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Every day, in social media groups with hundreds of thousands of members, a debate rages over the best way to treat Covid with endless lists of unproven drugs.

What is the right dose of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin? When should it be taken? Should it be combined with hydroxychloroquine? With the antibiotic azithromycin? What about Pepcid, hydrogen peroxide, colloidal silver? Vitamin C? Take it all, one user tells People. And chew a lemon peel, says another.

Two years into the pandemic, we now have a range of safe and effective vaccines and treatments that are readily available in much of the world. Yet millions have chosen to reject vaccines and rigorous medical research in favor of unproven treatments and pseudoscientific home remedies.

There is no single reason why people from diverse backgrounds in many countries have clung to these treatments with such fervor. But there is clearly a desperate demand for a quick fix to the pandemic. There is also an almost unlimited amount of false medical information telling people that such a solution is available, but nefarious forces intend to hide it from the public.

The mass belief in unproven treatments is often fueled by a vast ecosystem of medical peddlers profiting from irrational treatments and media influencers willing to insert their dubious claims into pre-existing political battles.

In the United States, for example, Republican lawmakers and conservative media have attacked public health officials recommending lockdowns while championing unproven drugs as miracle cures. One of the first times hydroxychloroquine appeared in mainstream media was on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show, where a cryptocurrency investor claiming to erroneously affiliated with Stanford Medical University advertised the drug as “the second cure for a virus of all time”. The show did not make a correction.

Although often touted as secret remedies, hidden away by mainstream medicine and the media, some of these drugs are well known and commonly taken for other ailments. Many are even the subject of numerous clinical trials. Take ivermectin, which is approved for use in treating parasites in animals and humans. Ivermectin was extremely widely used in Latin America during the early months of the pandemic as regional health agencies recommended it as a potential treatment for Covid, but misinformation claiming the drug was a panacea led people emptying supplies and resorting to unsafe versions. of ivermectin formulated for animals. Health officials stopped recommending ivermectin after careful consideration of the science behind it, and frontline evidence casts doubt on its effectiveness.

But instead of falling by the wayside in favor of more promising drugs, a combination of American culture war politics and pundits has caused the use of ivermectin to explode in North America and the UK. A fringe doctor whose medical activist group has affiliated with anti-vaccine organizations appeared in a viral YouTube video touting the drug, then months later sat down for a sympathetic interview on the podcast Joe Rogan’s highest rated.

In September, when the ivermectin craze was in full swing, Dr. Patricia Garcia, Peru’s former health minister, told me she watched in disbelief as the rest of the world seemed to be replicating her country’s mistakes. .

None of this would have been possible without social media platforms allowing medical misinformation to spread at unprecedented speed and scale, while influential media figures such as Carlson and Rogan act as megaphones for the fringe actors and junk science. It’s an ecosystem that nurtures deep mistrust, both from mainstream media and public health officials.

But providing false medical information is only one side of the equation.. Within groups dedicated to unproven Covid treatments, believing in these drugs has become its own form of identity. In addition to asking for dosage recommendations or links to telehealth sites for prescriptions, people are developing echo chambers that provide a sense of community while attacking strangers as brainwashed or part of a vast conspiracy. They say they can’t trust doctors, the media or their family members. All they have left is each other.

Online communities promoting ivermectin and other unproven Covid treatments are filled with what appear to be average people mistakenly trying to help each other, give medical advice or comfort each other. When someone posts that they are sick, they receive a wave of good wishes, as well as pseudoscientific cures. In a recent post, two men promised they would pray for each other’s loved ones who had been intubated after contracting Covid.

“Alternative medicine” communities are certainly full of scammers with financial incentives to spread medical misinformation and far-right extremists who try to radicalize others, but many people in these unproven treatment groups just seem desperate for someone to tell them things are going to be okay.

Conspiratorial movements tend to consume the most vulnerable people, in times of great distress, often regardless of their intelligence or profession. The pandemic has had a profound emotional impact on millions of people and also appears to have left many people distrustful of public health officials and susceptible to misinformation. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with symptoms of depression were more than twice as likely to voice opinions that contain medical misinformation.

There is little reason to believe that the demand for unproven treatments and pseudoscientific cures will soon disappear. The anti-vaccine movement has become more militant. Covid-19 will not be eradicated. The financial and political incentives to push medical misinformation will remain. There will always be people whose deep distrust and belief in conspiracies means they will seek out any paste, pill or placebo they have been told will work. Some will recover and tout these unproven treatments as lifesavers. Others will not have the chance.

  • Nick Robins-Early is a New York-based journalist. It reports on extremism, disinformation, technology and world news

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