Is Oleander Extract a Valid COVID Treatment?

Is Oleander Extract a Valid COVID Treatment?

By Megan Brooks
WebMD Health News

Aug. 20, 2020 -- Oleandrin, a toxic substance found in the poisonous oleander plant, is making headlines as a potential treatment for COVID-19 infection, raising concerns that uninformed people may eat the leaves of the plant and become ill or die.

"Though renowned for its beauty and use in landscaping, this Mediterranean shrub is responsible for cases of accidental poisoning across the globe. All parts of the plant are poisonous," Cassandra Quave, PhD, an expert in the use of indigenous plants for medical treatments, and curator of preserved plant specimens at Emory University, cautioned in an article in The Conversation, an independent, not-for-profit publication.

Oleandrin has properties similar to digoxin from the foxglove plant, which is used to treat heart failure. The toxic effects of oleandrin may appear several hours after consumption.

The first symptoms of oleandrin poisoning may be gastrointestinal, such as nausea and vomiting, belly pain, diarrhea (which may contain blood), and loss of appetite.

Heart problems may follow these first symptoms, including a rapid or lowered heartbeat, an irregular heartbeat, or other problems. Those poisoned may also have a burning sensation in the eyes, paralysis of the GI tract, and respiratory symptoms.

Oleandrin poisoning may also affect the central nervous system. Drowsiness, tremors, seizures, collapse, and coma leading to death are all possible. Oleander sap put on the skin can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions characterized by dermatitis.

Neither oleander nor oleandrin is approved by regulatory agencies as a prescription drug or dietary supplement.

In Vitro Study

Oleandrin for COVID-19 made headlines after President Donald Trump met in the Oval Office with Andrew Whitney, vice chairman and director of Phoenix Biotechnology, along with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, MD, and MyPillow founder/CEO Mike Lindell, a strong Trump supporter and an investor in Phoenix. The meeting was to learn about oleandrin, which Whitney called a "cure" for COVID-19, Axios reported.

In an in vitro study, researchers from Phoenix Biotechnology and the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, tested oleandrin against SARS-CoV-2 in cultured cells.

The results, which showed oleandrin "significantly inhibited replication" of the coronavirus, appeared in an article posted on bioRxiv, a free online archive and distribution service for studies that have not been published or peer-reviewed.

Based on these findings, the researchers said the plant extract has "potential to prevent disease and virus spread in persons recently exposed to SARS-CoV-2, as well as to prevent severe disease in persons at high risk."

But it's a far cry from test tube to human, one expert cautioned.

"This is an understatement: Care must be taken when inferring potential therapeutic benefits from in vitro antiviral effects," Harlan Krumholz, MD, a cardiologist and the director of Yale New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation in Connecticut, told Medscape Medical News.

"There is a chasm between a single in vitro study and any use in humans outside of a protocol. People should be cautioned about that distance and the need to avoid such remedies unless part of a credible research project," he said.

Yet Lindell told Axios that in the Oval Office meeting, Trump expressed enthusiasm for the FDA to allow oleandrin to be marketed as a dietary supplement or approved for COVID-19.

"This is really just nonsense and a distraction," Jonathan Reiner, MD, of George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said on CNN.

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