What a bottle of ivermectin reveals about the shadowy world of COVID

Just before Christmas, a right-wing journalist named Ben Bergquam became seriously ill with COVID-19.”My Christmas gift was losing my [sense of] taste and smell and having a 105-degree fever, and just feeling like garbage,” Bergquam said in a Facebook video that he shot as he lay in a California hospital.”It’s scary. When you can’t breathe, it’s not a fun place to be,” he said. Bergquam told his audience he wasn’t vaccinated, despite having had childhood asthma, a potentially dangerous underlying condition. Instead, he held up a bottle of the drug ivermectin. Almost all doctors do not recommend taking ivermectin for COVID, but many individuals on the political right believe that it works. The details revealed in Bergquam’s video provide a rare view into the prescription of an unproven COVID-19 therapy. Data shows that prescriptions for drugs like ivermectin have surged in the pandemic, but patient-doctor confidentiality often obscures exactly who is handing out the drugs. Bergquam’s testimonial provides new and troubling details about a small group of physicians who are willing to eschew the best COVID-19 treatments and provide alternative therapies made popular by disinformation — for a price. Ivermectin is usually prescribed to treat parasitic worms, and best medical evidence to date shows that it doesn’t work against COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, American Medical Association and two pharmaceutical societies all discourage prescribing ivermectin for COVID-19, and many doctors and hospitals will not give it to patients who are seeking treatment. But fueled by conspiracy theories about vaccine safety and alternative treatments, many on the political right incorrectly believe ivermectin is a secret cure-all for COVID. As millions of Americans fell ill with COVID last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported ivermectin prescriptions were at 24 times pre-pandemic levels. The agency says prescriptions again rose during the latest omicron surge. A significant number of these prescriptions come from a small minority of doctors who are willing to write them, often using telemedicine to do so, according to Kolina Koltai, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington. The same doctors frequently promote anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.”They’re profiting off misinformation, using their medical expertise as currency,” she says. Bergquam told his audience he got his ivermectin from a group known as America’s Frontline Doctors. Their leader, Dr. Simone Gold, is currently facing multiple charges related to her role in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She is well known for spreading anti-vaccine propaganda, and she also tells audiences across the country to give her a call for prescriptions of unproven drugs like ivermectin. Her group charges $90 for the call, and Koltai believes the prescriptions are among its primary sources of income.

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