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Opinion Reuters botches article on ivermectin and omicron

(Mike Stewart/AP)

No, a Japanese company did not find that ivermectin was “effective” against the omicron variant in a clinical trial, as Reuters originally reported on Monday. The wire service was forced to correct the article.

The actual news, as the current version of the article reads, is that ivermectin carries an “‘antiviral effect’ against Omicron and other coronavirus variants in joint nonclinical research.”

The difference between the two versions couldn’t be more dramatic: The mistaken version claimed that ivermectin was effective against omicron in humans; the corrected version claimed that ivermectin showed “antiviral” capabilities against omicron in test tubes. Reuters attributed the news to Kowa Co. Ltd., a Japanese pharmaceutical company.

The antiviral capabilities of ivermectin against SARS-CoV-2 in a test-tube environment are not a matter of breaking news: Research dating to 2020 showed that “a single dose of ivermectin was able to reduce the replication of an Australian isolate of SARS-CoV-2 in Vero/hSLAM cells by 5000-fold.” There were many reasons, however, for skepticism about how that finding would carry over into real-life treatment.

But ivermectin has remained in the spotlight thanks to boosters such as Joe Rogan, Spotify’s star podcaster who is currently dealing with a backlash over his covid commentary. Rogan told his audience in September that ivermectin was among the drugs he’d taken after testing positive for the coronavirus. Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug that comes in both animal and human formulations, and the Food and Drug Administration has counseled against its use against covid, though some doctors have prescribed the human version for this purpose.

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Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that if the original test-tube studies on ivermectin are believed to predict clinical benefit, it’s not surprising that the drug would have test-tube “activity” against omicron. That said, it’s of “some interest whether ivermectin has test tube activity against omicron,” he writes via email.

It’s certainly of interest to ivermectin boosters:

Reuters says it hustled to set the record straight: “The original Reuters story misstated that ivermectin was ‘effective’ against Omicron in Phase III clinical trials, which are conducted in humans. We corrected this to clarify it had an ‘antiviral effect’ against Omicron and it was shown in joint nonclinical research. After being made aware of the error, we corrected our story immediately.”

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The Erik Wemple Blog asked Reuters about the newsworthiness of the story in its corrected incarnation. “We misinterpreted the Kowa announcement and corrected our story promptly to accurately reflect what the company said with the appropriate context,” responded a Reuters spokesperson.

We don’t doubt Reuters’s diligence in correcting itself; we doubt only how effective it’ll be. The mistaken report, after all, landed in a country where poison control centers last year were beset by an increase in ivermectin overdose calls — the byproduct of one strain of covid hype/misinformation.

Look for that machine to roar once more, perhaps by claiming that Reuters had it right the first time. Early Tuesday morning, host Mike Dinow of One America News (OAN) told viewers: “A top Japanese drugmaker confirms ivermectin is highly efficient in fighting covid-19 and the omicron strain. According to Nagoya-based Kowa Co., phase III clinical trials have confirmed ivermectin has a strong antiviral effect in human beings, in human patients.” The finding, said Dinow, “further disproves mainstream media attacks on ivermectin.”