Folks who are skeptical of masks and vaccines but still believe in COVID have turned to a variety of pseudoscience tools since the start of the pandemic, including bleach, UV rays, and … livestock dewormer. The latter, the antiparasitic ivermectin, is lauded by some as a panacea to a pandemic that has killed upward of 4 million people around the globe—and you can find it at your nearest farm supply store.
In humans, ivermectin is used to treat parasitic worms, scabies, and extreme cases of lice. It first became touted as a COVID cure in April 2020 after Australian researchers published a study claiming the antiparasitic could kill the coronavirus within 48 hours when used in large doses in laboratory settings. (Pharma giant and ivermectin manufacturer Merck later warned that the studies promoting ivermectin as a cure for COVID had a “concerning lack of safety data.”) Now that the delta variant is causing COVID rates in the U.S. to rise astronomically yet again, more people are again looking to the drug as a cure. But the evidence often cited by its proponents comes from questionable studies—one of the largest studies in support of the drug as a COVID treatment was recently withdrawn over ethical concerns, and a review of other studies by the medical research organization Cochrane concluded against the use of ivermectin.
Nevertheless, ever since it became popular as a supposed cure-all for COVID, it’s become harder for “COVID truthers” to file the prescriptions from shady online doctors at pharmacies after pharmacists began to crack down on what they saw as a potentially problematic increase in ivermectin requests, often in too-large doses and from difficult-to-reach doctors.
So, people have been turning to the animal versions available at farm stores instead: a paste for horses, a “drench” for sheep, and injectables for pigs and cows. Facebook groups and Telegram chats have also popped up, filled with people giving questionable advice on dosage, side effects, and best practices for the antiparasitic. On an Amazon comments section for an apple-flavored horse paste, one commenter spewed false equivalencies about viruses and parasites before writing, “Flavor is bearable but then I am not a horse.” Another commenter who has been using it as “preventative medicine” claimed that ivermectin was medicine that a nebulous “they” were trying to keep secret. And yet another wrote that they bought it for “the you know what.” (Update, Aug. 10, 2021: Amazon tells Slate in a statement, “The reviews referenced violate our policy and have been removed. We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant. We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features.”)
This is all despite the fact that animal ivermectin is not safe for humans. At all. In fact, there’s even been an increase in calls to poison control centers from people who overdosed on the animal drug, which can be deadly if used improperly. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization both have explicit guidelines against the use of the drug for COVID purposes. “While there are approved uses for ivermectin in people and animals, it is not approved for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19,” the FDA wrote in a blog post answering frequently asked ivermectin questions. “People should never take animal drugs, as the FDA has only evaluated their safety and effectiveness in the particular species for which they are labeled. Using these products in humans could cause serious harm.”
For the farm stores that carry nonprescription ivermectin for use in livestock, pets, and other animals, the surge in demand of the animal dewormer for human use has caused problems. The product has been flying off the shelves in stores across the country.
Some farm supply stores, like the Tractor Supply Co. chain, have had to resort to disclaimers to curb the purchase of ivermectin for COVID in their stores. “The product sold in our stores is only suitable for animals and is clearly labeled as such,” a representative for the company told me in an email. “We have signs to remind our guests that these products are for animal use only.” The sign used by Tractor Supply reads: “Ivermectin HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans and could cause severe personal injury or death.”
And while many stores are taking the Tractor Supply route and adding warning signs about the risk of using livestock ivermectin in humans, others have pulled the product off their shelves altogether. A critical medicine for anyone caring for livestock has gone from widely available at most farm stores to readily policed in order to save anti-vaxxers and COVID truthers from themselves. For Patricia Cantler, an animal rehabber who works with rescued squirrels, groundhogs, mice, and possums and uses ivermectin to protect them, it’s a nightmare. She said that all of her local farm supply stores in northeast Maryland pulled ivermectin from their shelves about six months ago, forcing her to adjust how she purchases the product for her animals.
“We use it for mange … mainly in squirrels. But we also use it when wildlife comes in with maggots … which is critical to take care of right away,” she said. “The hardship comes when you get an animal in with maggots and you run to your farm supply store and they don’t have [ivermectin] on the shelves anymore because of all of this. Then you have to resort to other methods, but it takes anywhere from three to five days when ordered online to actually get it and that in certain circumstances puts an animal in jeopardy more so than it already was.”
Cantler now buys her ivermectin ahead of time, meaning that at times she’s even had to resort to using a product that’s slightly expired, as it’s better for the animals she rescues than using none at all. As more folks turn to ivermectin as a last Hail Mary against the delta variant, normal availability of the drug for people looking to use it for its actual purpose doesn’t appear to be in the cards anytime soon. A manager at a C-A-L Ranch Stores in American Fork, Utah, told me that while the demand for the horse medicine has been dying out after it peaked earlier in the pandemic, it has again been rising in recent weeks.
“We have been doing our best to put up signs and make sure that our employees are aware to tell people ‘that’s not the recommended thing, don’t do that,’ ” the manager said, but it hasn’t prevented everyone from committing to their medical misfirings. “We haven’t had anybody be hostile about [buying ivermectin], but we have had people do it anyway.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.