Supplement industry quick to warn consumers about Trump's enthusiasm for oleander as COVID-19 cure

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Oleander is a popular ornamental plant, but is also highly toxic. ©Getty Images - Anatoliy Sadovskiy
Oleander is a popular ornamental plant, but is also highly toxic. ©Getty Images - Anatoliy Sadovskiy

Related tags toxicity Toxicology COVID-19

Sources in the natural products industry were nearly unanimous in condemning the Trump Administration’s apparent new found enthusiasm for a toxic oleander extract as a potential COVID-19 cure.

The news first surfaced several days ago. According to reports​, the White House was introduced to the idea that oleandrin, a constituent of the oleander plant (Nerium oleander​), could be useful in the fight against the virus that causes COVID-19, by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow and a big Trump campaign financial supporter.

Lindell, who has taken a financial stake in Phoenix Biotechnology, the company developing the product, told the news site Axios​ that during the meeting he and Carson had with Trump the President said, “the FDA should be approving it.”

Plant parts can be highly toxic

Oleander is a large bush or small tree with attractive flowers that is often used as an ornamental or hedge plant in warm climates.  It is native to the Mediterranean region.

It is universally thought of as a poisonous plant, and health authorities caution against allowing children or animals to consume any of its parts.  In a recent report in the journal Toxins​, of 50 dairy cows that ate fodder that accidentally had oleander clippings mixed in, 13 died over a period of four days​.

The plant is also highly toxic to humans.  According to a 2008 report, a child died after ingesting a single leaf​. Poisonings among animals and humans are rare because the plant is highly unpalatable. 

Oleandrin is a toxic cardiac glycoside found in the plant.  Cardiac glycosides are a family of molecules that are potent inhibitors of the Na+/K+-ATPase and induce electrolytic disturbances that affect the electrical conductivity in the heart and in other body regions.

Some evidence of use as medicinal plant

With all that being said, there has been interest in some constituents of oleander as a medicinal plant.  A review that was recently published online ahead of print in the journal Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy​ said that, “Despite toxicity due to presence of cardiac glycosides in all parts, oleander is extensively used in ethnomedicinal practices around the globe. Although the extent of toxicity is largely variable in humans and animals, several pre-clinical data have demonstrated metabolic health benefits of sub-lethal dose of oleander. However, a critical gap exists in understanding the intestinal-level effects of oleander extracts and its cardiac glycosides, especially the reciprocal interaction with the gut microbiome.”

According to a report referenced on the Phoenix Biotechnology website, a US Army lab has reportedly been researching oleandrin for its antiviral effects​ and thus far has tested it against the Ebola and Marburg viruses in vitro.  Pharmacognosy experts observe, however, that there are potentially thousands of phytochemicals that might show antiviral activity in bench tests while few show the same effects in vivo.

Almost universal condemnation of idea

Dietary supplement industry stakeholders were quick to condemn the Trump Administration’s sudden enthusiasm for oleandrin.  

“We have been in conversation with our partners in the industry and we have confirmed our shared deep concerns about the safety of oleander if it were to find its way into a dietary supplement. The unanimous opinion is that this is a stupid idea and no one should allow an oleander supplement to get close to their mouth,” ​said Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance.

“We have to take a very low threshold of common sense with the American consumer on this,” ​Israelsen added, noting that in a few cases people have acted on other sudden COVID-19 treatment enthusiasms on Trump’s part, such as ingesting bleach​.

FDA has already rejected the ingredient in question

Holly Johnson, PhD, chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association, said it's important to remember that oleandrin has already been evaluated by FDA in the form of a New Dietary Ingredient Notification submitted in 1998.  In an AHPA statement that Johnson forwarded on to NutraIngredients-USA​ the organization had this to say:

“FDA responded to this notification by noting, in part, ‘All parts of the oleander plant are poisonous to man and animals … [due to] the cardiac glycosides in oleander … [including] oleandrin….’ In reviewing the NDI notification records, AHPA notes it is exceedingly rare for the agency to essentially reject a notification due to known safety concerns. Indeed, among the responses to the more than 1,000 NDI notifications released by FDA to date, AHPA identified only seven expressing known safety concerns in this manner.”

The American Botanical Council administered this stern warning: “ABC warns consumer not to ingest any parts of the plant, or capsules, tablets, teas, or extract preparations made from leaves or other parts of the oleander plant because it contains chemicals that can cause serious effects to the human heart, including death.”

Daniel Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association, took a somewhat softer line with his organization’s reaction.

“Of course we are excited that the President is enthusiastic about natural products.  While oleandrin has some cytotoxic cell killing activities, I don’t know if that has anything to do with COVID-19.  In any case, they aren’t talking about ‘immune boosting.’ They are talking about cures, and that’s not our industry,” ​he said.

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