Don't Take 'Dangerous' Oleandrin for COVID-19 Experts Warn, After Trump Says 'We'll Look at It'

Experts are warning people not to take the botanical extract oleandrin—or the oleander plant from which it comes—after news emerged that President Donald Trump reportedly said he wanted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the substance as a COVID-19 treatment.

Oleandrin is being developed for this purpose by Phoenix Biotechnology (PB) and has been pushed to administration officials, including the president himself, by Andrew Whitney, an executive at the company, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson and Trump backer and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell—who recently took a stake at PB and was appointed to their board.

On Sunday, Axios reported comments from Lindell regarding an Oval Office meeting in July in which the extract was discussed as a potential coronavirus treatment. According to Lindell, Trump "basically said: ...'The FDA should be approving it.'" Soon after, online searches for "buy oleandrin" spiked, Google Trends data shows.

"This is very worrisome as consumption of either the plant oleander, or its toxic compound oleandrin, can both cause death," Cassandra Quave, a medical ethnobotanist from Emory University, told Newsweek.

Oleandrin is one of several toxic compounds that the oleander plant—an evergreen shrub or small tree that is often sold for landscaping purposes—contains.

Now that the drug is being pushed at the highest level of the government, and the president himself has expressed enthusiasm for it, according to comments Lindell gave to CNN, Quave is worried that people may try to acquire and consume oleandrin or the oleander plant in the belief that it may help to treat COVID-19.

"I am very concerned that members of the public may try to self-medicate with either the plant oleander or the isolated compound oleandrin. I strongly advise against consuming any part of the oleander plant or the plant chemical oleandrin," Quave said.

"While [the plant] may be a beautiful addition to a home garden, it should never ever be eaten in any form. Consumption of the plant causes nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeats, drops in blood pressure, and death."

The oleandrin chemical is a cardiac glycoside—a compound known to have serious impact on the heart, resulting in dangerous rhythm disturbances.

"While other cardiac glycosides have been FDA approved as drugs and are used in medicine, such as certain compounds from the foxglove plant, these are administered at controlled doses under close medical supervision," Quave said.

"This is because cardiac glycosides have a narrow therapeutic window—meaning that the difference in dose between a medicine and poison is extremely narrow, and doctors must carefully control for this to avoid toxic side effects."

Despite its toxicity, some "in vitro" research—a term used to refer to studies done in test tubes rather than animals or humans—has shown that oleandrin may inhibit the growth of cancer cells. However, human trials investigating the substance as a cancer treatment have not been conducted. And when it comes to COVID-19 the evidence is even more limited.

One pre-print—meaning non-peer-reviewed—paper describing test-tube research conducted by a team from the University of Texas at Galveston found that the plant extract inhibits the virus in monkey kidney cells. Two of the listed authors of the study are employed by Phoenix Biotechnology.

oleander plant
Stock image: The oleander plant from which oleandrin is extracted. iStock

"The research on oleandrin's utility against COVID-19 is extremely limited and points only to a single study performed in a test tube with cells and the virus responsible for COVID-19," Quave said. "This study has not yet been reviewed by other scientists or published in the scientific literature. There is no animal data supporting safety and efficacy. There is no human data supporting safety and efficacy."

"However, there are more than 100 studies in the scientific and medical literature reporting the deaths of both humans and livestock following consumption of the oleander plant, and oleandrin is the main chemical component of the plant responsible for oleander toxicity. The dangers of oleander and oleandrin are well-known from years of prior studies by many different scientific and medical teams."

Dr. Ayfer Ali, an expert on drug repurposing at the University of Warwick in the U.K., told Newsweek that oleandrin shouldn't be easily available to the regular consumer, although scientists and labs can acquire it as a purified pharmaceutical investigative drug product.

Nevertheless, she said its still possible that people might get hold of the extract in order to treat COVID-19, if not the plant itself, especially because there is "a perception that if something is a plant or naturally occurring it might be safer."

"This would be extremely dangerous. We really don't know if any dose of oleandrin would be safe," she said. But we also don't know if it is even helpful in COVID-19. The suggestions that it may be are based on in-vitro data but a chemical may behave very differently in cells in a test tube from how it does in the very complex human body."

"That is why we conduct clinical trials where we test potential drugs in animals, then in a few humans, then in more humans with the disease to see if it safe and then test it in thousands of patients to see if it is efficacious compared to a placebo. These steps are there for a reason. None of them can be safely bypassed."

William Schaffner, a professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University, likened the oleandrin situation to what occurred with hydroxychloroquine—an anti-malarial drug that has been touted by the president for the treatment of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Sales and online demand for the drug spiked after prominent endorsements by Trump, CNN and The Guardian reported.

"We went down this spurious road with hydroxychloroquine resulting in some serious consequences; we should not repeat that with oleandrin. I repeat: there is no demonstrated benefit; there is a serious hazard, so do not take it," Schaffner said.

Earlier this week the president denied pressing the FDA to approve the plant extract oleandrin as a treatment for COVID-19 but confirmed to a reporter on the White House South Lawn on Monday that he had heard about oleandrin and said: "We'll look at it.... We're looking at a lot of different things."

Whitney has claimed that oleandrin can "cure" COVID-19, causing symptoms to disappear "in the vast majority of cases," Axios reported, however, there is currently insufficient evidence to back up these claims. Phoenix Biotechnology is also pushing the FDA to allow oleandrin to be sold as a dietary supplement. But Quave is skeptical about this use as well.

"In my opinion as an expert on the pharmacology of medicinal plants, [oleander and oleandrin] do not fit the FDA's criteria for safety for inclusion as a new dietary supplement ingredient," she said.