Mexico City’s giant Ivermectin experiment

Alexandra Tyan

 

The Mexico City government has been treating its citizens like guinea pigs to test out ivermectin. The deworming drug has been touted as a potential answer to the pandemic by a growing band of devotees, despite the small inconvenience that there’s no evidence to support its effectiveness against Covid. 

Throughout 2021, those who tested positive in Mexico City received special home treatment kits from the municipal government. Alongside an oximeter and paracetamol, the boxes contained our old friend ivermectin.

Mexico City’s government was handing out Ivermectin like candy, our colleagues at Animal Politico report. Their decision to spend over $1.4 million on drugs that are not approved by the federal government caused a scandal. Their defense? They had “quasi-experimental” evidence that suggested people who received Ivermectin were 68% less likely to need hospital treatment.

The study that the government referred to in its policy was posted on the scientific platform SocArXiv in May 2021. Experts believe the government used it to retrospectively justify their actions. The study is “rife with conflicts of interest and ethical shortfalls”, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, a sociology professor at the University of California-San Diego, told the Infodemic. The authors did not obtain informed consent to participate in the study from the participants and never declared their conflicts of interest.

Pardo-Guerra added that he was baffled as to why the paper was posted to a social science platform, given it purported to be a medical document.

But the story has already traveled far beyond Mexico City. In the U.S., the example has been picked up on social media. A photo of a pharmacy fridge picturing ivermectin as an over-the-counter drug, supposedly taken in an airport in Mexico, has been circulating on Twitter, with the caption “In Mexico you can buy Ivermectin at an airport. In the USA doctors aren’t even allowed to prescribe it in fear of losing their license.”

Users have been sharing the photo with comments like: “US healthcare is a scam.”

In fact, Philip N. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and director of SocArXiv –the platform where the study was published, says the story is illustrative of a wider problem. 

“Ivermectin has become a cause among the “do your own research” community, and it’s very corrosive to public trust in science and public health. As long as we have people choosing their medical treatments based on the political affiliation of the people recommending them, any effort to overcome the disastrous US response to the pandemic will be impaired,” he said. 

There had been widespread appeals to have the paper removed from the archive platform it was posted to. And when the study was removed, a strong reaction followed. José Merino, one of the study’s authors and head of the Digital Agency for Public Innovation, published a statement addressed to Cohen personally, calling the decision “unethical, colonialist and authoritarian”. 

It also said “It’s very obvious that in the United States the simple mention of ivermectin triggers a political and media frenzy that’s been heavily contaminated by tin-foil-hat-users and anti-vaxxers on one side, and the pharmaceutical lobby on the other.”

It is the attempt to deliberately shape scientific evidence to retrospectively justify the government’s trial with ivermectin that is really worrying, thinks Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra: “That this is a calculated campaign of misinformation that uses scientific infrastructures is absolutely terrifying.“

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS  

Until last month, the Pacific archipelago of Tonga was one of the only countries in the world which Covid hadn’t touched. It had recorded just one coronavirus case throughout the pandemic. But that ended when the country was hit by a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami last month. Alongside vital supplies and assistance, aid workers descending on the islands have brought Covid-19 with them. The country now has 35 confirmed cases, and has gone into lockdown. Tonga’s precarious health system, along with everything else, had already been battered by the disaster and the UN and Red Cross has warned a Covid epidemic will be utterly devastating right now. 

Tuesday marked the second anniversary of Wuhan whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang’s death. When the news of his death broke, commenters swarmed his Weibo page with messages filled with anger, sadness and condolence. As Cindy Carter in the China Digital Times writes: “Although censors attempted to halt the deluge, the comments did not stop: they multiplied and took on a life of their own, evolving into a living memorial that became known as “China’s Wailing Wall.” The wall lives on, and Dr Li’s defunct page has now morphed into a portal for Chinese citizens to vent their frustration and grief. “No matter how much political propagandists try to turn the pandemic’s catastrophe into a great triumph of the system, no one with a memory will ever forget those eight whistleblower doctors who were punished,” wrote one commenter this year. “The Wailing Wall is still here, a perennial thorn in the heart of the enemy,” said another.

In Italy, anti-vaccine advocates and conspiracy theorists have leapt on a tragic story of a man setting himself on fire in Rende, in southern Italy. The video of the man, standing outside a Carabinieri office and setting himself alight, has amassed hundreds of thousands of views and has been circulated widely on Covid conspiracy websites. The man’s family has condemned anti-vaxxers for preying on the horrific incident and using it to further their narrative. “The gesture is in no way attributable to protests against the Green pass,” they wrote, referring to Italy’s EU Digital Covid Certificate.

WHAT WE’RE READING 

  • In Bolivia, the national vaccine drive has been hampered by disinformation, anti-vaccine rhetoric and evangelical opposition to vaccination. The Guardian explores how in rural, religious communities, people have come to demonize the Covid vaccine.
  • Things are not much better in Los Angeles, where a booming cottage industry has sprung up helping workers get religious exemptions from vaccinations by paying for bogus copied-and-pasted letters, citing Christan reasons for not getting jabbed. The Los Angeles Times has investigated the racket, and reviewed more than 2,200 documents that all help people get out of being jabbed. 

Tracking coronavirus disinformation from around the world

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