The oleander plant with its pretty flowers adorns many a garden. But now, thanks to a conversation between millionaire Mike Lindell, CEO of the “MyPillow, Inc.,” and President Trump, the seed of an idea about using one of oleander’s constituents as a treatment for COVID-19 has been planted in the public mind. That seed, fertilized with some magical thinking, may grow into a toxic belief.
That substance in question is oleandrin, a chemical that Phoenix Biotechnology, a Texas Company, has been exploring for years as a possible treatment for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases as well as for its anti-viral properties. Oleandrin is extracted from the leaves of the plant with liquid carbon dioxide and once the solvent evaporates, the residue left behind can be studied for any possible medicinal properties. The notion that compounds found in plants may serve as drugs is on solid footing. Many drugs such as quinine, digoxin, morphine, colchicine, vincristine and paclitaxel are isolated from plants. It is common practice in pharmacology to investigate plant extracts for therapeutic properties, so it is not unreasonable for a company to probe possible medicinal effects of oleandrin. What is unreasonable is to make claims about what the compound may do without having sufficient evidence.
While the company has referred to some trials carried out at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that showed a lack of toxicity, nothing has been published. Preliminary tests at the U.S. Army’s lab at Fort Detrick have demonstrated some activity against Ebola and Marburg viruses that stimulated research into possible anti-SARS-CoV-2 effects.
The results of an “in-vitro” study examining the reproduction of the coronavirus in “Vero cells” have been reported in a “pre-print,” by researchers at the University of Texas working in conjunction with Phoenix Biotechnology. This publication has not been peer-reviewed and until it is, it cannot be regarded as part of the scientific literature. Vero cells are commonly used as host cells for growing viruses because they do not secrete interferon when infected by viruses. Interferon is a chemical used by the immune system to destroy invaders and in its absence, viruses can multiply more effectively. The Vero cell line was originally developed from kidney cells of the African green monkey and is significantly different from human cells.
The study that was brought to President Trump’s attention showed a significant reduction in SARS-CoV-2 reproduction in Vero cells when these were treated with oleandrin at a concentration of 0.05 micrograms/ml. Since these are not normal mammalian cells, it is premature to extrapolate the findings to any sort of human treatment, especially given that oleandrin’s lethal dose has been estimated to be 0.02 micrograms/ml. Once again, this pilot study has not been peer-reviewed and should not be used to imply that oleandrin is a preventative or treatment for COVID-19. Yet that is exactly what Mike Lindell is doing. In numerous interviews subsequent to the revelation of his meeting with the President he has made outrageous claims about oleandrin being a “game-changer.” Lindell, an enthusiastic Trump supporter, is a former drug addict who has zero scientific background and now is on the board of directors of Phoenix biotechnology so he stands to profit from any sales of oleandrin that might materialize.
Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was also at the meeting with President Trump to lend support to the supposed benefits of oleandrin. Carson has a history of promoting questionable supplements, having had a long association with Mannatech, a company that has had many skirmishes with the authorities over false advertising. Carson at one time even claimed he had beaten his prostate cancer with the company’s products. While Lindell is a scientific neophyte, Carson is a former neurosurgeon who should know about the need for evidence before supporting a treatment. The fact is that the only conclusion that can legitimately be drawn from the Phoenix study is that if the results can be reproduced in a larger sized sample, then testing in animal models may be warranted.
Currently, oleander is not available commercially, but since it can be extracted from a plant, it could conceivably be formulated into a dietary supplement. As long as no claims are made on the label, such supplements, unlike drugs, do not have to demonstrate evidence of safety or efficacy. That is scary, particularly in this case. Oleandrin, like digitalis extracted from the foxglove plant, is a cardiac glycoside, meaning it can have a significant effect on heart function. At the wrong dose that effect can be lethal. There are many cases of animals and people having been poisoned by oleander, sometimes on purpose. In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, the plant has become a common means for suicide, prompting the government to take steps to eradicate it and prohibit its cultivation as an ornamental plant. At this point, it is totally irresponsible to recommend any oleander product as having efficacy against COVID-19. When I hear this kind of nonsense I feel like putting a pillow over my head. And it will not be "MyPillow".