Joe Rogan performing in Pasadena, California in 2019. Photo via Getty Images.
In the summer of 2021, a group of the most vociferous people online put all their energies behind the unproven thesis that ivermectin, a widely-used and effective anti-parasitic, is a cure or treatment for COVID. They were joined by a collection of fringe doctors who stood to gain money and attention from promoting that idea, and together they created a surprisingly durable little bubble, which continues to pop, over and over again, while they studiously pretend it remains intact.
The latest news about ivermectin’s ineffectiveness as a COVID treatment came via the New England Journal of Medicine, which published what’s known as the TOGETHER study, reporting the results of a large clinical trial in Brazil in which 3,515 COVID-positive adults getting treatment at public health clinics were randomly assigned a three-day course of ivermectin, a placebo, or another intervention . The conclusion: Ivermectin did not work to create a “significantly or clinically meaningful lower risk” of hospital admission or “prolonged emergency department observation.” Ivermectin was given early in the course of illness, which ivermectin proponents have always claimed is key to its effectiveness.
This study joins a host of other well-designed clinical studies finding the same thing: Ivermectin doesn’t seem to work to prevent more severe disease. While the National Center of Translational Sciences still has a clinical trial on ivermectin underway, and says it currently can’t recommend for or against the use of the drug to treat COVID, the weight of the existing evidence so far isn’t looking good. Additionally, several studies showing ivermectin’s supposed effectiveness have turned out to be either flawed or outright fraudulent.
All of this puts the people trying to make money and/or gain attention from ivermectin in an awkward spot. The Frontline Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, the main organization loudly promoting ivermectin in the United States, decided to go the straight conspiracy theory route, putting out a press release which dismissed the TOGETHER study as “predetermined to show ivermectin as ineffective” and accusing the study authors of being in bed with Pfizer. They did this by intentionally misreading the study’s own disclosure forms, which state that the drug company Certara has received grants from Pfizer, Merck, Astrazeneca, and other entities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A scientist who works for Certara, Dr. Craig Rayner, is a co-author on the study, but says on his disclosure forms that the money given by Pfizer, Merck and Astrazeneca to Certara was not related to ivermectin research or the TOGETHER study. (One must also point out that if you were trying to cover up a nefarious plot to hop into bed with Pfizer, you probably wouldn’t put it on your disclosure forms.)
To top it off, the FLCCC also released its own “analysis” of the data in which it speculates, among other things, that patients were not given “authentic ivermectin,” because it gave them diarrhea. The FDA says high doses of ivermectin can cause diarrhea.
The TOGETHER study authors predicted blowback from ivermectin advocacy groups. They note in the study appendix that they are expecting criticism of their dosing regimen, “given the public interest in ivermectin and the support of its use by para-medical groups.” But, they say, they actually adapted their study design to respond to the concerns of ivermectin advocacy groups, going from a one-day dose to a three-day regimen using “a relatively high dose compared to most other trials after ensuring the safety of using this extended ivermectin regimen.” That’s not a study designed to fail; if anything, it’s bending over backwards to give ivermectin the best chance to succeed. Meanwhile, the BIRD Group, which is the FLCCC’s British counterpart, is promoting a Twitter thread by a guy named Chris Martenson, who called it “a completely awful study that should not have passed review.” Martenson is an “economic researcher and futurist” who’s also styled himself as a COVID vaccine critic.
Outside the vaguely medical stylings of the FLCCC and the BIRD Group, other ivermectin advocates are also denouncing the study, using an anti-media angle. Robert F. Kennedy’s Jr.’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, claimed the New York Times, which reported on the TOGETHER study, is continuing to “mislead the public.” Dr. Madhava Setty, an anesthesiologist who now works as CHD’s “senior science editor,” also claimed the study was poorly designed and focused instead on the suspicious situation of two major newspapers, the Times and the wall street journal, reporting on a major study. “Here’s a bigger question: Are they just incompetent, or complicit, too?” he wrote.
This leaves, of course, the brain trust of the Intellectual Dark Web, the group of writers who fled to Substack to all share the same extremely dangerous, heterodox, and entirely original opinions over and over. Some of them, like forming Times opinion editor Bari Weiss and trainer RollingStone star reporter Matt Taibbi, haven’t touched ivermectin in quite a while. Both claimed last summer that discussion of ivermectin as a treatment or preventative for COVID was being censored, which Weiss compared to book-burning, while Taibbi said such censorship was driving “the scientific debate itself underground.” None of that was true, then or now; many ivermectin studies were already underway at the time, including the PRINCIPLE study, a mammoth UK-wide project backed by the University of Oxford looking at ivermectin and other treatments; to date it says it has recruited 10,000 participants. Rather than acknowledge the book burning and censorship were perhaps not real, they’ve simply moved on to other concerns and greener, less easily debunked pastures. The same is currently true of Joe Rogan, ivermectin’s most powerful media advocate, who credited the drug with being one of the things that helped him recover quickly from COVID, and who hosted Dr. Pierre Kory of the FLCCC and other vaccine-skeptical and ivermectin -promoting characters like Robert Malone, who claims to have invented mRNA technology.
That leaves Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying, the ex-Evergreen professors, married couple, and co-hosts of the Dark Horse podcast who have made ivermectin advocacy a cornerstone of their work. (Heying has called the “demonization” of ivermectin the “crime of the century.”) Heying and Weinstein extensively discussed the TOGETHER trial during Saturday’s episode of their podcast, denouncing it as poorly designed, suggesting it actually hadn’t been randomized or placebo-controlled (it was), and primarily recommending other people’s potted analyses, including Martenson, the economic researcher, and a site called IVM Meta, a site which claims to be a constantly updating real-time ever-updating meta analysis of ivermectin studies.
As we’ve previously discussed, IVM Meta has some curious traits: it resolves to the same IP address as hcqmeta.com as well as c19legacy.com. HCQMeta uses the same kind of purported real time meta analysis to recommend for the use of hydroxychloroquine. C19 legacy has claimed to count the “unnecessary” deaths caused by doctors not using hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID-19. All of these sites refer physicians to the FLCCC for “treatment protocols” and also promote the World Council for Health, a faux public health consortium that’s made up solely of ivermectin advocacy groups.
Heying and Weinstein also suggested there was something curious or perhaps suspicious about the fact that the New England Journal of Medicine took many months to publish the results, a talking point which is quickly becoming central to critics’ reaction to the trial. The researchers previously shared the results of the trial in an August 2021 presentation to the National Institutes of Health, but the full study wasn’t published by the NEJM until this month. A spokesperson for the journal told the New York Times the editorial process is confidential and they could not comment on the reason for the delay.
“Nothing in this even superficially passes muster,” Weinstein declared, with an air of finality. He claimed, a moment later, that the study was “a conclusion that matched somebody’s desire.”
In addition to their podcast analysis, Weinstein also managed to get into a public, and very entertaining, argument with his own brother about ivermectin and the results of the trial.
Eric Weinstein of Thiel Capital tweeted a link to the study and revealed that he himself is an ivermectin skeptic. “I’ll have more to say at some point, but I really haven’t enjoyed the Ivermectin conversation.,” he wrote. “The *abuse*. Being called cowardly for not supporting Ivermectin as a cure. etc.”
Bret responded to his brother’s disclosure in a wounded manner: “Have you really looked into IVM?,” he wrote, in public, on Twitter. “Are you certain you’re shooting the right direction?” This discussion went on for some time.
Beyond a bunch of people making themselves look foolish online, the human costs of promoting ivermectin at the expense of proven public health interventions like vaccinations and masking have been serious. Advocacy of the drug for COVID led to a surge in calls to poison control and two deaths in New Mexico. Hospital workers have been harassed to provide ivermectin to patients, including to an anti-vaccine QAnon supporter named Veronica Wolski who later died. Ivermectin also generated a massive round of applause at an anti-vaccine march this January, proving its disturbingly lasting appeal among ordinary people.
The final question here, of course, is where the ivermectin promoters, and their trusting followers, will go next, should it continue to reliably be proven useless.
“When it comes right down to it, a lot of the people who are at the hub of being ivermectin influencers are people who are profiting off it,” said Angela Rasmussen; she’s a virologist and adjunct professor at Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, and has kept track of the discussions of various bogus COVID treatments online. “Whether that’s direct patient consumer services or selling anti-vax material.” The refusal to let go of ivermectin makes sense in that light, especially given that, as the Intercept reported, some far-right medical organizations have made millions prescribing unproven treatments like ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine.
If history is any judge, Rasmussen added, these same players will only let go of ivermectin when there’s a new purported wonder drug they can recommend. “Once ivermectin finally loses popularity, it’ll be something else,” she said—likely something that shows promise in in vitro studies but doesn’t bear out in human trials.
In the meantime, Rasmussen is watching promoters of unproven treatments like ivermectin also increasingly focus on other conspiratorial COVID-related ideas, like the still-unproven theory that a “lab leak” caused the first COVID outbreak in Wuhan, China. That, too, is about growing their audience, she said, while the growing is good.
“The simple reason is that a pandemic means there’s a global market for their bullshit,” she said. “And they’re going to cash in while they can.”