When Sean Simons learned he’d contracted COVID-19 this week, he knew exactly who his first call would be: Dr. Robert Karas.
Despite the coronavirus ravaging his state, the justice of the peace in Washington County, Arkansas, told The Daily Beast that he and his wife chose not to get vaccinated. They did so, Simons said, because of a gene defect they discovered last year after an adverse reaction to a TDAP shot. But he also expressed concerns about the speed with which the FDA authorized the shots, and how hard the safe and effective vaccines have been pushed—hallmarks of vaccine skepticism in COVID-racked America.
“We opted to take the natural immunity,” Simons told The Daily Beast of the dubious alternative to getting inoculated against the deadly coronavirus. “But we knew that, once infected, we have right down the road someone with a stellar track record of treating patients if they commit to treatment and get there quickly.”
That someone was Dr. Karas.
As The Daily Beast reported, Karas has been prescribing COVID-positive inmates at the local jail doses of ivermectin despite the fact that the FDA says the drug is dangerous and unproven in tackling the coronavirus. But by Karas’ own admission—along with conversations with residents, pharmacists, and others in Washington County—it’s clear he’s been flogging the treatment to the general public.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Medical Board told The Daily Beast they had opened an investigation into the “situation” surrounding Karas’ giving ivermectin to inmates, but declined to comment further.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Beast after publication of this story, Karas said he began “compassionate use” of ivermectin as part of a “comprehensive plan of care for both clinic and jail patients who had become significantly sick from COVID.” Karas said the doctor-prescribed version of the drug has a “lengthy track record of safe administration” around the world. Although he admitted the medication was not approved by the FDA for treatment of COVID patients, he said that “controlled studies” and “anecdotal evidence” suggests it could improve outcomes for critically sick patients—but he did not cite any particular evidence.
“I do not have the luxury of conducting my own clinical trial or study and am not attempting to do so,” he told The Daily Beast. “I am on the front line of trying to prevent death and serious illness.”
In an interview on Wednesday he shared on his Facebook page, Karas said he started treating “high-risk” inmates with ivermectin in Nov. 2020 and started using it in his private practice in Oct. 2020, adding that since January he’d given it to patients for “prevention” of COVID, too.
Karas is far from the only doctor advocating for the drug, which has taken on the air of a sort of a miracle cure in some corners. But he has developed a reputation as something of a wonder doctor who critics say offers a false sense of security to those skeptical of traditional—and proven—methods of protection against the virus, like vaccines and masks.
“It’s a whole host of reasons why that’s counterproductive and dangerous,” Hershey Garner, the chair of the board of health for Fayetteville, the county’s largest city, told The Daily Beast of Karas’ ivermectin advocacy.
Simon, the patient, told The Daily Beast he heard about Karas a couple of months ago, along with his purported success treating COVID patients. Among other data points, Karas has pointed on his Facebook page to promising results at the Washington County Detention Center, where he said he’s treated 531 cases of COVID-19 with zero deaths.
Simons said he’d heard about the “stigma” surrounding Karas. “He’s kind of marching to the beat of his own drum,” he said.
Nonetheless, Simons, 33, said that after he tested positive for COVID on Monday and began experiencing symptoms, he went straight to Karas and began a regiment prescribed to him which includes allergy medicine, a vitamin pack, and doses of ivermectin. “I’m taking about six different medicines,” he said. “It’s this COVID cocktail.”
The regimen, meant to last at least a week, has already started bearing results, he claimed.
“I feel alive again,” Simons told The Daily Beast.
Robyn Welch, 54, of Fayetteville, said she’d heard about Karas on a Facebook group after seeking out a “not normal doctor” who would treat COVID patients with ivermectin. When her son and husband came down with the virus this month, she told The Daily Beast, she took them to Karas, where she claimed they’d both had great success and avoided hospital stays after their ivermectin treatment. None of them were vaccinated, she said.
But the emergence of ivermectin as a sought-out commodity, particularly among the unvaccinated, has created a panic for doctors in the area, along with headaches for a hospital system and state that is suffering through one of the worst periods of the pandemic. Some local medical professionals worried that Karas’ stature as a licensed doctor and his Facebook page, where he has frequently cited his use of ivermectin dating back to Oct. 2020 and has posted as recently as this month that he doesn’t believe “masks decrease the spread of viruses,” might be stoking hesitancy to take vaccines and wear masks. (This despite the doctor appearing to nod to the effectiveness of vaccines in other posts.)
In his statement to The Daily Beast, Karas said the development of safe and effective vaccines have been a “tremendous asset” in the fight against the virus and said they “represent our best first line of defense against the virus.” He did not comment on his views on masks or criticism leveled at him by others in the medical community.
In the most extreme scenario, critics fear, information the doctor shares about his alleged success may be serving to encourage people to head to local supply stores to buy an animal version of ivermectin that can cause them serious harm. This even as he has expressly told people only to take human prescriptions.
In his interview on Wednesday, Karas said it was “sad” that some were going the route of choosing ivermectin for animals. “But when you’re desperate, desperate people do desperate things,” he said, adding that he wished more doctors were prescribing safe versions and that he had a long backlog of people wanting the drug.
As The Daily Beast reported, the phenomenon of people seeking out animal-grade ivermectin is a national one, and by no means can be pinned on one doctor in Arkansas. But whether it was sparked by Karas or not, evidence of interest in so-called “horse paste” in the area was easy to come by.
At three stores in and around Washington County, customer service representatives who requested to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions told The Daily Beast that they’ve seen a dramatic rise in requests for animal ivermectin.
Some customers have come in armed with stats and studies to prove their point, they said.
At a Tractor Supply Co. in Farmington, a city in the county, an employee told The Daily Beast on Thursday that she’d just helped a customer trying to find some ivermectin in their store, and another customer called to see if they had any in stock. “People are trying to consume these for themselves when they’re not for human consumption,” she said, “which I just find very odd.”
She said they’d notice the increased attention in the drug around May or June. “We’ve seen a big spike in the last couple of months,” she explained, adding that they hadn’t heard of anyone citing a doctor’s recommendation. “A lot of it has been word of mouth,” she added. “People are just buying it by the case. I can’t tell you how many phone calls a day asking if we have it in stock.”
A spokesman for Tractor Supply Co. told The Daily Beast that beginning early this month, they have told all stores in the state to place a sign near ivermectin products to warn customers.
“Ivermectin is an active ingredient in some of the products we carry, including select dewormers and injectables. Ivermectin HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans and could cause severe personal injury or death. These products are only suitable for animals and are clearly labeled as such,” the sign reads, according to an image of it provided to The Daily Beast.
But that hasn’t worked to stamp out interest, according to one employee.
A Tractor Supply Co. representative in Siloam Springs said he’s also seen a “pretty big spike” in requests in recent months. He said some customers have asked questions about the drugs for “COVID reasons” and that the store has a policy to inform them of the dangers of the drug and turn them away. The store has also hung signs on the shelves advising against taking it for personal use.
Nonetheless, the employee said, there are a lot of customers who pull up studies on their phones or come with printed sheets of “recommended dosages.” He said some have even claimed to have gotten the information from the CDC. “But it’s not intended for that use,” he said. “It’s not what it’s for.”
Simons agreed that it’s important to note the difference between the animal version of ivermectin and the FDA-approved version. He said people going to supply stores to get the other version are “irresponsible,” but said it isn't something Karas advocates or should share any blame for.
“That wasn’t my experience at all,” he said.
He said Karas’ staff stressed that some of the medications on his list, such as ivermectin, weren’t FDA-approved for COVID treatment but that they’d found it worked. He said they also stressed the ivermectin being given to him was different from the animal version and was prescribed specifically for him. “I feel like he’s got it figured out to some extent,” he said, adding that he felt Karas was being “thrown under the bus” by some to fit a political narrative.
Nonetheless, the personal use of ivermectin meant for animals as a treatment against COVID is widespread enough in the state that Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed the issue head-on in a press conference on Tuesday.
Hutchinson said the drug has “become a thing” on social media and has led to an increase in calls to the Arkansas Poison Control Center because people have taken the drug and ended up becoming sick. “It is not to be used for human consumption,” he said, advising residents to only take the FDA-approved version if it has been prescribed by their physician.
Dr. Jose Romero, that state’s secretary of health, also strongly advised against the animal version of the drug, but did not take a stance on the version meant for humans. “Ivermectin can be prescribed off-label for other uses and that is a decision between a physician and his patient,” he said at the press conference.
During the briefing, Hutchinson painted a dire situation of the pandemic in the state, where he said ICU beds were filling up faster than they could create new ones. He added that the average age of people being hospitalized had decreased sharply—from age 63 in November 2020 to 54 this month.
According to Hutchinson, over 90 percent of all new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID have been among those not fully vaccinated. “It points at the way out of this problem at this point is vaccination,” said Romero.
Washington County ranks in the top 10 in the state for new cases per 100,000 residents, and local health authorities there have said they’re also seeing an increase in patients ending up in the ICU.
“We’re maxed out in terms of our healthcare resources,” Garner, the local Health Board chair, said. “We’re snowed under and don’t have any room to expand our resources.”
Karas and the attention his ivermectin treatment has gotten this week has only exacerbated the problem, Garner told The Daily Beast.
On Wednesday, at the tail end of a regular meeting of Garner and the rest of the Board, their gathering was spent trying to find ways to fight Karas’ “misinformation” about ivermectin and mask use that Garner and others called dangerous, he said.
Garner said at the meeting that if social-media messages about alternative COVID therapies being more effective than vaccines or masks not working were ubiquitous, the city would need to “flood the zone” with “more aggressive, correct information.”
Huda Sharaf, a doctor on the Board, said at the meeting that she’d spoken to Karas about his views before and received a “not so great email response” from him about treatments that were not FDA-approved. Like others, she worried about the increase in calls to the poison crisis line and people being confused about which form of ivermectin to take, even as Karas has only prescribed the pills intended for human consumption.
“It’s just beyond me that people will take a dewormer for horses and be OK taking that but then be concerned about getting the vaccines, because they don’t know how it’s going to react or what’s in it,” she said.
Garner told The Daily Beast that, whether Karas put them onto it or not, he believes most people taking ivermectin in his region are attempting to buy the animal-grade version off the shelves at local stores. “That is problematic,” he said.
This week, Garner said, Karas was responsible for “putting more stress” on the system—and not just because some of his advice could lead to more cases and hospitalizations. But also, he said, because many providers like him are spending precious time answering queries from colleagues and patients about ivermectin.
“Just handling the questions and trying to address the misinformation is time-consuming,” he told The Daily Beast.
In his interview on Wednesday, Karas said ivermectin has been FDA-approved for over 40 years—which it has for topical uses, but not for COVID treatments. “It’s very safe,” he said, adding that he’s given it to thousands of patients, including his family, and hasn’t seen any bad effects. In response to questions about the treatment not being approved for COVID-19, he said, “nothing is FDA-approved for treatment for COVID.”
In fact, the FDA has approved one drug to treat the coronavirus and offered emergency-use authorization for others. Meanwhile, a major paper cited by ivermectin advocates was famously rejected and removed in March because of unsubstantiated claims. But as Garner noted, there are “scores” of studies that prove the effectiveness of common-sense measures like vaccinations.
Whether that serves to stamp out a local doctor’s hype train remains to be seen.
“My thoughts are, do you want us to try and fight like we’re at the beaches in Normandy, or do you want me to tell what a lot of people do and say go home and ride it out and go to the ER when your lips turn blue?” Karas said in the interview.
“We’ve fought hard for our patients,” he added. “We’re just trying to help as many people as we can.”