The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday warned against the use of ivermectin, a drug typically prescribed to fight parasites in both humans and large animals, as a treatment for COVID-19. The FDA cited a lack of evidence of effectiveness against the virus and dangerous potential side effects when taken in large doses -- like ones intended for horses.
On Twitter, the FDA was somewhat more abrupt:
It became necessary for the nation’s drug regulator to warn the public not to take horse medications after Fox News hosts and others in the right-wing media spent months telling their audiences that ivermectin might constitute a miracle cure for the novel coronavirus -- and that federal agencies are trying to keep it away from them.
The FDA is trying to mitigate the damage caused by a right-wing media apparatus that prioritizes culture war framing over public health and touts miracle cures over proven vaccines. Some people seeking out ivermectin for use as a COVID-19 treatment subsequently turned to its veterinary form, leading to shortages at farm supply stores and heightened calls to poison control lines.
Following the mid-July retraction of a major study supporting ivermectin’s use over concerns that it relied upon fabricated data, I pointed out that Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham had repeatedly touted the drug on their programs, even as they undermined the effort to get their viewers vaccinated against COVID-19. At the time, the World Health Organization, European and U.S. health agencies, and the drug’s manufacturer had all weighed in questioning ivermectin’s effectiveness.
Fox has continued this promotion of ivermectin over the subsequent weeks. As recently as Thursday, Fox News Primetime guest host Will Cain cited ivermectin as one of “many, many promising treatments out there that can save lives” which he claimed “have been disappeared from the public health conversation” (though he caveated that “more studies need to be done” to prove its effectiveness).
Fox evening programs have referenced ivermectin’s use as a potential treatment for COVID-19 at least seven other times since the retraction of that study. Pushing back against President Joe Biden’s call for vaccination and masking, for example, Ingraham touted ivermectin as a drug “used all over the world with some pretty good results” on July 29. Sean Hannity plugged it as an “incredible therapeutic” on his August 2 broadcast. Hannity has also regularly touted ivermectin on his nationally syndicated radio show, which boasts an estimated audience of 15 million people.
Fox hosts are not alone in pushing ivermectin -- they are the influential tip of the misinformation iceberg. On social media, for example, a viral anti-vaccine video promoting the drug had been viewed at least 30 million times in less than a week.
In 2020, when Fox’s prime-time programs doubled as President Donald Trump’s nightly news briefing and its hosts served as his off-the-books advisers, this sort of campaign for an unproven COVID-19 cure could shift the bounds of federal policy. That’s no longer a concern. But the need of some in the right-wing media to frame the COVID-19 pandemic as part of their culture war still has its casualties. Some are experiencing serious side effects from taking the drug; some are taking it in lieu of vaccines that really have proved effective.
Phil Valentine, a conservative talk radio host, is one of them. He expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccines and, after contracting the virus last month, told his listeners that a doctor had gotten him a prescription for ivermectin. But his condition continued to deteriorate.
“First of all, he’s regretful that he wasn’t a more vocal advocate of the vaccination,” Valentine’s brother said after he was hospitalized. “For those listening, I know if he were able to tell you this, he would tell you, ‘Go get vaccinated. Quit worrying about the politics. Quit worrying about all the conspiracy theories.’”
Phil Valentine died of COVID-19 on Saturday, the same day the FDA issued its warning about the drug he had taken instead of a vaccine.