By PIEN HUANG
Through July and August, Julie Smith watched her husband, Jeffrey, get worse and worse from COVID-19. In early July, the healthy outdoorsman, 51, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Within a week, he was admitted to the intensive care unit at a hospital near their home in the suburbs of Cincinnati.
The hospital treated him with antiviral drugs, convalescent plasma and steroids, but he continued to decline. Weeks later he was on a ventilator in a medically induced coma — “on death’s doorstep,” Julie Smith wrote in a legal complaint filed Aug. 20.
Smith felt the hospital had given up on her husband, but she could not, according to the complaint. After doing research on the internet, she sued the hospital to require it to treat her husband with ivermectin — an inexpensive anti-parasitic drug that’s been used to cure animals and people from worms and lice since the 1980s.
U.S. health authorities and most doctors do not recommend using it to prevent or treat COVID-19, citing a lack of clear evidence on whether the drug works. Yet myths and beliefs around the drug have taken on a life of their own, fueled by a small group of doctors whose views diverge from the medical consensus, by right-wing commentators and by internet groups where people share tips on sourcing and dosing.
That people such as Smith and a handful of other families of COVID-19 patients are turning to the courts to enforce treatment with the drug shows how heated the debate over ivermectin has come to be in the United States.
“There’s misinformation on both sides,” says Jennifer Granston, head of insights at Zignal Labs, a firm that conducts data analysis on internet trends. She cited inflated, unsubstantiated claims of both the drug’s efficacy and its harms. “At the end of the day, does this medication help COVID patients or does it not? That’s a scientific issue.”
How did a science question about the efficacy of an inexpensive, everyday drug become an inflamed public morality debate — where people on both sides believe the wrong position could cost lives? It’s a tale that spans science and politics, pitting health officials against celebrities and communal responsibilities against individual rights.
And it’s a debate that public health experts worry could prolong the pandemic as individuals forgo vaccines and proven prevention measures and instead take up alternative treatments that may not be effective.