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Ron Johnson takes 2 covid conspiracy theories from fever swamps to Fox News prime time

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) heads to the Senate floor for a vote on Capitol Hill in August. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Monday night, the conversation turned to what could have been done differently to prevent the 700,000 coronavirus deaths we’ve seen so far.

In the course of discussing that, though, the two of them reinforced one of the bigger problems with stomping out the virus: specious conspiracy theories flowing up from the fever swamps of the Internet and social media through a U.S. senator on one of the most popular cable news shows.

Johnson’s brief appearance on Carlson’s show was the latest case study in their service as uniquely prominent vectors for coronavirus misinformation and innuendo — conspiracy theories that could very logically diminish the use of the most effective tool we have against the virus, vaccines.

The interview began with Johnson elevating something that, until Monday night, hadn’t really reared its head in reputable news outlets: the idea that ivermectin is being suppressed in favor of other, suspiciously similar and more-expensive treatments.

This began cropping up recently with news that Pfizer is testing an antiviral drug to treat the coronavirus — a drug the conspiracy theories have derided as “Pfizermectin” as if it were just repackaged ivermectin. Similar theories began cropping up last week when Merck announced its new drug, molnupiravir, was 50 percent effective in preventing death and hospitalization in covid-19 patients.

In making his case, Johnson even adopted the derisive name that has been ascribed to molnupiravir: “moneypiravir.”

“The doctors’ groups that I’m dealing with — they call it ‘moneypiravir,’ ” Johnson said. “Now Merck, by the way, invented or they patented ivermectin. They’ve been trash-talking ivermectin in favor now of this drug that’ll be like $700 a dose, vs. ivermectin [which] costs about six or seven cents a pill.”

I did some reporting on these theories last week, but decided they hadn’t really penetrated the mainstream enough to be worth elevating. (This is a constant choice journalists have to make when covering misinformation.) But, lo and behold, they’ve now been given a grand stage thanks to two people with histories of providing exactly that for such theories.

The most important thing to emphasize here is that, yes, Merck is pursuing a more-expensive drug over a drug that it also manufactures, but — and this is crucial — that less-expensive drug continues to be unproven to actually treat the coronavirus. Ivermectin is not recommended by either the FDA or its manufacturer to treat covid-19.

What is ivermectin, and how did people get the idea that it can treat covid?

Some studies have suggested some efficacy, but a number of them had significant problems — one was even withdrawn — and other, more robust ones have shown little to no impact. A big study of several drugs in Brazil recently found ivermectin had “no effect whatsoever on our primary outcomes,” one of its leading researchers said. Even one of the most prominent promoters of ivermectin has effectively admitted to overselling the drug in his congressional testimony.

For this to be a conspiracy, it would need to be established that ivermectin had been accepted as a valid and effective treatment, as the study suggests for Merck’s new drug; that is simply not the case. Ivermectin is not recommended by either the FDA or its manufacturer to treat covid-19.

What is ivermectin, and how did people get the idea that it can treat covid?

As for the theories about the Pfizer drug effectively being repackaged ivermectin? Those are even more far-flung. The right-wing blog Zero Hedge, which has been kicked off Twitter for spreading coronavirus misinformation, got the ball rolling with a piece titled, “Pfizer Launches Final Study For COVID Drug That’s Suspiciously Similar To 'Horse Paste.’ ” The piece seized upon the Pfizer drug being described as a protease inhibitor, suggesting that was what ivermectin did with the coronavirus. Both the Associated Press and PolitiFact have fact-checked this comparison as false.

“Ivermectin’s activity, against the protease is by chance and not what it was designed to do,” Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told me last week, “whereas Pfizer’s drug was created to specifically target the protease of this virus and wasn’t based on ivermectin, but based on the knowledge of the protease and the potential benefit of blocking it.”

Johnson didn’t elevate this particular theory, but it’s very much in line with the new Merck theory. And you can bet both will live a long life in the efforts to question the necessity of the available, proven treatments for covid-19.

Johnson didn’t stop there when it came to undercutting those effective treatments, though. When Carlson sought to bring the interview to an end, Johnson asked for a forum to make one additional, conspiratorial point.

“These [vaccine] mandates are driven by the bait-and-switch of the [Food and Drug Administration] that we now have an approved vaccine,” Johnson said. “We do not have an approved vaccine in America. They did it for the Comirnaty. It’s available, I guess, in Europe, but the Pfizer vaccine available in the U.S. is not FDA approved; it’s got an emergency use authorization.”

This, yet again, is a theory generally reserved for those social media fever swamps. It’s also been debunked, including in this space in late August. Essentially, there are regulatory reasons the Pfizer vaccine has been rebranded as “Comirnaty” for its full FDA authorization but the old label is still being used under an emergency use authorization (EUA). But it’s the same formulation as the existing Pfizer vaccine, meaning we do in fact have a fully approved vaccine in America.

From that piece:

Some of these claims are rather inscrutable. But they boil down to the idea that the FDA has engaged in a bait-and-switch. While it fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that will be marketed under the name Comirnaty, the FDA also extended the emergency-use authorization for the same vaccine under the existing name.
Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Public Health, noted that the existing Pfizer vaccines that have been produced and purchased can’t legally be overlabeled with the Comirnaty branding, even as they are the same thing.
“That’s why there may be, for some time, EUA Pfizer doses in use before [fully authorized] Comirnaty becomes more widely available,” Beyrer said. “This is standard, nothing unusual, and [it] does not void an EUA.”
This is something largely relegated to the extremes of the vaccine-skeptic community. But it’s catching on. And the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine — which is actually, literally that — means we’ll start seeing more entities mandating the vaccine. And that means those who have fought those mandates will need something to explain their opposition to mandating a fully authorized vaccine in a country where that is commonplace.

At that point and even when Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler and others later fact-checked this claim, the theory was indeed being pushed almost exclusively by some of those extreme vaccine skeptics on social media. Then it largely died down. But now twice in recent days, Johnson has pushed some version of it on Fox News, giving it new life.

Perhaps that progression says something about why so many people are opting not to take the thing that is by far the most proven way to prevent adding to those 700,000 deaths.