An agricultural adviser stands amidst a crop of Artemisia Annua plants, more commonly known as wormwood, in June 2005 on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Sukhdev Chattbar / AP

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning not to use the common livestock antiparasitic ivermectin to treat COVID-19.

Now it appears people may be turning to a botanical alternative.

Wormwood, which grows in Maine and is used to make absinthe, is classified as an unsafe herb by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because it contains the chemical thujone. The chemical has the potential to harm brain, kidney and liver cells or cause convulsions if taken in too high a dose.

The herb is the latest example of unproven COVID-19 treatments. Over the course of the pandemic, people have turned to drugs and supplements including hydroxychloroquine, dexamethasone and ivermectin as possible cures or treatments for COVID-19. The CDC and other health organizations have repeatedly warned taking those drugs or supplements outside of their intended uses can cause dangerous side effects.

There is no evidence to suggest COVID-19 can be prevented or treated with products made from artemisinin, a derivative from the wormwood plant, or any other wormwood plant material, according to the World Health Organization.

The United States National Library of Medicine lists one clinical trial looking at the safety and efficacy of artemisinin in hospitalized COVID-19 subjects. That study is out of Brazil.

The FDA does regard wormwood as safe if it is thujone-free.

Thujone-free supplements that contain wormwood and its extracts are marketed to treat digestive problems, parasites, muscle pain and sexual dysfunction. It’s also the flavoring ingredient in some aperitifs and the liquor absinthe.

The best way to reduce the risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 are the three FDA-authorized vaccines, not natural supplements, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The vaccines’ effectiveness and safety have been affirmed through rigorous clinical trials,” said Robert Long, spokesperson for Maine CDC. “That’s not the case for various home remedies that have been suggested.”

Long urges people to get vaccinated or to consult their medical provider if they have any questions about the risks related to COVID-19

The wormwood plant is a perennial herb natvie to Europe, but is now cultivated around the world.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.