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How Ivermectin Ended Up In The Middle Of A COVID-19 Controversy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ivermectin is a medication that's been around for decades, and it's been a miracle drug against parasites. But now ivermectin is the latest drug caught up in a COVID-19 controversy. NPR's Pien Huang is here to tell us how it went from wonder drug to a bane of U.S. health officials.

Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: Let's just start with what ivermectin is and where it came from.

HUANG: So its origin story is actually really interesting. It was discovered in the 1970s by a Japanese scientist named Satoshi Omura, who was working with the drug company Merck. And they dug up a dirt sample from a golf course near Tokyo that contains natural chemicals that were really great at killing parasites. Here's Andy Crump, formerly with Kitasato University, who has worked with Omura for decades.

ANDY CRUMP: It's just one of the thousands of locations which they were collecting soil samples from. There was nothing special about it until, obviously, several years later, when this marvelous compound came onto the market and improved the lives and health of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

HUANG: It's eradicated river blindness in several countries. The researchers who discovered it won a Nobel Prize in 2015, in part for reducing major suffering in the world. And it's made billions of dollars for Merck.

FADEL: So wow. I mean, this is a huge discovery, a huge success. But now ivermectin has become controversial because some people are taking it for COVID against public health advice. How did this happen?

HUANG: Yes. So if you stuck to the story in 2015, the drug's reputation would be gold. But now you have U.S. health authorities telling people not to use ivermectin for COVID-19, especially the kind for animals, which some people have been overdosing on. Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the drug has gained a second life as an alternative therapy for COVID-19.

PETER LURIE: It seems to be adopted primarily by people who have hesitation to wear masks, by people who have hesitation to be vaccinated and seems to offer up an alternative approach, one not endorsed by the government critically in which people believe they can protect themselves.

HUANG: To understand how we got here, you have to understand the science, the politics and where they diverged.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with the science. Is there reason to believe that ivermectin works against COVID-19?

HUANG: Well, there was a study last spring that showed ivermectin could kill the coronavirus but in doses way bigger than humans should be using. Dozens of other studies do exist, but experts say that many of them are flawed or not high-quality. Some have been retracted. Here's Lurie again.

LURIE: At the moment, we can only work from what we currently know, and what we currently know is that there's insufficient evidence to recommend this product at this time.

HUANG: There is a small group of doctors that claim otherwise. They call themselves the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, and they're super into ivermectin. And their message has been amplified by some figures on the right. Republican Senator Ron Johnson, a vaccine skeptic, invited one of the group's doctors to testify before Congress last December. He made some big, inaccurate claims, said if you take ivermectin, you will not get sick. And that got the video removed from YouTube.

But the group's ideas have gotten more visibility since, and there are thriving Facebook groups where people trade tips on sourcing and dosing. Misinformation, researchers told me - it's the latest chapter in a story that some right-leaning commentators have been pushing this whole pandemic, that the situation is not as bad as health officials say and that there is an easy way out. Last year the solution was hydroxychloroquine, which turned out to kill some people, and now it's ivermectin.

FADEL: So has the use of ivermectin increased because of the delta variant?

HUANG: Yes. This summer the delta variant hit states with low vaccination rates very hard, and there's been a surge in prescriptions and web hits for ivermectin. Jennifer Granston is head of insights at Zignal Labs, which analyzes internet trends, and she says that the hype around ivermectin has gone far beyond the science.

JENNIFER GRANSTON: Clear instances of disinformation is relatively easy to debunk. The really, really hard stuff is where you have conflicting information and where you have mixed information.

HUANG: Ivermectin is pitting health officials against celebrities and influencers who are pushing the drug. People are suing hospitals over the right to try it as a treatment. Granston calls it the perfect storm that's going to become a lot more complex, and she says there's no clear side winning from what she can see.

FADEL: NPR's Pien Huang, thanks.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.