Whoever runs the Food and Drug Administration’s Twitter feed has just about had it with the widespread off-label use of ivermectin—a generic anti-parasitic drug commonly used in veterinary medicine, as well as a treatment for diseases like river blindness in humans—as an alternative to the Covid-19 vaccines. “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” the agency quipped, alongside a link to an explanatory article titled “Why You Should Not Use Ivermectin to Treat or Prevent COVID-19.”
That’s exactly what people appear to be doing: Nearly 90,000 U.S. patients were allegedly prescribed the medicine in one week in August, a rate 24 times higher than in early 2020. And that’s nothing compared to the untold numbers of people sourcing Ivermectin from veterinary pharmacies, foreign wholesalers, or the black market. The alleged wonder pills have been hyped on television programs and podcasts including Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Joe Rogan Experience, and The Jimmy Dore Show; pushed by enthusiastic if dubious physicians; and promoted on Facebook through advertisements and private discussion groups. And that’s just in the United States—ivermectin has also racked up fans abroad and is reportedly used widely in India and South America. According to one estimate, tens of millions of patients worldwide may have taken ivermectin as either a prophylactic, a treatment, or both over the course of the pandemic.
Despite its surging popularity, there’s no good evidence that ivermectin is effective against the coronavirus. The largest and most reputable clinical trial to date found the drug offered no clinical benefit whatsoever, and much of what’s been sold as promising evidence to the contrary has been debunked. Meanwhile, increasing reports of emergency room visits, poison control calls, and significant side effects associated with off-label ivermectin use—largely among patients unwilling to get vaccinated against Covid-19, even as hospitalizations and deaths climb—have become downright alarming. No less so is the story of how we even got to the point where federal agencies feel compelled to warn people away from taking horse dewormers from livestock suppliers for a disease that’s now mostly preventable through free immunization. As the right leans ever harder on waging eternal culture war as an electoral tactic, ivermectin has become its latest wedge issue.
It’s hardly a surprise that the novel coronavirus has been politicized from the get-go: Pandemics are by definition public health emergencies, demanding governmental intervention and far-reaching mobilizations of resources, education, and labor. How exactly to wield authority and allocate services in such a crisis—not to mention who foots the bill—are intensely ideological questions. Throughout the 2000s, public health departments across the U.S. saw their budgets slashed to the bone by austerity-minded officials, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the ravages of Covid-19 when it emerged in Wuhan, China, nearly two years ago. Once the pathogen began spreading rapidly in the U.S. in early 2020, the urgent need to curb transmission by shutting down nonessential business and paying people to stay home was pitted against monied interests. Later on, as Congress negotiated relief bills, Republicans largely opposed direct relief payments and generous unemployment benefits, while championing beefy payouts and liability waivers for corporations.
This tension between public and private interests drove messaging about the science of the virus itself. “Reopening the economy”—a rosy euphemism for rolling back public health regulations and forcing vulnerable people back into low-paying jobs by cutting off public assistance, all to protect rich people’s profits—demanded downplaying the severity of the pandemic. Hydroxychloroquine—another generic drug that generated early buzz in right-wing circles as a Covid-19 miracle cure, only to prove useless in repeated clinical trials—served exactly that purpose: If this disease could be cleared up with a cheap pill, why bother changing our lives and threatening our bottom lines to avoid it? Ironically, President Donald Trump initially touted an eventual vaccine in the same way, taking credit for its development when it was granted emergency use authorization last fall, and later tweeting, “The vaccine and the vaccine rollout are getting the best of reviews … get those “shots” everyone!” The implication couldn’t have been clearer: Relax, a quick fix is coming.
But the vast majority of the ill-fated vaccination campaign, not to mention the devastating surge in cases and deaths caused by widespread distrust and hostility toward the shot, wouldn’t happen under Trump’s presidency—it would happen under Joe Biden’s. And it would play out in a political context primed not only by deeply entrenched partisanship but by a decades-long culture war cynically engineered by the right and executed by its media loyalists. Whipping viewers up into a frenzy over stuff like latchkey kids, gay marriage, and a Black president has facilitated the Republican Party’s lurch rightward, because there’s no way it could get millions of people to vote for massive corporate tax cuts without a heaping helping of disingenuous identity cultivation. (And it certainly didn’t help matters that Democrats’ strategy has essentially been to meet it halfway, doing the GOP’s work for it with enthusiastic deregulation, welfare reform, and other items ripped straight off the far right’s wish list.)
Over the past few years, the already disingenuous culture war worsened: Trump cake-walked to the top of the 2016 ticket by tapping into his media prowess and ability to “trigger the libs,” which in turn repelled large numbers of wealthy suburbanites and made the right more dependent on lib-triggering than ever before. Combine that with a global pandemic that relegated millions of Americans at home scrolling through polarized social media feeds on their computer and phone screens, and you get an exhausting click-driven cacophony of feigned gasket-blowing over Dr. Seuss, pronouns, Simone Biles—a litany of cultural detritus presumed to be capable of sending liberals into a tizzy, to the benefit of pundits looking for their own quick fix of outrage energy: “Gosh, aren’t these commie goofballs annoying?”
Looking back, it’s almost quaint we didn’t see how vaccines would get enmeshed in these trends. But the results are crystal clear: Nine months into the rollout, daily vaccination rates are ebbing, even as tens of millions of adults remain unvaccinated—an increasingly partisan Republican cohort dead set against a preventative drug that’s become one more media wedge. But unlike the hydroxychloroquine fad before it, anti-vaccine sentiment doesn’t serve capital—nor does the surging interest in ivermectin, so often presented as a vaccine alternative. (The widespread conspiratorial argument that ivermectin has been suppressed because it threatens pharmaceutical profits is undermined by the fact that the drug’s domestic manufacturer, Merck—a massive multinational pharmaceutical firm, by the way!—has explicitly objected to its use for Covid-19 and seems unlikely to be doing so to protect other firms’ vaccine revenue.)
In short, the dismaying ivermectin craze is a pure product of nihilism—it’s what happens when a political party is so singularly focused on amassing wealth and fortifying the interests of capital by means of gleefully tapping into the fury of its voters to fuel its political success, all while offering them paltry returns for their investment. It’s also what happens when right-wing media figures beckon voters into an alternate reality by doing kayfabe smackdowns of imagined caricatures of lefty college libs who think they’re better than rural simpletons.
It’s all fun and games until a deadly pathogen tears across the earth and triggers the need for a mass vaccination campaign. The Covid-19 pandemic is the supremely rare scenario that required the nation to come together and work in a coordinated effort to mitigate the crisis swiftly through shared sacrifice, but its ill-timed arrival on these shores came at a moment when the right had trained millions of people to revile such displays of collective action cynically, thus impeding the necessary structural response. Here, its decades-long effort to erode its base’s trust in their country’s public institutions has arrived at its terrible apogee: Against all odds, in a political system utterly captured by money and the villains who have the most of it, we somehow wound up with an effective vaccine, available in every town in the country, free at the point of use. But we also wound up with a world in which broad swaths of people have been conned into rejecting it. After all, who needs vaccines in a world chock full of ivermectin?