Primum Non Nocere: The Curious Case of Ivermectin

May 27, 2021
John Lemuel L. Lenon

If you’ve ever sat through a full-length zombie film, or if you’re the type to enjoy binge-watching every literal gut-wrenching episode of The Walking Dead, then you’d likely realize that our favorite flesh-eating, leg-dragging zombies are hardly ever the star of the show. If anything, they take centerstage only at the beginning while the plot is being set, but after we’ve been treated to a mind-blowing reveal of where they come from, what they’re like, and the godforsaken baddie responsible for it all, the narrative shifts to a whole other perspective. The story becomes less about the zombie apocalypse itself and more about how people make heads-and-tails of the current situation. Just like with every other story, it’s not so much the Big Bad Wolf that keeps us on the edge of our seats but more on how the Three Little Pigs band together (or not) to overcome it (or not).

There is little else that can be said of what might already be the buzzword of the decade: the COVID-19 pandemic. Like white on rice, our mornings are bombarded by a blitzkrieg of updates on a crisis that seems to have no foreseeable end. It’s been more than a year since we’ve been forced to negotiate our lives as we know them, and yet it doesn’t seem like we have much to show for it. While our neighbors are well on their way to resuming their lives, here we are, still stuck in our proverbial purgatories, at the mercy of the ruthless oscillations of our fates.

One need only tune in to whatever TV station is available (except ABS-CBN of course) to see the macabre reality that exists right outside our front doors. Every single day, people have had to make the impossible decision between going to work and risk getting infected or staying at home and risk losing their jobs. It’s like a Scylla-and-Charybdis kind of nightmare, where there is no decision that guarantees you make it out in one piece. Either way, you risk losing something—and you risk losing a lot. It should thus be unsurprising to hear of the many outrageous ways by which people have attempted to keep their paper boats floating in the middle of a raging storm. One that has piqued my attention as of late is the hotly debated use of ivermectin for COVID-19.
The reader might benefit in knowing that he or she is not currently reading the words of a medical expert. Being born into a family of doctors and having dabbled in medical school does not guarantee that I already have some game-changing solution much like what many on social media seem to have magically procured as of late. What I can say for sure, though, is that I need not be one to know that prescribing an antiparasitic for what is clearly a virus (it’s in the name) might be a disaster waiting to happen. As far as I know, parasites and viruses are two very different things with wildly different characteristics, and as such, to use a drug on one designed specifically for the other is much like using an asthma inhaler to treat a sprained ankle. Moreover, the ivermectin preparations we currently have are meant for animals and not people. They’re strong enough to knock out horses, so I leave it to your imagination to decide just what it might do to relatively tiny humans such as ourselves.

For all we know, ivermectin might indeed be the cure-all we’ve been waiting for. If it is, then I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. The problem, however, goes way beyond just the particularities of the drug itself. There is an even more insidious issue lurking underneath, that of the growing distrust of our healthcare system as predicated by its apparent failure in stemming the pandemic at hand. Given that we are more than a year into quarantine already and that the situation has not improved at all (in fact, things have gotten worse), what little credibility the DOH and the FDA previously had might now have gone down the drain. Given the lack of state support, it should no longer surprise us to see people taking matters into their own hands, to the point that they have become undaunted by any and all foreseeable risks if it means giving them even the slightest fighting chance against this pandemic. We might have to ask ourselves just how different an issue this really is given that every single day, people have no choice but to gamble with their lives anyway.

I honestly find myself deeply conflicted by this situation. While I have a fairly reasonable understanding of the science behind it, I cannot at the same time ignore the realities that make people suspicious of what it has to say. The issue goes way beyond just ivermectin, too—vaccine hesitation and the suspicions surrounding the necessity of quarantine protocols in the first place might all be from the same vein. At the end of the day, though, we cannot risk endangering more lives for whatever unproven sliver of benefit this supposed wonder drug has to offer. While we are desperate for solutions, we cannot just cut corners, settle with band-aid solutions, and risk having a bigger problem than what we already have. There is no guarantee that medical experts will have the answers for everything—this as much is true—but their years of study might at least churn out answers that are still universes better than what a businessperson, a politician, or even a theologian could ever offer. One day, I look forward to re-reading this article and cringing at how wrong I was. I am praying that perhaps after its posting, God will definitively reveal to all of us, in a booming voice no less, that ivermectin is indeed the cure we’ve all been waiting for. Until such time, however, I’d much rather believe that if something is too good to be true, then it probably is.

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The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.