The pandemic years have shown the best of humanity: heroic devotion to duty, ordinary people pulling together for the common good, and giant scientific leaps. But the dark side of that coin has been a cavalcade of cruelty, selfishness and stupidity, as well as enough pseudoscience to occupy skeptics for decades.
On that note, let’s talk ivermectin.
Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug. It’s used to treat ailments like river blindness, a nasty parasitic infection spread by blackfly bites. It’s also used to deworm livestock and pets. It’s been dubbed a “wonder drug” because of how many diseases it cures, and its discoverers, Satoshi Omura and William Campbell, won the Nobel Prize in 2015. But the story of how it came to be seen as a cure for COVID-19 is a tangled tale.
In the early days of the pandemic, when scientists were testing anything and everything, some lab studies suggested that ivermectin blocks replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Excitement began to build when followup trials showed a dramatic improvement in survival among patients who were given the drug.
However, those studies soon came crashing down in disgrace. One early trial, which showed that ivermectin reduced death rates by 90% (!), was withdrawn after a report arguing that the data showed clear signs of being fabricated. Another ivermectin study was pulled after it was found to be based on suspicious data from Surgisphere, the same fly-by-night operation whose dubious data ruined a trial of hydroxychloroquine.
There have been a few other studies reporting positive effects, but they’re all far too small to draw any sweeping conclusions. Moreover, the amount of ivermectin that inhibits the virus in a test tube is far higher than any dose that would be feasible or safe to give a human:
An important controversial point to consider in any rationale is the 5 µM required concentration to reach the anti-SARS-CoV-2 action of ivermectin observed in vitro, which is much higher than 0.28 µM, the maximum reported plasma concentration achieved in vivo with a dose of approximately 1700 µg/kg (about nine times the FDA-approved dosification).
The dose makes the poison, and that’s as true for viruses as it is for human beings. As Dr. Benhur Lee on Salon points out, even salt blocks viral replication in sufficient concentration, but that doesn’t mean eating salty foods prevents COVID.
But although these studies were disproven, the damage was done. Fox hosts and other outlets of the right-wing griftersphere latched onto ivermectin – following Trump’s belief that there just had to be some miracle cure to make the pandemic disappear – and COVID truthers swiftly followed suit.
Because ivermectin hasn’t proven its worth as a treatment for coronavirus, ethical doctors won’t prescribe it. Instead, people are buying up livestock versions of the drug from farm-supply stores. It comes as an injectable liquid, a topical solution (a.k.a. “sheep drench“), or an edible paste (“Apple flavor that horses love!“).
So many people are buying it that ivermectin is flying off the shelves. Farm-supply stores across the country have sold out their stock. America’s Frontline Doctors, a group of right-wing quacks (you may remember them because of Dr. Stella Immanuel, the demon-sperm lady) is also “prescribing” it for anyone who wants it. Their website asks visitors which drug they’re seeking, which is a good indicator of their level of clinical rigor.
Of course, whether or not ivermectin does anything for COVID, the problem is that the safe dose for a thousand-pound horse or cow is very different from the safe dose for a human. Ignorant people who buy livestock drugs for their own use are guessing wildly about how much to take, or blindly relying on advice from strangers on the internet.
And in megadoses, it isn’t harmless. People taking the drug have complained about side effects from diarrhea to blindness, and some have been hospitalized. Poison-control centers have reported a surge in calls from people sickened by ivermectin. It’s gotten so bad that the FDA sent this message from their official Twitter account:
You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it. https://t.co/TWb75xYEY4
— U.S. FDA (@US_FDA) August 21, 2021
Most importantly, people who rely on ivermectin aren’t getting real treatment. Phil Valentine, the right-wing radio host, touted it as a therapy. So was Caleb Wallace, an anti-mask, anti-lockdown organizer from Texas. So was Joe Manning, an anti-vax police officer from Georgia. All of them ended up dying of COVID.
In fact, entire countries are handing out ivermectin: Peru, Guatemala and Bolivia among others. To be fair, most of them haven’t had as much access to vaccines as the U.S., and their health authorities acknowledge the evidence is slim. But the danger is that people who mistakenly believe the drug will keep them from getting sick may not take precautions that are actually useful.
Developing countries aside, it’s massively ironic that so many American conservatives distrust the proven cure for COVID – a vaccine that’s safe, effective and free – in favor of guzzling sheep dip or choking down horse paste. They’ve adopted a perverse anti-scientific method, in which they reject treatments that pass double-blind tests (because that means they’re being pushed by the sinister conspiracy of doctors and liberals) and instead clamor for drugs that fail the tests (because that must mean Big Pharma is covering them up!!).
To restate the obvious: Scientists and doctors have no reason to cover up anything that treats COVID! To the contrary, hospitals are losing money from it (because they make most of their money from elective surgeries that had to be canceled), and doctors and nurses are overworked, exhausted and burned out. Nothing would make them happier than bringing the pandemic to a swift end.
In fact, we’re still rolling out new treatments, and not just vaccines. Studies suggest that fluvoxamine, an off-the-shelf antidepressant, could be an effective drug for COVID. Another cheap generic, dexamethasone, became part of the standard protocol when it was found to improve survival. There are larger, better-designed studies in progress for ivermectin, and it’s not impossible that they’ll find a modest benefit.
But there’s no hope of convincing COVID deniers that they should trust science and let the process play out. They’ve collapsed into a singularity of ignorant rage, light-years beyond the reach of reason, logic or evidence. They’re convinced that they know better than doctors and medical researchers, and many of them will take that certainty to their graves.