Panama has gone one step further than other Latin American countries that use the unproven drug ivermectin against COVID-19 (see Nature 586, 481–482; 2020). The government has approved this drug and hydroxychloroquine — despite the lack of efficacy data for either — and is stockpiling both. We find this alarming because the drugs’ side effects could be toxic in a significant proportion of the population.

In March 2020, hydroxychloroquine was prescribed only to people with COVID-19 who were taking part in a clinical-trial protocol. Panama’s ministry of health followed the advice of its Scientific Advisory Committee and two months later suspended the trial on the basis of growing evidence of the drug’s ineffectiveness (see M. R. Mehra et al. Lancet 395, 1820; 2020). The World Health Organization subsequently declared that, according to the available data, hydroxychloroquine does not reduce fatality in people hospitalized with COVID-19, nor does it ameliorate symptoms of mild or moderate illness.

Despite these developments, Panama has since purchased 2,900,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine and 450,000 doses of ivermectin, to be distributed as part of a self-treatment kit to people self-isolating with the virus.