The fact that I can write an article with a title this obscure and remain confident that most people will get the context, just goes to show the extent of meme warfare in the manipulation and management of public opinion. You can hardly find a mention of ivermectin in the American media these days without the words ‘horse de-wormer drug’ strapped in front of it like a security cordon, apparently to ensure that no common sense gets through. Because we all know by now that ivermectin is a completely unproven treatment for Covid-19 with a dodgy safety record that is only taken by science-hating Trump-loving Republicans. Right? If you didn’t know this, you are one of the lucky ones not to have become intellectually malnourished from the drama-fueled vacuity that has become the daily diet of public discourse.
In a nutshell, the drug Ivermectin, which, yes, is used to de-worm horses, has become a symbol in the media battleground between the left and the right in America. The drug has become inexorably tied to anti-vaxxers who tout Ivermectin as a miracle drug to both prevent and treat Covid-19. Pro-vaccine folks have responded with a campaign to make the people who advocate for Ivermectin seem deranged and to do whatever they can to discredit the science around its use in humans. Hence the horse memes. The FDA, who have not approved Ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment, have joined the fray with a Tweet befitting of a federal agency intent on clarifying an important public health issue, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow.”
Some of these memes are undeniably funny but this one below is my personal favourite. I suspect it’s a rehash of an old ketamine meme (ivermectin isn’t the only drug used by both animals and humans) but amusing nonetheless. I don’t know why talking horses are funnier than talking cows, but they are. I personally think that all talking horses should wear hats, but that’s just me.
These exchanges feel more like those in a gaming realm, with positions articulated in the spirit of blood feuds, rather than a debate arena. This gaming nature is dramatically illustrated by a curious series of events that took place on the social media site Reddit. According to the tech-focused gaming website, Stealth Optional, on Friday, August 27, a subreddit theme created by Ivermectin advocates was taken over and flooded with memes ridiculing “horse de-wormer lovers”.
Four days later, this same subreddit initially set up to discuss the benefits of ivermectin to treat Covid but which had now been taken over by anti-ivermectin users, began to be spammed by explicit ‘horse-themed’ content. You can imagine the kind of stuff, although I wouldn’t recommend it. In a surreal karmic shift, the memes promoting horse de-wormer Covid cures and those mocking them were usurped by animal-themed porn. You couldn’t make it up.
Some of memes, like the one below where a man seems repulsed by the offer of the vaccine but happy at the prospect of a slurp of horse de-wormer paste, provide insight into how those opposed to ivermectin use view the issue. It took me some time to understand why the anti-ivermectin people were so, well, anti-ivermectin. The reasons have less to do with ivermectin itself than the kinds of people who are advocating for its use. They are against ivermectin because they can’t stand the people for ivermectin. The anti-ivermectin people are almost by definition very pro-vaccine and it is the anti-vaxxers who are calling the loudest for people to use ivermectin. Most doctors and medical professionals, who support the use of ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment never position it as a replacement for the vaccines but as an adjunct, and struggle to comprehend this attitude of mutual exclusion.
About a month ago, I posted a story on Facebook about ivermectin use in India to which someone replied, ‘Just take the vaccine! WTH!!’ This comment makes zero sense to the people of India who are falling over backwards to get the vaccine. It finds coherence only in the context of America’s political weaponization of pandemic policy. This is a person well and truly conditioned by the meme-war propagandists that sees ivermectin only in the context of a competition between therapeutics and vaccinations, a position actually only held by a (very) vocal minority.
The sad truth is that arenas for the exchange of ideas have become increasingly perfomative spaces, where the emphasis is on entertainment rather than insight. The golden rule of this sport, and it is a sport, seems to be don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. A case in point is a piece recently published in Rolling Stone Magazine, an adapted version of an original report by KFOR, a local Oklahoma news channel. The story was then picked up by several major news outlets including The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC, and quickly became choice laughtrack material for media and talk show personalities.
The story went that emergency rooms in Oklahoma were so clogged up with cases of Ivermectin poisoning from people who’d taken horse de-wormer to treat Covid-19, that gunshot victims were unable to get treated. Gun-toting mouth breathers bleeding to death in hospital hallways from gunshot wounds because other gun-toting mouth breathers have been chugging down tubes of horse de-wormer paste. Clickbait heaven. There was only thing wrong with it. It never happened. Rolling Stone published a reluctantly-worded retraction after the hospital in question issued a statement saying that the doctor, Jason McElyea, who had made the claims was only loosely affiliated with the hospital and hadn’t even worked there in months. The statement continued: “NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin….Our hospital has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care.” It was a story ‘too good to check’ as The Telegraph put it.
Let’s do something really unorthodox and take a look at the facts.
IS IVERMECTIN A HORSE DE-WORMER?
Yes and no. Ivermectin was first introduced as a broad-spectrum animal parasiticide in 1981, but for the past 40 years it has been used in humans to treat infections caused by some parasitic worms and head lice as well as skin conditions like rosacea and scabies. In addition to its anti-parasitic activity, in vitro studies have shown ivermectin to also have antiviral activity against many viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus, dengue virus and West Nile virus.
It is this anti-viral action of Ivermectin that’s the reason it was explored as a possible treatment protocol against the novel coronavirus. Ivermectin’s developers won the noble prize for medicine in 2015 because of the drug’s extraordinary efficacy against onchocerciasis or ‘river blindness’ a horrific and disabling disease that was devastating communities in Africa and South America. Over 4 billion doses of ivermectin (under the label Metzican) have been donated by the manufacturing company, Merck & Co. Inc., since 1987 to treat onchocerciasis in all endemic countries.
Like many other drugs, ivermectin is used to treat both humans and animals albeit with different formulations and dosage guidelines. Horse de-wormer is a concentrated paste that unsurprisingly delivers very high doses of ivermectin since it is meant for animals at least three times our weight. I should not have to say this but here I go. Eating horse de-wormer is a very bad idea. There, now that’s out of the way.
WHY ARE PEOPLE TAKING HORSE DE-WORMER?
Good question. If you ask Twitter it’s because they’re Republicans, ignorant and inbred. What they’re after with the horse de-wormer is its active ingredient: Ivermectin, and I would imagine this is because they have heard somewhere that this drug is effective against Covid-19. In the funhouse mirrors of social media facts become distorted and claims become wildly exaggerated. Doctors do not prescribe horse de-wormer for humans. They prescribe human use Ivermectin for various conditions and more recently as a prophylaxis and treatment for Covid-19.
IS IVERMECTIN A MIRACLE CURE FOR COVID-19?
While Ivermectin is most certainly a miracle cure for river blindness it is probably not a miracle cure for Covid-19. There are, however, to date 32 randomized control trials and several public distribution campaigns that suggest it does provide significant protection against the disease. Ivermectin has been part of treatment protocols in a number of countries since early on in the pandemic because of this benefit. There are some studies that do not support ivermectin for Covid, but the evidence is solid enough to justify more extensive clinical trials which is what Oxford University is doing. Just because a drug is not a miracle doesn’t mean it’s useless. Aspirin isn’t a miracle drug against heart disease, but doctors still prescribe it for people with high blood pressure to reduce the chance of a heart attack.
IS IVERMECTIN SAFE?
A safety analysis of over 350 articles published this May revealed ivermectin to have such an excellent safety profile that “no severe adverse event has been reported in dozens of completed or ongoing studies involving thousands of participants worldwide to evaluate the efficacy of ivermectin against COVID-19”. The author also notes that not a single death had every been reported from an accidental Ivermectin overdose. People do experience side effects though, the most commonly reported being fever, headache, dizziness, and rash.
Want to know the drug that causes the most cases of poisoning? Paracetamol, known as Tylenol in the United States. Surprisingly, it takes only sixteen 500 mg tablets to kill some people and anything over 4 grams is considered dangerous. Over 150 people die every year from accidentally taking too much of this everyday drug that millions keep in their medicine cabinet.
IF ALL THIS IS TRUE THEN WHY HAS THE FDA NOT APPROVED IVERMECTIN?
The FDA has not approved any Covid-19 treatments outside of a hospital setting, providing another reason why desperate and gullible are turning to horse pastes. The only drug they have approved is remdesivir which apart from being extortionately expensive has since been shown to have little clinical benefit. Although the FDA has not yet approved ivermectin for use against Covid-19, they do mention on their website that the drug is currently being assessed in clinical trials, hinting at a possible turnaround. Why the agency approved the use of remdesivir all the way back in October 2020 with relatively small trials and yet continue to refuse to approve Ivermectin with a much more significant body of positive data to its name is a question worth asking. Surely it could not have anything to do with expired patents, new therapeutics and profit margins. But I digress.
Through the conditioned parameters of digital media platforms, social discourse has become reduced to little more than Punch and Judy shows, with characters squealing and bashing their way through the topic while the rest munch popcorn, booing and cheering depending on their current chosen side. Although it is possible to disagree with someone without shouting at them or calling them names, it is not really considered acceptable. If you’re not willing to ridicule or be ridiculed, it’s best to stay out of it altogether.
And don’t mind that there is no actual substance to any of it. A virtual knock down drag out boxing match with amusing graphics has far more appeal for the critically challenged. Real science, the unpoliticized kind, is kicked ringside since the insights that scientists provide are far too nuanced and take too long for the bite-sized sloganizing brawls of a Twitter feed, or even the average news program.
We are fast becoming incapable of grasping any truth that doesn’t fit on the side of a cereal box and at the same time curiously cocksure of things we only found out about five minutes ago. But at least we have the horse de-wormer memes to remind some of us how smart we are in relation to everyone else. Well, okay, at least we didn’t eat horse paste.