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7 September 2021

How the drug ivermectin became such a dangerous Covid meme

Joe Rogan announced he’s been taking it, Alex Jones popped pills on air – but is there any evidence this "miracle drug" actually works?

By Stuart Ritchie

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme”. Although nowadays “meme” has come to mean a shareable online picture, the concept was originally meant to describe the spread of ideas through a culture, replicating themselves (just like genes do) as they move from mind to mind. Some memes are benign or even beneficial: new fashions or ways of cooking, for example. But some memes end up doing harm. Some memes are “mind parasites”.

That’s the idea, anyway: there’s philosophical debate about whether “memetics” is a good theory of cultural transmission, and about whether mind parasite is a useful term. But spend any time on social media and it seems as if a lot of people are under the influence of some kind of sinister, behaviour-controlling brain worm.

Ironically, one of the most prominent mind parasites of our current times is an anti-parasitic drug.

In early March, I wrote about the drug ivermectin, which was being discussed in the media as a godsend: a cheap, safe, plentiful medicine that worked wonders against Covid-19 and could be used to bring the pandemic to heel in a matter of weeks. Of course, that was too good to be true: as I wrote at the time, almost all the positive evidence came from studies that were extremely low quality.

Since then, things have got a lot worse for ivermectin. It’s not just that some of the studies were badly done: sleuths digging into the data question the validity of the evidence.

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One might think that, with the apparent supports for their belief being shot away one by one, the proponents of ivermectin would have dialled down their enthusiasm – but it’s far too late for that. The meme has taken hold. The mind parasite has some prominent hosts: last week the podcaster Joe Rogan, who currently has Covid, announced that he’s been taking ivermectin; the conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Bret Weinstein have both popped ivermectin pills live on air.

One day someone will write a PhD thesis on the sociology – maybe even the memetics – of ivermectin and Covid. How prominent personalities spread such ideas to their million-strong audiences, even well after the fraudulent studies were uncovered; how strange organisations such as the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance popped up to advocate for an unproven remedy; how thousands of people online ploughed hours of their time into promoting the meme even further.

Because for a certain type of person, ivermectin for Covid is a potent meme, one that no anti-parasitic known to humankind can dislodge. Believers can (as I previously wrote) cast themselves in the attractive role of the hero telling truth to a complacent establishment. They can bask in the reflected glory of ivermectin’s discoverers having won a Nobel Prize. And they can point to published scientific papers that make big, positive claims about the drug’s miraculous effects.

But an even halfway sophisticated understanding of science includes the fact – the sad, deeply unfortunate fact – that the published scientific literature contains an awful lot of shoddy, biased, poor-quality and, yes, fraudulent work.

Sadly, there’s now another side to the ivermectin meme war. Jokes ridiculing those who’ve taken ivermectin, referencing its use as a horse de-wormer, have become widely popular on the other side of the debate (since these things inevitably split down political lines, the anti-ivermectin side tends to lean left, with the proponents leaning right). And although some are pretty funny, the polarised atmosphere isn’t helpful, to say the least, for anyone interested in working out the truth of ivermectin’s effects.

Could, for example, the political valence of the story have led to an ivermectin-related journalistic screw-up by Rolling Stone and the Guardian in recent days? They both reported, using as their source a doctor who claimed insider knowledge, that hospitals in Oklahoma were so crammed with people who became poisoned while self-medicating with the wrong dose of ivermectin that gunshot victims were languishing in the waiting room. It looks like the story was false, or at least wildly overstated: the hospital for which the doctor worked said it hadn’t had any ivermectin overdoses at all, and when he was later interviewed on the BBC he said he only seen a “handful” of cases, and that the doctor hadn’t worked there for months. Oops. Both outlets have now issued a correction, but again, it’s too late: the story went viral.

In place of a mature scientific discussion about ivermectin, all we’ve had is memes. The true believers – the victims of the mind parasite – fling around snippets of scientific papers, quotations from apparent “experts”, and numbers from dodgy meta-analyses. The other side flings ridicule and fake-news stories right back. Thankfully it looks like good-quality trials are underway, and we’ll soon have some evidence worth discussing. But until then, it’s memes all the way down.

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