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Why Has "Ivermectin" Become a Dirty Word?
At the worst moment, Internet censorship has driven scientific debate itself underground
On December 8, 2020, when most of America was consumed with what The Guardian called Donald Trump’s “desperate, mendacious, frenzied and sometimes farcical” attempt to remain president, the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the “Medical Response to Covid-19.” One of the witnesses, a pulmonologist named Dr. Pierre Kory, insisted he had great news.
“We have a solution to this crisis,” he said unequivocally. “There is a drug that is proving to have a miraculous impact.”
Kory was referring to an FDA-approved medicine called ivermectin. A genuine wonder drug in other realms, ivermectin has all but eliminated parasitic diseases like river blindness and elephantiasis, helping discoverer Satoshi Ōmura win the Nobel Prize in 2015. As far as its uses in the pandemic went, however, research was still scant. Could it really be a magic Covid-19 bullet?
Kory had been trying to make such a case, but complained to the Senate that public efforts had been stifled, because “every time we mention ivermectin, we get put in Facebook jail.” A Catch-22 seemed to be ensnaring science. With the world desperate for news about an unprecedented disaster, Silicon Valley had essentially decided to disallow discussion of a potential solution — disallow calls for more research and more study — because not enough research and study had been done. Once, people weren’t allowed to take drugs before they got FDA approval. Now, they can’t talk about them.
“I want to try to be respectful because I think the intention is correct,” Kory told the committee. “They want to cut down on misinformation, and many doctors are claiming X, Y, and Z work in this disease. The challenge is, you’re also silencing those of us who are expert, reasoned, researched, and extremely knowledgeable.”
Eight million people watched Kory say that on the C-SPAN video of the hearing posted to YouTube, but YouTube, in what appears to be a first, removed video of the hearing, as even Senate testimony was now deemed too dangerous for public consumption. YouTube later suspended the Wisconsin Senator who’d invited Kory to the hearing, and when Kory went on podcasts to tell his story, YouTube took down those videos, too. Kory was like a ghost who floated through the Internet, leaving suspensions and blackened warning screens everywhere he went.
One of the challenges of the pandemic period is the degree to which science has become intertwined with politics. Arguments about the efficacy of mask use or ventilators, or the viability of repurposed drugs like hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, or even the pandemic’s origins, were quashed from the jump in the American commercial press, which committed itself to a regime of simplified insta-takes made opposite to Donald Trump’s comments. With a few exceptions, Internet censors generally tracked with this conventional wisdom, which had the effect of moving conspiracy theories and real scientific debates alike far underground.
A consequence is that issues like the ivermectin question have ended up in the same public bucket as debates over foreign misinformation, hate speech, and even incitement. The same Republican Senator YouTube suspended for making statements in support of ivermectin, Ron Johnson, has also been denounced in the press for failing to call the January 6th riots an insurrection, resulting in headlines that blend the two putative offenses.
“You have these ideas about the need to censor hate speech, calls for violence, and falsity,” Kory says, “and they’ve put science on the same shelf.”
As a result, doctors and organizations that may have little to do with politics but have advocated for ivermectin, from Dr. Tess Lawrie’s British Ivermectin Recommendation Development (BIRD) to California pulmonologist Roger Seheult to many others, have been shut down online with the same unilateral abruptness platforms apply to hate speech or threats. Dr. Sabine Hazan, a gastroenterologist and CEO of a genetic sequencing laboratory called ProGenaBiome in Ventura, California, was blindsided. She got involved with ivermectin when she was pulling out the stops for Covid-19 patients.
“I’m a doctor. My job isn’t to do nothing. If I wanted to do nothing, I’d be selling shampoo,” Hazan says. When patients got really sick, she tried everything, treating off-label with a number of drugs in combination, including ivermectin. Eventually, she ended up taking it upon herself to run clinical trials with repurposed, off-patent drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, fearing that the lack of a profit angle would prevent a major corporate effort in that direction.
“I felt, no one is going to be investigating a cheap solution, so I did it myself,” she says.
Some weeks ago, Hazan got up early on a Sunday to present findings to a group of physicians that included Dr. Kylie Wagstaff, one of the physicians in the first in vitro ivermectin study, a family doctor in Zimbabwe named Jackie Stone, and others.
She uploaded the talk on YouTube, and “lo and behold, it got taken down. It’s amazing. These are doctors talking. It’s not anyone selling anything.”
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