The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How those ivermectin conspiracy theories convinced people to buy horse dewormer

Ivermectin has been injected into the political narrative as a potential wonder drug to treat covid-19. (Denis Farrell/AP)

For much of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump and his allies pushed an unproven drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a potential wonder drug to defeat the virus. It never panned out.

But many of the same people and organizations were apparently unchastened by that experience. Slowly over the past nine months, they have injected another supposed potential wonder drug into the political bloodstream: ivermectin.

Months later, there is still no good evidence to back them up. And it has culminated in the Food and Drug Administration warning people who are apparently desperate (but for some reason are unwilling to get a much-more tested vaccine) against buying a version of the drug meant for deworming livestock, after people did just that.

Not that any of ivermectin’s adherents will be convinced by that. It’s all, apparently, part of the conspiracy.

The story of how ivermectin slowly worked its way to the top of the priority list for many on the right is a familiar one in this day and age. Despite highly effective vaccines being available, the government’s lack of an endorsement of ivermectin is pitched as it not looking out for those it’s supposed to protect — a conspiratorial money grab, even. Feeding into the conspiratorial claims are Big Tech’s efforts to censor those who make the kind of unproven claims about the drug that have reportedly led to people buying up horse and cow dewormer.

The seeds for this were planted early, before most Americans were probably aware that ivermectin was even being studied as a potential coronavirus treatment.

To be clear, it’s possible ivermectin has some clinical benefits in treating the coronavirus. It’s just that the data is highly inconclusive — and some of the most oft-cited studies in favor of the drug have holes in them. The journal Nature has a good rundown on all of it. So does another piece on Salon.

Basically, the drug has been prescribed widely in poorer countries, especially those in Latin America searching for an easy and cheap coronavirus treatment in the absence of widespread vaccination efforts. Some studies have suggested some efficacy, but most involve extremely limited sample sizes and methodologies that are hardly ideal. One of the most oft-cited studies was done by scientists supporting the use of the drug, while another in Egypt was withdrawn by its publisher last month over concerns about plagiarism and suspect data.

A study done in Argentina last year is the other big one claiming significant benefits. But data revealed earlier this month from a robust study of ivermectin and other drugs in Brazil show, according to Edward Mills of McMaster University in Canada, “no effect whatsoever on our primary outcomes” for ivermectin.

“So in our specific trial … we do not see the treatment benefits that a lot of advocates believe there should have been,” Mills told a symposium.

Elevated by social media and right-wing pundits and politicians, the drug is not recommended by either the FDA or its manufacturer to treat covid-19. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Even if you just treat this as an unanswered question, though, the endorsements of the drug in conservative media have often gone way beyond the evidence. They’ve pitched ivermectin as a bona fide treatment, despite most scientists, the FDA, the World Health Organization and other prominent groups continuing to discourage its use.

Perhaps chief among the earliest, most high-profile proponents was Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who pitched the drug long before many in conservative media or even on Fox itself joined her.

On Dec. 1, Ingraham welcomed a doctor who had advised Trump and claimed social distancing and quarantining don’t work. He mentioned the drug alongside hydroxychloroquine as having been “very successful and very safely used in most of the world.”

A week later, then-Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) hosted a controversial hearing featuring, among his witnesses, two doctors who advocated for ivermectin. Johnson claimed at the hearing that the information his witnesses provided was being censored on social media.

That was kibble for conservative media. The next day, Ingraham floated a conspiracy theory that rears its head to this day: the idea that drugs like ivermectin are being suppressed as coronavirus treatments because they are too cheap — or even that they would jeopardize the emergency approvals of the vaccines.

“I think we know now — and looking at the language — that in order to get emergency use authorization for these vaccines, it can’t be that there are safe therapeutics that show effectiveness against this particular virus,” Ingraham said, while mentioning ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

“That’s one of the requirements for the emergency use provision. What we are saying … is that there was a campaign — a concerted campaign — to vilify and dismiss and demean, and, frankly, lie about it, the effectiveness of these drugs. There’s nothing else to call it.”

This theory would soon be enunciated more directly. And all along the way, ivermectin was treated as a bona fide treatment — not just something with potential promise.

On Feb. 2, Ingraham returned to the drug and explicitly endorsed it as being “good to take.”

“You have hydroxychloroquine, which of course got political and totally maligned, ivermectin, vitamin D, zinc — all of it’s good to take,” Ingraham said.

On Feb. 12, Ingraham mentioned “ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and emerging antivirals and therapeutics that provide enormous benefit.”

By March 8, she pitched these drugs as being “used around the world to reduce covid hospitalizations and deaths.”

That month, though, the FDA intervened. It expanded its guidance recommending against ivermectin, saying it had “not reviewed data to support” its use. Ingraham pitched this as an “embarrassing admission,” as if the FDA were completely incurious about the treatment. The language, though, was pretty standard: The FDA simply hadn’t yet seen anything to change its view.

The segment was also used as an occasion to re-up the suppression conspiracy theory. A doctor who has pushed ivermectin, Pierre Kory, claimed there was a “mountain of evidence” in ivermectin’s favor, adding, “Could it be that it removes the EUA [emergency use authorization] for the vaccines? That’s possible.”

The theory came up again multiple times in future weeks and months, with Ingraham at one point calling it “criminal” and claiming, without evidence, that, “We lost hundreds of thousands of people just because they would not allow any kind of over-the-counter generic use of drugs that were already approved.”

What’s interesting about all of this time period is that, while Ingraham was pushing all of it, this supposedly major scandal wasn’t of huge interest to Fox’s news side, which only occasionally ran stories about the evidence on ivermectin. Even other Fox opinion and prime time hosts weren’t really on the case.

That began to change in the summer, when social media again censored promoters like Sen. Johnson and Bret Weinstein. Johnson brought up the situation on Sean Hannity’s show in early June. Tucker Carlson did so in late June. Will Cain said it was “has been called, at least by some doctors, a miracle drug.” Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo claimed it was “incredibly effective in treating covid” and nodded to the conspiracy theory, saying “it’s off-patent, the pharmaceutical companies are not making any money on it.”

Things snowballed from there. Despite the Egypt study being pulled in mid-July, the Wall Street Journal later that month ran an op-ed that played up the study — before issuing a correction. The issue has been played up by the likes of the Epoch Times and others appealing to conspiracy-minded Trump allies.

What’s perhaps most striking about the injection of ivermectin into this debate is how relatively few people were behind it — and how much they’ve been able to stretch a campaign with relatively little support into the political mainstream.

The medical experts pushing it on TV are often the same few, with little evidence of them winning any converts. The news sides of conservative outlets haven’t really dug into these supposed conspiracy theories or even done much to play up the more favorable studies for the drug; they’ve instead focused overwhelmingly on criticizing Big Tech for censorship. Johnson hasn’t, despite months of pushing this line, tempted his GOP congressional colleagues to join him in this fight for ivermectin. And even if you acknowledge that there are open questions about whether it could be effective, the claims about it have often gone well beyond anything amounting to the scientific consensus.

But for perhaps obvious reasons, it’s proven irresistible to theorize about Big Brother depriving people of a treatment, despite the fact that we already have a very good and free preventive measure available. It’s just not a theory that any of its adherents have actually legitimized, and it’s now led to people buying up livestock dewormer for personal use.

It’s possible to oversell just how many people have taken this drastic and ill-advised step; it’s also possible to recognize the concerted campaign that got us to the point where such things are worth being concerned about.