Why Is the Intellectual Dark Web Suddenly Hyping an Unproven COVID Treatment?

Even as scientists study a drug used to deworm dogs as a COVID treatment, the loudest people online claim it's a miracle cure, and that inquiry into it is being suppressed.

Jun 24 2021, 3:15pm

Some time ago, a furious debate erupted across the United States: Do people have the right to promote, prescribe, and use an unproven drug for a serious illness? Many asked an attendant question: Was there a vast and sinister conspiracy to keep that drug’s stunning efficacy hidden from the American public? 

The product was called laetrile. It was derived from apricot pits, and throughout the 1970s it was championed by a small but extremely loud group of people as a suppressed and miraculous cancer cure. It was not, as it turned out, a cure at all: Laetrile, also known as “Vitamin B17,” showed little to no anti-cancer activity in a large National Cancer Institute study, and multiple studies also warned that taking too much of it could lead to cyanide poisoning. Still, thousands of Americans, including actor Steve McQueen, flocked to clinics in Mexico for treatment before the FDA declared the product illegal in 1980. Since then, it’s made several comebacks online, each time marked by a chorus of people claiming that its real effectiveness has been deliberately concealed by unscrupulous medical Powers that Be. 

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Because everything old is always made exhaustingly new again, during the COVID-19 pandemic the same pattern pioneered by laetrile advocates has played out several times. The first anti-COVID drug to be held out as a secret miracle cure was hydroxychloroquine, boosted by world leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Now, increasingly, it’s the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, which can be used to treat some skin conditions and is widely used in veterinary medicine.

Both the NIH and the European Medicines Agency say that ivermectin shouldn’t be used for COVID-19 treatment outside of ongoing clinical trials, the results of which have been muddled, and not quite the definitive positive result that advocates have hoped for. (As the NIH puts it, “Some clinical studies showed no benefits or worsening of disease after ivermectin use, whereas others reported shorter time to resolution of disease manifestations that were attributed to COVID-19, greater reduction in inflammatory marker levels, shorter time to viral clearance, or lower mortality rates in patients who received ivermectin than in patients who received comparator drugs or placebo.”) Instead, the studies thus far point, as clinical trials often do, to the need for further research. A January study from Spain, for instance, found that patients receiving a single dose of ivermectin within 72 hours of fever or cough onset saw no difference in the proportion of positive PCR tests. But the patients did self-report a reduced inability to smell, and what the study authors called “a reduction of cough and a tendency to lower viral loads and lower IgG titers which warrants assessment in larger trials.” A large meta-analysis that was just published, meanwhile, found that ivermectin could help reduce symptoms when begun early, and when people have only mild cases of COVID-19. Oxford University recently announced that it will be studying ivermectin as part of a very large clinical trial (the largest in the world, actually) that looks at a variety of COVID treatments. 

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Ivermectin advocates have made much of countries like Peru that began recommending ivermectin as a treatment for its hospitalized patients. In fact, though, Peru’s Ministry of Health approved ivermectin as a drug for treating COVID-19 in May of 2020; in October of that year, the country’s health minister announced it and other unproven drugs wouldn’t be used on hospitalized patients anymore, based on evidence that they simply didn’t work. A recent double-blind randomized study in Cali, Colombia found that ivermectin, used among adults with mild cases of COVID-19, “did not significantly improve the time to resolution of symptoms.” 

In a strange new development, though, the old claims about an effective cure being suppressed by secretive and sinister forces are rising again. Some of the loudest voices now promoting ivermectin—or, more neutrally, asking why they aren't allowed to ask questions about it—are part of, or allied to, the broader ecosystem of intensely contrarian public figures who sometimes refer to themselves as the Intellectual Dark Web, which broadly assails Silicon Valley as censorious even as prominent members are closely tied to Silicon Valley elites. (Bret Weinstein, for example, an IDW figure near the center of the current controversy, is the brother of Eric Weinstein, managing director of famed investor Peter Thiel's Thiel Capital and not only himself a prominent IDW member but one credited with having coined the term.)

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The IDW has seized on ivermectin as a front in what it claims to be an ongoing war over free speech, with members and fellow travelers enthusiastically promoting poorly-designed studies, bad science, and strange half-truths while questioning why anyone would have anything against their doing so. In many ways, and seemingly without quite knowing what they’re doing or with any sense of the history of these kinds of claims, they’re following, nearly step-by-step, the patterns laid out for them by the laetrile-peddlers of the past. 

The foremost medical promoter of ivermectin at the moment is an outfit calling itself the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, or FLCCC, which claims to have developed a highly effective COVID-19 treatment involving the drug. (The FLCCC also claims ivermectin can be used to treat long-haul COVID-19 symptoms.) As MedPage Today pointed out, these claims have been greeted with intense skepticism by clinicians and medical ethicists. In a lengthy and withering critique published on the blog Science-Based Medicine, Dr. David Gorski poked holes the size of Mack trucks in studies that FLCCC supporters are using to claim that the drug is effective as a COVID-19 treatment — including the large meta-analysis that found ivermectin could reduce symptoms when begun early. Gorski pointed out that it comes from “authors associated with the BIRD Group, a pro-ivermectin advocacy group that appears to me to be very similar to the FLCCC.” (One of the authors on the paper, Dr. Tess Lawrie, is a founder of the BIRD Group and, as Gorski wrote, has spoken warmly of Kory’s work. ) Lawrie also created a GoFundMe to raise money for costs associated with the BIRD Group’s work, which was titled “Help us get a lifesaving drug approved for COVID-19.”

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“Ivermectin is the new hydroxychloroquine,” Gorski concluded. “It’s been promoted the same way and by the same people. The same conspiracy theories have sprung up around it as the scientific evidence supporting its use is weak at best, negative at worst.” (Gorski noted that ivmmeta.com, a website promoting ivermectin data, looks suspiciously similar to hcqmeta.com, one promoting hydroxychloroquine data. These sites do appear to be intimately related; ivmmeta.com resolves to the same IP address as hcqmeta.com as well as c19legacy.com and hcqlost.com, websites promoting hydroxychloroquine and claiming to count the deaths caused by doctors not using hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID-19. All of these sites refer physicians to the FLCCC for “treatment protocols.”)

Despite studies showing, so far, that ivermectin is at best a mediocre treatment for COVID-19, despite a specific FDA warning against the use of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, and despite the fact that clinical study is ongoing, the FLCCC and its co-founder Dr. Pierre Kory, a pulmonary and critical care specialist, have become the darlings of members of the IDW, who claim that ivermectin is effective and that inquiry into it is being stifled. (Kory wasn’t previously a well-known public figure; during the pandemic, however, he’s emerged as a champion of unproven off-label uses for a variety of drugs to treat COVID-19. The New York Times reported in August of 2020 that he is among a group of doctors who “disseminated a protocol for treating Covid-19 that includes anticoagulants and steroids but also other treatments — including Pepcid and intravenous vitamin C.” Kory didn’t respond to a request for comment from Motherboard submitted through the FLCCC.) 

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The locus of the ivermectin/IDW crossover appears to be the DarkHorse podcast, hosted by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying. The two are a married couple who both taught biology at Evergreen State College and both famously resigned in 2017  during an unholy controversy over the school’s annual Day of Absence. (During the longstanding event, held yearly, students of color left campus to talk about race and equity; when organizers asked white students to leave campus instead during the 2017 event, Weinstein objected. After he said he received threats, he declared it was unsafe for him to be on campus and sued Evergreen, ultimately receiving a $500,000 settlement.)

After their resignations, Weinstein and Heying entered the opinion business full-time and with both feet. They began promoting ivermectin this spring, and interviewed Kory on their podcast in early June. Kory claimed that public health bodies are ignoring the potential uses of ivermectin in the fight against COVID-19, perhaps deliberately. Striking the same conspiratorial tone that often arises in conjunction with flimsy medical claims, he speculated that a World Health Organization committee was “told they can’t come out of that room with a recommendation” for ivermectin. Kory and Weinstein both agreed that COVID-19 vaccines are being promoted at the expense of other treatments, seemingly for the benefit of the same sinister Theys whom, they imply, control the WHO and other health agencies. Another podcast featured Weinstein literally taking ivermectin on air. “We are not going to make any recommendations as to what you should do,” Weinstein said, shortly before downing the drug. “And we are not going to say anything conclusive about what the data say, because the data are not themselves conclusive. However, it doesn’t mean the data don’t imply things.” 

Weinstein went on to add that neither he nor Heying had been vaccinated “because we have fears, as we have discussed at length on this podcast,” and that “given the apparent effectiveness at ivermectin in preventing COVID,” he felt that taking ivermectin would be appropriate for him as a prophylactic. “Cost-benefit for me, it makes sense.” Heying compared it to taking anti-malarial drugs, but declined to take it on air when Weinstein did. 

In response to questions from Motherboard, Heying said via email that the couple first began examining ivermectin in detail this spring. 

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“In the first part of May, both Bret and I, independently and then together, began reading a variety of scientific papers about the potential efficacy of ivermectin both as prophylactic against and treatment for COVID-19,” she told Motherboard. They mentioned Kory in the episode, she added, “but we did not know much of his work at that point. Since then, he has flown to Portland (where we live), the three of us have spent time together, and he has been on the DarkHorse podcast with Bret as host."

Heying said that she and Weinstein aren’t “following” any particular experts, phrasing that Motherboard used to ask her who the couple views as reputable scientific sources. “[W]e are not 'following' any particular experts; that isn’t what scientists are supposed to do,” she wrote. “We have been and continue to read the scientific literature as it emerges. The one exception to this is with regard to the protocol for using ivermectin as a prophylactic against COVID-19, which is listed on the website for the FrontLine COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), an organization of doctors of which Dr. Kory is a leading figure.” 

After the episode where Weinstein took the drug live aired, Heying added in her email, their entire family soon began taking ivermectin as a preventative against COVID. “All four of us—Bret and Heather, and our two sons, 17 and 15 years old—are taking ivermectin as prophylactic against COVID-19, using the protocol outlined on the FLCCC’s site. None of us have had any noticeable side effects.” (The FDA recommends against using ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID, and says overdose could cause serious health issues, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension, allergic reactions, dizziness, ataxia, seizures, coma, and death.) She also said that the couple have still not been vaccinated, adding, “There is substantial emerging evidence that the COVID vaccines are not as safe as they have been publicized to be.” (COVID-19 vaccines are believed to be overwhelmingly safe and effective, adverse events are being closely monitored, and COVID cases worldwide are plummeting in places where high percentages of the population are vaccinated.) 

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Weinstein and Heying now say that they’re being threatened with a YouTube ban for having discussed the drug. 

They were able to further amplify those claims in an interview Weinstein did with longtime Rolling Stone journalist and current Substack personality Matt Taibbi, who decried YouTube’s current policy on discussing ivermectin, which holds that videos can be removed for encouraging people to use the drug to treat COVID-19. (“YouTube is making the FDA’s current position a mandatory element of any public discussion,” Taibbi wrote.) Taibbi also interviewed Pierre Kory, who told him that he thought YouTube was inappropriately moderating scientific discussions: “You have these ideas about the need to censor hate speech, calls for violence, and falsity,” Kory told Taibbi, “and they’ve put science on the same shelf.” (Taibbi couldn’t be reached for comment.) 

Heying told Motherboard, “YouTube has taken down several videos from both channels, but has only delivered one ‘strike’ to each channel. Three strikes and you’re out—you lose the channel permanently (although the strikes expire after 90 days, so the less pithy saying should really be: ‘3 strikes within 90 days and you’re out’).”

Inevitably, Joe Rogan is also involved. He said in a conversation with the comedian Dave Smith in April that he’d been listening to Weinstein and Heying. (In the same, widely-criticized episode, Smith and Rogan also agreed that COVID vaccines weren’t necessary for everyone and that encouragement to get them constituted mere “virtue signaling.” Rogan added, “If you’re like 21 years old and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go, no.” Rogan later walked back those comments, calling himself “a fucking moron.”) More recently, Rogan hosted both Weinstein and Kory on the first-ever "emergency" episode of his podcast, where Kory said that when ivermectin was tested on monkey kidney cells in a lab test, “the virus was essentially eradicated.” (Wired published an interesting article in 2020 about whether Vero cells, the monkey kidney cells often used by virologists in research, are the right choice; Vero cell results often can’t be replicated, for instance, in human lung cells.) 

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The overall point of Rogan’s conversation with Kory and Weinstein was to make the case that a promising treatment is being suppressed by the pharmaceutical industry. “You have a drug that’s good enough to end the pandemic at any point you wanted,” Weinstein said, at one point. “Who decides to prioritize business interests ahead of that? I find it hard to imagine.” He speculated that the pharmaceutical industry has “corrupted the system” of approving new drugs and that because “there’s no profit to be made” from ivermectin for that industry, it is being ignored or smothered. 

“No one,” Kory added “is going to fund [pharmaceutical trials] around ivermectin.” No one, he said, is “championing ivermectin except for my little group of non-profit doctors” and their allies around the world. 

Finally, the cause has also been taken up by former New York Times opinion editor and current Substack personality Bari Weiss—writer of the Times story that named and defined the IDW—who, as is her wont, responded with an even more thundering level of alarmist metaphor. “How have we gotten to the point where having conversations about important scientific and medical subjects requires such a high level of personal risk?” she wrote. “How have we accepted a reality in which Big Tech can carry out the digital equivalent of book burnings? And why is it that so few people are speaking up against the status quo?” (It’s unclear what, in this strained metaphor, would constitute the book-burning in question.) 

What goes undiscussed here, of course, is that Big Tech isn’t suppressing science—as outlined above, ivermectin is being vigorously studied across the world—but is, rather, moderating promotion of and advocacy for an as-yet unproven cure for a serious disease. The alternative here—that YouTube, if it doesn't bar advocacy for the use of potentially dangerous drugs in potentially dangerous ways, will become a haven for the promotion of unproven and at times outright dangerous quack cures, in the same way that it was previously a haven for Sandy Hook and Holocaust denialism and other rather pernicious forms of misinformation including bleach drinking—goes undiscussed. Taibbi sees Weinstein and Heying’s predicament as symbolic of the broader metamorphosis of the internet, which has, he writes, become "a giant unaccountable bureaucracy for suppressing dialogue, run by people with an authoritarian vision for information flow.” He also speculates that ivermectin discussion is being suppressed because “its reputation worldwide as a ‘populist’ treatment, a medicine taken by people not waiting for official validation, has made it a target of censors and pundits alike.” 

It’s true that even lacking solid evidence of its effectiveness, ivermectin has become a “populist” treatment, of sorts, in that it’s being used en masse in developing countries where people are desperate for any weapon in the fight against COVID-19. In Latin America, both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin have come into widespread use; ivermectin has also been recommended in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and South Africa, where black-market tablets are selling for astronomical prices. But in many places, surging demand is matched by a terrifying lack of evidence. Some of these countries began recommending ivermectin based on the findings of a preprint from an Illinois-based company called Surgisphere. But Surgisphere’s data proved to be catastrophically unreliable, and two high-profile studies relying on information drawn from its patient database were retracted. (“A now-removed preprint of one of the company’s earlier studies, which linked the antiparasitic medicine ivermectin to better survival in COVID-19 patients, was used by national and regional governments in Latin America to help justify including the drug in clinical guidelines for disease treatment and prevention,” The Scientist wrote in October 2020, “decisions that have not been reversed since the paper disappeared.")

What seems to really be at work here, in the end, is a political battle, not a medical one. The laetrile wars of the 1970s also launched what’s known as the “health freedom” movement—a libertarian-tinged social tendency that holds Americans should have unrestricted access to alternative treatments—into the spotlight. (The National Health Federation was first founded in 1955, and the first thing its founder promoted were “radionics,” devices whose promoters claim to treat serious illnesses with electromagnetic waves. The NHF was also intensely involved in the battle over laetrile.) In the same way, the promoters of ivermectin have been embraced not just by the IDW, but by conservative lawmakers. In December of last year, Kory testified at the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Hearing on Covid-19 Treatments, at the invitation of Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who praised his bravery. Kory called ivermectin "miraculous"; he reportedly resigned from the University of Wisconsin not long after doing so, and subsequently resigned from the job he got after that at Aurora St. Luke's, saying "the hospital wanted to limit his freedom to speak." 

It's a familiar set of claims, amounting to an assertion that being given the broadest possible platform is the same as being silenced, and that one's theories being tested is the same as them having been suppressed. While Big Tech continues to issue a confused, belated, and at times contradictory response to the problem of people using its platforms to promote health quackery, Weinstein, Heying, Taibbi, and Weiss have positioned themselves as the vanguards of intellectual freedom by, in their ways, buttressing these claims. In fact, and without, perhaps, even realizing it, they’ve acted as foot soldiers for something entirely commonplace: a politicized and pseudoscientific response to a deadly disease. 

For her part, Heying told Motherboard, “My position is that science is being suppressed, and that authorities who claim the mantle of science are deciding what can and cannot be discussed and studied. This is in fact anti-scientific (I had a piece on this in Areo recently: What If We’re Wrong?). Furthermore, 'fact-checkers' are shutting down actual scientists—standing in for scientists when we need is free and open scientific inquiry (I have a piece on that coming out next Tuesday).”

She is, she added, “thrilled that Oxford has made this announcement” to include ivermectin in a large clinical trial. “Two months ago there was almost no movement on the issue. That was before Bret or I were talking about it. We have helped shine a light on it for sure. The FLCCC and, in England, the BIRD group, have been trying to do so since last year. Many other independent scientists and doctors have also been trying to do so. In some other countries, there seems to be less resistance to discussing ivermectin. I very much hope that we are seeing a sea-change in our own country now.” 

This article has been updated to further expand on and clarify the nature of the meta-analysis authored by BIRD Group-affiliated author Dr. Tess Lawrie.

Tagged:

JOE ROGAN, Bret Weinstein, COVID-19, covid-19 misinformation, joe rogan experience, heather heying, pierre kory, flccc

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