Ivermectin advocates push online for using unproven covid drug
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By Fiona Rutherford, Daniel Zuidijk, Naomi Nix
When Catherine Moring, president of Mississippi's Public Health Association, tested positive for Covid-19, she turned to ivermectin to keep her safe.
Federal health officials warn that improper dosing of ivermectin, often used for worms in domestic animals, can cause nausea, dizziness, seizures, coma and even death. Moring, however, preferred information from newsletters, social media and podcasts like one by Joe Rogan, the No. 1 Spotify commentator, who took the antiparisitic for his own infection. Moring, an unvaccinated 37-year-old dietitian, also read research papers and spoke to doctors she knew.
"When dosed appropriately and given under the care of a physician it's one of the safest drugs on the market," Moring said. "People are getting Covid and they're getting scared and they think more is better -- and that's why it's getting a bad rap."
Even though Moring personally supports use of the drug, the Mississippi Public Health Association itself cautions against treating ivermectin with Covid.
"Ivermectin is not an anti-viral (a drug for treating viruses)," according to the website. "The FDA has NOT approved it for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans."
In an echo of the controversy over hydroxychloroquine, the antiparasitic drug touted as a Covid "game-changer" by former President Donald Trump, ivermectin has become a lightning rod in the Covid culture wars. Despite safety concerns and a rash of poisonings, it's been promoted by fringe groups, celebrity hype and social media.
As recently as Thursday, ivermectin came up during public comments at a CDC advisory meeting on vaccine boosters. "If you truly cared about public health, you would recommend ivermectin for treatment and prevention protocols, and stop the propaganda against this drug," said Brian A. Wilkins, who runs a site called "The COVID Blog."
In the meantime, Covid vaccination efforts have high-profile doubters such as rapper Nicky Minaj, who tweeted that her cousin's friend suffered genital swelling after a shot. White House Covid adviser Anthony Fauci responded on CNN that she should be "thinking twice about propagating information that really has no basis except a one-off anecdote."
Moring, who is executive director of a wellness center at Tallahatchie General Hospital in the town of Charleston, said she isn't against inoculations in general, but believes Covid vaccines present unnecessary risks. She went to a group called Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance for help getting an ivermectin prescription.
"I've had a lot of friends take it, because Covid is everywhere right now," Moring said. "I felt very comfortable with the studies that I've read."
Millions of Americans are following the same path. Outpatient ivermectin prescriptions rose more than 24-fold from prepandemic levels to 88,000 a week in the seven days ending Aug. 13. There have been about 1.2 million retail prescriptions written this year for the drug, compared with 340,000 in 2020, according to data provider Symphony Health.
Ivermectin is typically used to treat roundworm infections in both humans and livestock. Advocates point out that William Campbell and Satoshi Omura won a Nobel Prize for discovering the treatment.
It "led to the eradication of a 'pandemic' of parasitic diseases across multiple continents," Front Line says on its website.
Some studies have shown the drug can reduce viral load, according to University of Oxford researchers investigating it in a large trial. But many studies show ivermectin's benefits for Covid patients are small and lack good evidence, according to a recent review by the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group, which evaluates medical practices.
Merck & Co., one of ivermectin's makers, didn't respond to a request for comment. The company said in February that there was no scientific basis for treating Covid with ivermectin. The World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency also recommend using it only in clinical trials for Covid treatment.
Some people unable to get prescriptions are taking animal formulations. Ivermectin sales and poisonings have soared in tandem, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned on Twitter: "You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it."
Moring said she consulted the website ivmmeta.com, which offers a "real-time meta analysis of 63 studies" of ivermectin's use in early Covid treatment. The site is run by an anonymous group of researchers identified by the Twitter handle @covidanalysis. Twitter suspended the account last year for violating the platform's rules.
Rogan, whose podcast reaches some 11 million listeners, said ivermectin was one of several treatments -- including monoclonal antibodies, an antibiotic, and a steroid -- that he took. Instagram labeled a video he made touting ivermectin, warning that unapproved Covid-19 treatments may cause serious harm.
Many social media outlets continue to battle misinformation. Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog, found 54 Facebook pages touting the drug for Covid. Some were taken down after the report, but 37 remain active.
"Facebook has repeatedly struggled to enforce their policies against Covid-19 misinformation," said Media Matters Associate Research Director Kayla Gogarty. "There's dozens of anti-mask groups, there's still dozens of anti-vaccine groups, and now we have these ivermectin-focused groups that are still on the platform and gaining members."
Facebook removes content that enables users to buy, sell, or donate ivermectin, according to a spokesperson. Twitter and TikTok also said they're combatting misinformation about treatments. Twitter often labels misleading claims about the efficacy or safety of unapproved Covid-19 medicine. Reddit, a social-media forum, has also restricted access to a section featuring discussion of ivermectin.
TikTok has gone further, prohibiting posts that promote ivermectin as a Covid cure. However, some posters get around the restrictions, sometimes just by avoiding mentioning the drug by name.
Mississippi has the highest Covid death rate in the country, at 313 per 100,000 residents. It's one of the least-vaccinated U.S. states, with less than 47% of the population covered, according to Bloomberg's Vaccine Tracker.
Moring said she initially avoided shots because pregnant women were excluded from vaccine trials. "It just made me a little nervous," she said.
Although the CDC has since concluded that Covid vaccines pose little risk to pregnant and nursing women, Moring maintains her position.
"The argument of help your neighbor, be a good citizen just made no sense to me from the very beginning," she said. "I just think we don't know the long-term effects of it."
When asked why the FDA and CDC warned against ivermectin, Moring said it comes down to money. She pointed to the $3.2 billion the administration is devoting to developing new antivirals.
"But we already have one. It's just that there's no money in it," Moring said, echoing a common conspiracy theory that the government is working with big pharma companies to maximize profits. "Ivermectin is about as cheap as it comes."