Playing Russian Roulette With “Cures” for COVID-19
Ivermectin is an excellent drug, at least as long as you happen to be a horse or a cow or some other livestock. If you are a patient infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, not so much. As the American Food and Drug Administration admonished earlier this year via Twitter, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” In the United States these days, this counts as vital information.
Not everyone is convinced. After all, why believe a bunch of scientists when the eminent universal genius of our time, Donald Trump, has vouched for the safety of the drug, normally used to treat parasites in animals, and its effectiveness against COVID-19. Effective it might be, safe less so.
In Switzerland, the COVID-19 Certificate Divides Opinions
Over the past year, dozens of American ivermectin enthusiasts have paid for their trust in The Donald with their health and even their lives. Yet relatives of seriously ill COVID-19 patients have continued to demand that hospitals administer ivermectin to their loved ones, in some cases going so far as to involve the courts. The courts have invariably refused to force the medical staff to administer the drug, much to the doctors’ relief.
The Ivermectin Crowd
The Ivermectin crowd, on the other hand, has been irate, claiming that politics, not medical reasons, is behind the drug’s bad press. Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky who is “undecided” on the drug (“I don’t know if it works, but I keep an open mind”), earlier this year blamed the bad press on an association with Trump: “The hatred for Trump,” Rand claimed, “deranged [medical researchers] so much, that they’re unwilling to objectively study it.” The same was true, he continued, for hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug the former president had promoted as a treatment for COVID. This is the very same senator who claimed on YouTube that masks were not effective against the virus.
Ironically enough, this is exactly what Merck, the pharma giant that manufactures ivermectin, has said with regard to the drug. Earlier this year, the company stated that “there is no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies.” Again, why believe what scientists say when the ultimate authority on everything assures us of the drug’s enormous benefits.
Europeans have a tendency to sneer at Americans and their naiveté, gullibility and simplemindedness. After all, quite a few Americans are convinced that the world is flat, even more that the Earth was created some 10,000 years ago, and even more still (at least among Republicans) that Donald Trump was a great president who was defrauded of a second mandate. The rapid diffusion of even the most absurd conspiracy theories has done nothing to correct these impressions. On the contrary, it seems no idea is silly or outright stupid enough that there won’t be people eagerly gobbling it up.
My personal favorite is the notion that dinosaurs lived peacefully alongside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There they all — including the T-Rex — fed on leaves and vegetables. Only Adam’s fall from God’s grace turned them into carnivores. The silliness goes on and on. Those interested might want to explore the Creationist Museum in Rand Paul’s Kentucky. It is a true revelation.
Sadly enough, Americans don’t have a monopoly on credulity and viridity. The past year and a half have clearly shown that Europeans are hardly immune to the siren songs of conspiracy hucksters and “lateral thinkers” who claim for themselves that they think outside the box. In Germany, the lateral thinker movement has been behind a number of mass demonstrations against the government’s pandemic measures. In late August, lateral thinkers, together with various right-wing extremist groups, instigated the failed attempt to storm the Reichtstag, the seat of the German parliament in Berlin.
Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that ivermectin has gained growing popularity among Europe’s “corona skeptics” and anti-vax circles. In a number of countries, prominent personalities have established themselves as advocates and promoters of the drug. More often than not, the result has been suboptimal, to put it mildly. A case in point is Herbert Kickl, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), one of Western Europe’s most prominent radical right-wing populist parties.
Like some of its counterparts in other West European countries, the FPÖ has made great strides in establishing a reputation as a resolute, uncompromising opponent of the government’s anti-COVID-19 policies and as a defender of freedom and liberty of individual choice. A few weeks ago, in a major speech, Kickl charged that the Austrian government — a coalition between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens — had subjected its citizens to an “inhuman and contemptuous propaganda.” The time had come to liberate Austria’s citizens from this “system of oppression and coercion” and to stand up for the “protection of basic liberal values.”
Vaccination was unnecessary, he agreed. There were enough ways to treat the infection, such as vitamins and zinc, aspirin and ibuprofen. And, of course, there was ivermectin, the miracle drug, which, as a recent scientific study had shown, was highly effective against the virus. Or so Kickl claimed.
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that the “study” was a fraud. This was too bad. Ivermectin might have protected Kickl from catching the virus a few days after his endorsement of the drug. Otherwise, however, Kickl’s promotion of proved to be a great success, at least for Merck and those peddling ivermectin without scruples.
Inspired by their leader, FPÖ supporters started to hoard the drug, much to the detriment of Austria’s cows and horses suffering from pesky parasites. In parts of Austria, pharmacies temporarily ran out of ivermectin. In many of these cases, customers managed to get a hold on larger amounts with prescriptions that had been issued abroad. In the meantime, hospitals had to admit patients suffering from major drug and vitamin-related complications. As it turned out, warnings that taking high doses of ivermectin could have severe, even fatal consequences were anything but fake.
Yet the populist right continues to promote ivermectin, and for good reasons. The drug is as though tailor made for populist mobilization. For one, initial studies did in fact show that it was effective against the virus, but under very specific conditions: in a lab (in vitro), at very high dosages, way above the tolerance level for humans. At a human-appropriate level, or so a recent analysis of the findings of several international studies suggests, ivermectin failed to improve a patient’s condition or reduce the number of COVID-related deaths.
As a result, the authors stated that, given current available evidence, “the use of Ivermectin for the treatment or prevention of Covid-19 is not warranted.” This was also the conclusion reached by the European Medicines Agency in early 2021. As a result, it issued a warning against the use of ivermectin “for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 outside randomised clinical trials.”
Some American physicians disagree. Among them is the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, which has called ivermectin a “miracle drug” and “the penicillin of COVID.” The alliance consists of a group of physicians and scientists “who champion ivermectin, along with other drugs and vitamins with dubious efficacy against COVID.” Promoting themselves as heterodox challengers of orthodoxy and the medical establishment, their informationals have swept across the vaccine skeptic community with apparent success.
According to a YouGovAmerica survey from late August, 45% of those who considered ivermectin to be very effective against the virus said they would never get vaccinated; 35% who believed in the drug’s effectiveness said they never wear a mask outside the home.
In today’s world, refusing to get vaccinated or wear a mask counts as an act of resistance against authority, standing up for freedom and warding off tyranny. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Switzerland, where any attempt of the federal government to contain the pandemic is seen as a potential step toward serfdom. This comes from none other than Christoph Blocher, the influential former leader of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the country’s largest and a point of reference for Switzerland’s COVID skeptics and anti-vaxxers.
Blocher expressed a sentiment shared by many opponents of the federal government’s pandemic measures. In the run-up to the recently held referendum on the Swiss COVID-19 certificate — a green pass for the vaccinated — these sentiments infused the tone of the “no” campaign. The opponents claimed that the certificate represented a fundamental encroachment on the freedom of the individual, a first step on the road to authoritarianism and worse.
With the certificate, the federal government put pressure on all those who did not want to or could not get vaccinated. This was nothing but the beginning of mandatory vaccination, similar to what the Austrian government had ordered. Despite all the hyperbole and hysteria generated by the “no” side, a large majority of the Swiss electorate came out in favor of the certificate, a painful defeat for the skeptics and their parliamentary arm, the SVP.
Like in Austria, those opposed to the federal government’s policies have put their hope on Ivermectin. At the same time, they claimed that the federal government refused to approve the drug as a treatment for the virus in order not to jeopardize the vaccination campaign. Among the most prominent promoters of this theory — and of ivermectin — is a retired professor from the University of Zurich, Martin Janssen, who characterizes himself as a “liberal dissident.” A member of one of the committees that organized and financed the “no” campaign, he accused the government of doing everything to prevent those infected with the virus “to get well at home.”
This is why the rejection of the certificate by the Swiss electorate was of such great importance. Otherwise, Switzerland would become a state like all the others, where “citizens were no longer in a position to defend themselves against their politicians.” As a result, like in Austria, Swiss customs authorities reported a growing number of seizures of illegally imported medicine, among them, as the officials put it, drugs “against worms and other parasites that contain Ivermectin.”
In the meantime, even before the outcome of the referendum was known, the SVP announced it would continue to fight against the COVID-19 measures, especially the so-called 2G rule (the Gs stand for the German words geimpft and genesen — vaccinated and recovered) that would limit the validity of the certificate to people in these two categories. In the eyes of the SVP, this amounted to nothing less than a disguised obligation to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately for a party that claims to listen to the concerns of ordinary people, a survey published in Blick am Sonntag, a popular tabloid, found a substantial majority of more than 60% of respondents favoring the 2G rule. More than 50% came out in favor of mandatory vaccination for all, and a bit less than half were in favor of a lockdown for the unvaccinated.
All of this suggests that things are going to heat up in the weeks and months to come and, with it, the question of ivermectin and other “alternatives” to the vaccine.
The case of ivermectin tells us a lot about the appeal of right-wing populism, its nature and the reasons why a substantial number of citizens have been drawn into its orbit. Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to a drug that has not only proven to be ineffective against the virus, but even harmful, if not worse? It boggles the mind that the very same people who are worried about the potential side effects of COVID-19 vaccines have absolutely no qualms playing Russian roulette with their health when it comes to ivermectin and other household remedies and cures.
A profound distrust of the “establishment” in all of its forms suspected of collusion against the interests of ordinary people is part of the explanation. In a universe populated by self-proclaimed mavericks, dissidents and lateral thinkers, anyone with an official degree is suspect. It is hardly a coincidence that a retired professor from the University of Zurich held a position in finance and banking. This makes him ideally positioned to evaluate the effectiveness of drugs — at least among the COVID skeptics crowd.
He is part the parallel universe of outsiders and what in German is known as Quereinsteiger — lateral career movers — who command trust for the simple reason that they don’t belong to the establishment. That’s their seal of approval. This allows them to peddle even the most bizarre ideas and narratives — and find eager takers. This is what got Trump elected in 2016 and what has propelled the likes of Eric Zemmour into the political limelight. Unfortunately, unlike drugs, they don’t come with a warning label. But then, today’s COVID-19 skeptics and anti-vaxxers would in all probability not read them anyway.
The reality is, COVID-19 denial in all its different forms is like a cult. Cults don’t tolerate dissenting opinions. This is the ultimate irony. Those who insist on liberty and freedom for themselves don’t accord them to those who disagree or deviate from the pure doctrine. When it became known that Christoph Blocher got vaccinated and publicly advised that everybody should do so, he received insults implying that he was a “murderer” and even death threats. Although he denied it, it was more than likely that the authors were disappointed SVP supporters.
Scientists have had similar experiences. David Hill, a pharmacologist from the University of Liverpool, recounted in the pages of The Guardian how he received death threats after he and his team published a meta analysis that found “several examples of medical fraud in the clinical trials of ivermectin.” Their study concluded that after filtering out “all the poor-quality trials, there was no longer any clinical benefit for ivermectin.”
A few weeks ago, Nature published the results of a survey based on a sample of scientists who in the past had commented on the pandemic. More often than not, their opinion provoked harassment and abuse, in some cases death threats. Apparently, ivermectin is not only harmful to those who use it to treat COVID-19 infections, but it is also dangerous to those who study its usefulness as a treatment against the virus.
One last thought. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that ivermectin is the wonder drug the cult pretends it is. Also, let’s assume Merck is fully aware of the fact. It stands to reason — I hesitate to say, in this context — that Merck has all the interest in the world to promote ivermectin as an effective and safe alternative to vaccines. After all, it would make a fortune, its stock would rise high, Wall Street would be happy, and Merck would gain the reputation of having saved the world.
There is only one reason why Merck would withhold the information. It is in on “the plot,” whatever it is. Like other Big Pharma, it supports injecting everybody with microscopic chips that make us into submissive, remote-controlled automatons at the beck and call of a shadowy world government, pawns in a sinister ploy hatched out by the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum, the Queen of England and god knows who else. It knows that these injection contain agents that turn enough of us infertile to solve the problem of climate change. The permutations are endless for ingenious minds.
There is, of course, an alternative scenario. Let’s assume Merck knows that ivermectin is totally ineffective against the virus and that, on top of it, it is harmful if taken in high doses. Now let’s assume Merck could care less about the drug’s potential harm to human health and life. Under the circumstances, wouldn’t it make sense for Merck to hire agents well versed in the art of marketing and persuasion to get as many people as possible to buy the drug? It is rather amazing that those who believe in whatever conspiracy theory comes their way have not wised up to this possibility. Let’s hope they will soon.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.