.’ That should be the response, but that isn’t what they’re saying,” he said.

“If [Whiteford] would be out there saying, ‘I’m vaccinated, you should get vaccinated, it’s the best thing you can do for your community,’ that would be helpful. That would be welcome. I’d love to stand with her. I’m in West Michigan; she’s in West Michigan.”

Davidson also added that when people are led to believe that there is a magic bullet to cure a virus like COVID-19, they may be less likely to get vaccinated — which is “the one very specific thing we know will prevent you from dying of COVID,” he said.

“‘Why would you take a vaccine when there’s something like ivermectin out there that can cure me?’ And so, the Michigan House, it appears, is trying to give cover to people who want to prescribe ivermectin. And again, that is just reinforcing this idea that you don’t necessarily need to get vaccinated.”

“We should be putting our energy and efforts into getting more people vaccinated. It’d be great if the Republican House would do that, spend their time legislating that or promoting that, instead of what they’re trying to do here,” Davidson said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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