How a little-known drug used to treat livestock and some parasitic conditions in humans became the Covid medication of choice for those reluctant to take a vaccine.
For more than a year, questionable claims that a drug called ivermectin is effective at treating the coronavirus have run rampant online and across right-wing media. But even as the medical establishment rejects these claims, demand for ivermectin has skyrocketed. I spoke with my colleague Emma Goldberg about how this little-known drug that’s widely used to treat livestock became the Covid treatment of choice for many Americans reluctant to take the vaccine.
It’s Monday, October 4.
Emma, full disclosure, I’ve been basically begging The Daily team to let me do an episode on the ivermectin story for months now, and I’m so interested in this story because, A: It’s a story about people doing weird stuff on the internet, which is sort of my wheelhouse. And B: It seems to be this like, strangely durable story. Like, I thought that people would sort of stop talking about ivermectin like they stopped talking about other Covid miracle treatments, but it seems like ivermectin is still very present.Emma Goldberg
Yeah, I mean, it certainly hasn’t gone away. I’ve been talking with doctors in recent weeks who told me that every day, they have patients begging them for ivermectin. I’ve been talking with people at poison control centers who said they’ve been getting way more than the usual number of calls from people overdosing on ivermectin. And recently, we’re seeing reporting that veterinarians are, in some cases, having trouble accessing ivermectin because people are taking the livestock version. The frenzy has continued to build, and it strangely hasn’t gone away, even as public health officials are begging people not to take the drug.Kevin Roose
So just to back up, what is ivermectin?Emma Goldberg
Ivermectin is an antiparasitic. It emerged in the 1970s, mostly to deworm animals. It’s given to horses and other livestock. Then, later, scientists found that it could also be used for humans to treat things like scabies, lice, river blindness, and the scientists who made that discovery actually won a Nobel Prize for their work in 2015.Kevin Roose
And how did ivermectin get tangled up in the discussion about Covid treatments?Emma Goldberg
So it really started early on in the pandemic, and this was before the days when we had vaccines when doctors were really desperate for anything that might offer a potential cure for patients with Covid. This was a time when the hospitals were overwhelmed. People just did not know how to confront this novel disease, and they were sort of throwing a lot of different things at the wall to see what stuck. And that was when you got some people latching on to ivermectin. And you got some doctors and scientists starting to ask, well, is there a possibility that we can give this to human patients and it can prevent them from either getting Covid in the first place, or from experiencing the worst possible conditions of the disease?Kevin Roose
And what is making people think that ivermectin might actually be effective against Covid?Emma Goldberg
So there was an early study, and that was in spring 2020 in Australia, that showed in vitro — meaning, in a lab, not on human patients — that ivermectin could potentially prevent coronavirus from replicating. The problem was scientists and doctors were hesitant to extrapolate anything from that because they thought you would probably have to give ivermectin at such high doses that it would be extremely risky. So they said, sure, this study looks like it could be promising in a test tube, but we don’t know that we can take that much from it in terms of what could be useful for humans.Kevin Roose
So it sounds like this study about ivermectin was somewhat hopeful, but limited. And based on these limitations, it doesn’t sound like this is going to be this silver bullet for controlling the spread of Covid.Emma Goldberg
Right. At this point, we still don’t really know what happens when we give ivermectin to humans for Covid. But that doesn’t stop doctors around the world in India and Egypt and South Africa from just starting to give it to Covid patients anyway to see what happened.