A major study supporting the use of the drug ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment was withdrawn on Thursday over concerns that it relied upon fabricated data. The move is a huge blow to Fox News hosts who had touted the drug while also undermining the safe, effective coronavirus vaccines approved for use in the United States.
Ivermectin tablets are approved by the Federal Drug Administration for use in treating conditions caused by parasitic worms and external parasites. Some forms of ivermectin are also used as a deworming treatment for domestic animals such as horses.
On the basis of preprint studies backing its use as a COVID-19 treatment, ivermectin has been adopted in parts of Latin America and India and championed by elements of the U.S. right as a preventative. But the World Health Organization, European regulators, the ivermectin manufacturer Merck, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the FDA have all warned against its use against COVID-19, citing a lack of evidence that it is effective. The FDA has also highlighted the drug’s “very dangerous” side effects if taken to excess or in combination with other medications; ABC News reported in February on an uptick in calls to poison control centers from people who had taken it.
Regardless, Fox News prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been puffing up ivermectin, even as they’ve been successfully undermining public efforts to get people like their viewers vaccinated by using their shows to cast doubt on the effectiveness and safety of the coronavirus vaccines.
Carlson hosted the evolutionary biologist and podcaster Bret Weinstein to promote the drug on his June 29 show. (Weinstein became a right-wing cause celebre after objecting to anti-racist protests and activities at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where he was a professor.) During the segment, Weinstein argued that “the evidence is strong that ivermectin works both as a prophylactic and as a treatment if given early” and that while the drug has “actually ended waves of the pandemic” overseas, in the U.S., “the hegemony of the pharmaceutical industry and its capture of our public health agencies” has prevented its use.
Carlson gave Weinstein a more extensive interview on the July 9 edition of his Fox Nation streaming show, Tucker Carlson Today. Weinstein explained during that appearance that he and his wife had decided to take ivermectin rather than getting vaccinated, calling the drug “a very effective treatment for COVID and also an effective prophylactic” and saying that it is “safer to run the risk of taking ivermectin” than to take the vaccines. He went on to suggest that the vaccines might be causing the proliferation of variants and that “a reasonable society would be stockpiling ivermectin” as a “contingency plan.”
Ingraham similarly argued on her program in March that “our FDA has in many ways failed us by not allowing for the use of ivermectin,” which she claimed has been “used around the world to reduce COVID hospitalizations and deaths.” She repeatedly hosted guests who highlighted the drug as an effective treatment for those stricken by the coronavirus.
The takeaway for Fox’s viewers is that it is foolish to take the COVID-19 vaccines because they are ineffective and unsafe, and if something goes wrong, they can take ivermectin and be fine.
The case for the drug took a hit on Thursday when the Research Square website removed a major preprint study on the efficacy and safety of ivermectin in treating COVID-19, citing “ethical concerns,” as The Guardian reported. The study, led by Dr. Ahmed Elgazzar from Benha University in Egypt and published in November, claimed to be based on a randomized control trial and found “a substantial improvement and reduction in mortality rate in ivermectin treated groups” by 90%.
While Research Square did not identify its concerns, The Guardian noted that critics had found that “the introduction section of the paper appeared to have been almost entirely plagiarised,” that “at least 79 of the patient records are obvious clones of other records,” and that “the raw data apparently contradict[ed] the study protocol on several occasions,” among other data errors and discrepancies.
The paper’s removal has grave implications for the case for ivermectin, as The Guardian reported:
The Elgazzar study was one of the the largest and most promising showing the drug may help Covid patients, and has often been cited by proponents of the drug as evidence of its effectiveness.
[Australian chronic disease epidemiologist from the University of Wollongong, Gideon] Meyerowitz-Katz told the Guardian that “this is one of the biggest ivermectin studies out there”, and it appeared to him the data was “just totally faked”. This was concerning because two meta-analyses of ivermectin for treating Covid-19 had included the Elgazzar study in the results. A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies to determine what the overall scientific literature has found about a treatment or intervention.
“Because the Elgazzar study is so large, and so massively positive – showing a 90% reduction in mortality – it hugely skews the evidence in favour of ivermectin,” Meyerowitz-Katz said.
“If you remove this one study from the scientific literature, suddenly there are very few positive randomised control trials of ivermectin for Covid-19. Indeed, if you get rid of just this research, most meta-analyses that have found positive results would have their conclusions entirely reversed.”
The story here resembled Fox News’ relentless championing of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine last year despite slim evidence of its effectiveness as a COVID-19 treatment, attracting the attention of President Donald Trump and shifting the public health response in the early days of the pandemic, only for accumulating evidence to show that it does not work.
But at least then, people were desperately searching for ways to stop a new virus as it ravaged across the country. Now we have tools that we know are effective virtually all the time -- the vaccines. As U.S. vaccinations have increased, the daily coronavirus death toll has plummeted. Virtually all hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated.
But that evidence isn’t enough to win unqualified support from Fox personalities like Carlson and Ingraham. And the result is that people like their viewers are more likely to remain unvaccinated and at risk.