Ivermectin: ‘Bogus' or ‘Miracle Drug?'
Newsweek|October 22, 2021
Separating science from politics is tough—especially when the public and politicians are looking over scientists’ shoulders
DAVID H. FREEDMAN

DOWN BUT NOT OUT Based on the data so far, most scientists expect ivermectin to follow hydroxychloroquine into the dustbin of dubious medical claims. Nevertheless, there are still three large, randomized studies of the drug still ongoing, and some experts caution against awaiting those results before ruling it out.

ANDREW HILL KNOWS FIRSTHAND WHAT IT’S like to bring a breakthrough drug to fruition. The pharmacology researcher at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. helped develop antiviral medications for HIV. “You think about helping to save millions of lives,” he says. “It was a wonderful feeling.”

Last year Hill was also excited about ivermectin, a 40-year-old generic drug shown in early laboratory experiments to inhibit the reproduction of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Since ivermectin was already being produced in industrial quantities as a treatment for parasites in people and animals, it could potentially provide a lifeline to thousands of COVID patients struggling for breath in emergency rooms around the world—but only if it proved effective in the clinic, not just in a petri dish.

Some of the early, promising studies were found to be flawed; one clinical trial was halted when the drug showed no benefit. Hill reported that the drug didn’t seem to be living up to its early promise.

The reluctance of Hill and other scientists, doctors and regulators to endorse ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment has since inflamed the political right in the U.S. Conservative pundits have called it a “miracle drug,” and some prominent Republican members of Congress fume that medical experts are in cahoots with Big Pharma to protect their profits from vaccines and other treatments. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has claimed that liberals downplay ivermectin because they are “deranged” by hate for former president Donald Trump.

The reaction of the political left has been near as hyperbolic. The steady rap on ivermectin is that it is a dangerous, fake COVID treatment pursued only by science-denying, vaccine-dodging crackpots. Or as the Los Angeles Times put it in one headline, the drug is a “bogus COVID treatment” and “a darling of conspiracy-mongers.” “That seems to reflect some media bias based on the fact that it’s mostly Trump supporters who are taking it,” says David Boulware, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the University of Minnesota and one of the directors of a major effort to conduct trials of potential COVID treatments, including ivermectin.

Like so many things these days, separating science from politics is exceedingly difficult—especially when science keeps evolving, and scientists argue among themselves with the public and politicians looking over their shoulders.

To be sure, the science seems clear that for prevention of serious COVID-related illness, vaccination is the only measure proven to be safe and effective. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has not approved ivermectin for any COVID-related purpose, and the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most major medical and pharmaceutical associations in the U.S. have warned that taking the drug in large doses can pose serious risks to health.

Even so, the lack of sufficient data so far from large randomized trials currently underway leaves just enough scientific uncertainty to keep the battle over ivermectin raging, fueled by distortions and selective reporting on both sides. “The book isn’t closed yet,”says Boulware. “It’s become a political issue, but we need more data to really know if it works or not.”

Based on the data so far, most scientists expect ivermectin to follow hydroxychloroquine—another generic drug hyped by conservatives, including Trump, as a miracle COVID treatment—into the dustbin of dubious medical claims. But that won’t put an end to a larger, politically charged debate over whether ordinary Americans should call the shots on drugs, even when unproven. The argument has been playing out since before the birth of America, but it’s become supercharged during the pandemic.

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