For the Alternative Medicine Community, the Fact that Ivermectin has not been Approved for COVID is a Feature, not a Bug
by Michael C. Dorf
In his terrific new book, Choose Your Medicine: Freedom of Therapeutic Choice in America, historian and law professor Lewis Grossman traces the expert-skeptical democratic strand of American thought about health and medicine to centuries-old patterns. Such expert-skepticism is hardly irrational. For most of human history, a healthy skepticism towards mainstream medicine was, well, healthy. Horrors like the 1799 deathbed scene of George Washington that Grossman recounts were all too common. To treat the Father of our country, "who was suffering from a severe throat infection," doctors "dosed him with calomel and tartar emetic, applied blisters to his throat and legs, and drained about half of the blood from his body."
Even today, too much medical practice relies on habit and anecdote. For example, many obstetricians prescribe bed rest for a wide variety of pregnancy complications, despite the evidence that bed rest does not improve patients' conditions and adds additional risks. The longstanding current of health libertarianism that Grossman documents is a not-entirely-unreasonable response to the arrogance and quackery one finds in the mainstream medical profession.
Yet, increasingly, the movement for evidence-based medicine makes across-the-board skepticism not just unwarranted but itself dangerous. Indeed, it is not even across-the-board skepticism. People rarely replace faith in one institution with consistently critical thinking. Instead, they typically replace one kind of faith with another. Thus, what starts in skepticism becomes ingenuousness.
How? Consider the roots of perfectly reasonable skepticism of pharmaceutical companies. Some people who suffer from hypertension, elevated blood sugar, and other unhealthy conditions are able to improve their health substantially through lifestyle changes: by eating a healthier diet and exercising more. Many medical professionals recommend such changes, along with quitting smoking (if patients smoke) and reducing alcohol consumption. However, pharmaceutical companies don't make money when people walk instead of drive or when they substitute kale salad with walnuts for a burger with fries. The companies make money selling drugs that prevent or treat diseases. As profit-maximizing entities, they will invest more in research on interventions that can be patented than on those that cannot be (like diet and lifestyle changes).
Moreover, some pharmaceutical company innovations do little even for people who wouldn't otherwise make lifestyle changes. They might simply combine two out-of-patent drugs into a new one to gain a new monopoly. Oxycontin, which was at the root of the opioid epidemic, is just an old drug (oxycodone) with a time-release coating on it. It made Purdue Pharma gazillions of dollars before the legal liability for the thousands of ruined lives ultimately bankrupted the company.
There is no reason in principle why vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 would be different. If it turned out that eating two raisins per day completely prevented COVID infection or that an existing out-of-patent vaccine or medicine prevented or treated COVID, a pharmaceutical company could not make money from generating new vaccines and treatments. Thus, if the search for vaccines and treatments were entirely in the hands of Big Pharma, it would be sensible to worry that the searchers would have a financial incentive to overlook potentially effective but non-monetizable tools.
In March 2020, it would have been perfectly reasonable to look to nature and existing medicines, rather than simply to unleash pharmaceutical innovators. At that time, and later in the pandemic, one might have worried that the pharmaceutical companies were paying insufficient attention to the potential of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, and other existing medicines. Indeed, even today, there is no reason not to continue to consider existing medications and lifestyle interventions as a means of preventing or treating COVID.
BUT, it's one thing to say that scientists ought to investigate off-label uses of existing medications for possible efficacy against COVID. It's quite another to reject new vaccines that have been rigorously tested and found to be remarkably safe and effective in favor of off-label uses of existing medicines that might be safe and effective but have not been shown to be so. That's especially true given that, despite the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry, there has actually been great effort to find treatments using existing medications--partly because governments, researchers affiliated with universities and hospitals rather than pharmaceutical companies, and other actors without the full distorting effect of the profit motive have been involved in the search for measures to combat COVID from the beginning.
Nonetheless, the quackery persists. Two examples illustrate the slide down the rabbit hole from healthy skepticism to unhealthy ingenuousness.
Let's start with ivermectin. In some of the mocking coverage of the Ivermectin-as-miracle-cure phenomenon, we see people point to the fact that its main use is to deworm horses. That's a silly objection. For one thing, ivermectin has been approved (albeit in different doses) for human use. Moreover, a substance that is effective against one condition in one species could be effective against another condition in another species. Horses love carrots and apples. So do I. And consumed in moderation, carrots and apples promote both equine and human health. Accordingly, given anecdotal evidence that ivermectin could be effective against COVID in humans, it's reasonable to investigate it.
But many of the people who cited the speed with which the pharmaceutical companies developed and the FDA approved the Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J vaccines as their reason for refusing vaccination have been eager for ivermectin without anything resembling full investigation. Now, more than three months after the leading clinical study finding ivermectin efficacy was shown to be fraudulent, the very people who distrust official medicine continue to promote it.
To be sure, the fact that a study finding ivermectin effective was deeply flawed does not preclude the possibility that rigorously conducted studies could show it to be effective. A federally funded clinical trial of ivermectin is being undertaken right now. If the drug proves effective against COVID, that would be great. It would be another available tool. However, that would hardly vindicate the people who are currently eschewing the vaccines in favor of ivermectin. If you eat a strange-looking mushroom you find in the forest and it turns out to be delicious and it improves your diabetes, you are lucky, not wise, for having eaten it without first determining whether it was poisonous.
My second example of the slide into irrationality is mask-skepticism. The unskeptical acceptance of alternative remedies can be explained, though not justified, by legitimate concerns about the profit motives of Big Pharma. However, that hardly explains why many of the same people who tout ivermectin and other unproven medicines are skeptical of or flout masks. Some of those people express purely libertarian objections to mask mandates, but others--a great many others--doubt that masks are actually an effective means of preventing the spread of COVID. Why? It cannot be because Big Mask stands to make a financial killing by selling masks at monopoly prices. There is no Big Mask.
Instead, mask-skepticism is a symptom of the belief system that replaces trust in authorities. "Do your own research" is not a warning to read the actual clinical studies of the medicines that doctors prescribe or the government approves; it is a license to accept the advice of whatever quack has produced the video that your friends shared on social media.
Finally, I recognize that politics explains a great deal of what has come to be naive faith in almost anything that the medical establishment hasn't approved. Many of the people who won't get vaccinated or wear masks but have faith in ivermectin are simply in the thrall of the right-wing pundits and politicians who promote and reinforce this belief system. However, that is not everyone. There is a robust alternative medicine community on the left as well as the right. And in any event, my goal here is to illuminate the general phenomenon of healthy skepticism of authority turning into belief in substantially less reliable alternatives.