From wonder drug to horse pill: Media, FDA inflame social panic on ivermectin

For an industry supposedly devoted to attacking misinformation, our national media certainly seems happy to indulge it for their own narratives. People have offered anecdotal testimony for the last several months about the drug ivermectin and its supposed efficacy on treating acute infections of COVID-19. Ivermectin has not undergone testing for that purpose, nor is it known as an anti-viral, which makes it a lot more experimental than the vaccines.

It doesn’t make ivermectin a drug that “is generally used to treat or prevent parasites in animals such as horses” either, though. And yet media outlets like NBC News feel the need to distort ivermectin’s long history of Nobel Prize-winning applications for human beings just to score points off of … Joe Rogan?

Rogan, host of the immensely popular Spotify podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience,” posted a video to Instagram explaining he tested positive for the coronavirus following his return from a live show Saturday. He said he had “fevers and sweats” and that he “threw the kitchen sink” at the illness.

His treatments included monoclonal antibodies and ivermectin, Rogan said. Ivermectin, which is not an anti-viral drug, is generally used to treat or prevent parasites in animals such as horses.

To be fair, the FDA pushed that narrative first:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month urged people to stop believing misinformation claiming the livestock treatment would help cure Covid, saying it saw multiple reports of patients who have been hospitalized after “self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.”

Finally, after the jump, NBC admits that ivermectin is not merely a “livestock treatment” after the FDA hit reverse:

The agency clarified that FDA-approved ivermectin tablets meant to treat people with certain conditions caused by parasitic worms as well as topical formulations used for head lice and skin conditions like rosacea are different from the drug used on animals. Ivermectin tablets and topical formulations for humans have “very specific doses” that are significantly smaller than the doses meant for animals.

So why keep the reference to “animals such as horses” in the second paragraph?

Let’s put aside the specific application in this case and focus on the drug itself. The Nobel committee awarded its inventors (William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura) its prize for science in 2015 for discovering ivermectin and its range of applications for humans, making it into a modern miracle drug (via Katie Pavlich):

William C. Campbell, an expert in parasite biology working in the USA, acquired Ōmura’s Streptomyces cultures and explored their efficacy. Campbell showed that a component from one of the cultures was remarkably efficient against parasites in domestic and farm animals. The bioactive agent was purified and named Avermectin, which was subsequently chemically modified to a more effective compound called Ivermectin. Ivermectin was later tested in humans with parasitic infections and effectively killed parasite larvae (microfilaria) (Figure 3). Collectively, Ōmura and Campbell’s contributions led to the discovery of a new class of drugs with extraordinary efficacy against parasitic diseases. …

The discoveries of Avermectin and Artemisinin have fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases. Today the Avermectin-derivative Ivermectin is used in all parts of the world that are plagued by parasitic diseases. Ivermectin is highly effective against a range of parasites, has limited side effects and is freely available across the globe. The importance of Ivermectin for improving the health and wellbeing of millions of individuals with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, primarily in the poorest regions of the world, is immeasurable. Treatment is so successful that these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind. Malaria infects close to 200 million individuals yearly. Artemisinin is used in all Malaria-ridden parts of the world. When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. For Africa alone, this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year.

The discoveries of Avermectin and Artemisinin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Campbell, Ōmura and Tu have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable.

Clearly ivermectin isn’t just a “livestock medicine,” despite the characterizations of it we see now in the media. It’s a crucial and important medicine for hundreds of millions of human beings around the world, especially those who live in parasite-ridden environments. The media’s seizure of this initial characterization from the FDA is irresponsible, and even a little bit of research would have shown that narrative to be ridiculously false. Even if one quibbles about dosage, anyone who has had to be on medications knows that dosage is scalable depending on the circumstances, acuteness, and so on.

Now, does that make it an effective treatment against COVID-19? No, and since its classification is anti-parasitic, it doesn’t even necessarily suggest a connection. Even if the few anecdotal reports of success have merit, it would take a larger scientific study to determine whether the improvements were causative or merely correlative. Not only do we not have that data, from current indications no one is even suggesting we should do such a study, not even the manufacturer of ivermectin.

Furthermore, we do have tested and established ways to deal with COVID-19. We have three approved vaccines in use in the US, plus we have monoclonal antibody treatments available — which Rogan is also employing to deal with his acute infection. One could understand individuals and a few doctors experimenting with treatments when we had no tested and effective treatments available to deal with an explosive pandemic. That’s no longer the case, and we should be emphasizing the use of what we know works rather than take flyers on medicines that haven’t been demonstrated effective against any viruses, let alone COVID-19 in particular.

In other words — get vaccinated. If you get a breakthrough infection anyway, get monoclonal antibody treatment as soon as possible. Stick to what we already know is effective. That’s the responsible approach to personal health in this pandemic.

In the meantime, though, perhaps the media should take the responsible approach of reporting facts rather than stoking hysteria. And perhaps we need some adults at the FDA as well.

Update: Numerous people pointed out to me on Twitter that people are buying the livestock version of ivermectin, with significantly higher dosage than generally considered therapeutic in humans. I’d argue that this doesn’t necessarily mean that people are consuming that dosage; they could be splitting the pills, an approach used in regular human meds too. I don’t know how Rogan’s using the medicine or what dosage he’s ingesting, and I daresay that NBC didn’t bother to ask before reporting that he’s taking a “livestock medicine.” Did they even confirm that Rogan was sourcing his ivermectin from veterinary sources?

Either way, it’s generally a bad idea to take prescription meds without a doctor’s supervision, especially meds that aren’t tested against whatever condition you’re trying to address, regardless of the dosage or the condition. That said, dismissing ivermectin as just a veterinary medicine to “pwn Rogan” is simply inaccurate, inflammatory, and irresponsible.