Tennessee Republican lawmakers working to ease ivermectin access

Legislators also want to ensure 'natural' immunity is on equal footing with vaccines, even though research indicates it's not as effective

A box of ivermectin is shown in a pharmacy on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Republican lawmakers are moving several COVID-19 related bills in the legislature, including one that allows pharmacists to work collaboratively with physicians to dispense ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections in animals and humans, without a prescription.

Ivermectin's manufacturer, Merck, states on its website that there is "no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19" based on pre-clinical studies.

Senate Health Committee members voted 8-1 last week to refer an amended version of the measure, Senate Bill 2188, to the Calendar Committee.

"People are going to the [farm] co-op and buying this stuff, and it's curing them," sponsor Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said last week in committee. "But they're guessing at the dose. If it wasn't as safe as it is, we'd be killing people, but it's very safe."

Niceley told the Times Free Press in a Sunday phone interview he hopes the bill will be scheduled for a floor vote this week.

The House version, House Bill 2746, is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the full House Health Committee.

The bills follow last year's special session on COVID-19 where Republican lawmakers moved ahead with efforts to stop mask and vaccine requirements, block schools' pandemic restrictions and requirements and strip the state's six independently-run county health departments - including Hamilton County's - from imposing restrictions.

Ivermectin has become popular among a number of vaccine skeptics as well as others whose wariness focuses on vaccines produced through messenger RNA drug technology. The vaccines are produced by companies including Merck, Pfizer and Moderna. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mRNA is used in effect to "teach" cells how to make proteins to trigger an immune response to the potentially deadly disease.

Earlier this month, Factcheck.org, operated by Annenberg Public Policy Center, stated the National Institutes of Health has not recommended and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment and that more clinical studies are needed, contrary to some misstatements on social media.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he felt more comfortable voting for Niceley's bill in committee after an amendment was offered by Sen. Shane Reeves, R-Murfreesboro, a pharmacist, who had the support of Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, a retired pharmacist.

"I think obviously it allowed for a physician to write [a prescription] if he wanted to, allowed a pharmacist to fill it in a collaborative agreement," Watson said. "It just made some clarity about how we deal with ivermectin."

Another bill provision provides legal protections for physicians and pharmacists.

"There was some argument about putting specific names of specific drugs , that's not necessarily a practice we normally do," Watson said.

He noted that given the "confusion and stuff around it," it was probably needed.

"I think we got the bill in a really good spot, and I felt fine with the safeguards," Watson said.

Another Tennessee COVID-19 measure, House Bill 1871, pressed by vaccine skeptics or critics, seeks to recognize "natural immunity" as an alternative for health care workers and others who are federally required to be vaccinated. It moved through the House Health Subcommittee on March 1.

The Senate companion bill is sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican physician from Hohenwald.

"It just requires people to recognize natural immunity," Hensley told the Times Free Press last week outside a committee room after senators delayed action on the bill in order to clarify language. "If they're requiring somebody to get a vaccine, then they have to recognize natural immunity as being equal to a vaccine. That's all the bill does."

He said the "holdup" involves how the mandate affects businesses.

"But if the business mandates the vaccine then they have to allow somebody to have natural immunity," he said. "And that's all the bill does, it's not terribly complicated. I feel it gives businesses more options so they don't have to fight with somebody who claims they have natural immunity because natural immunity is just as good or better than the vaccine."

Hospitals are being exempted from the bill.

An August 2021 study by epidemiologist Alyson Cavanaugh indicates that if people have had COVID-19 before and are not vaccinated, their risk of getting re-infected is more than two times higher than for those who got vaccinated after having COVID-19.

An official with Gov. Bill Lee's administration raised concerns about the bill's language with committee members.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said during the hearing that "natural immunity is sort of what they look at in the European sphere."

But, Yarbro said, that is usually limited to a six-month window.

"I don't have a real issue with that," Watson said Thursday in the Times Free Press interview. "I think they're trying to clarify a little bit of language."

"The administration came back and flagged the bill, saying they saw it as mandated. I didn't read the bill that way, neither did the sponsor. So we rolled the bill so we could read the language a little more clearly. I think they may change the language to say acquired immunity versus natural immunity. So acquired immunity and COVID-19 vaccination are equal. So if an entity requires that of an employee, the requirement can be used as an equal standard to the vaccine."

He said, "I know there's controversy about that," when asked about the waning of natural immunity over time. "But we also know the vaccine wanes after a certain time period as well. So I think again, if you're equating the two, you equate the two."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.