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Wait, Why Are People Eating Horse Paste Instead of Getting the Vaccine?

A closeup of a horse's face looking into the camera

Over the weekend, the FDA tweeted a message asking people to stop ingesting horse medication, a thing some had started doing in a misguided and dangerous attempt to treat or prevent COVID-19.

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The medication being taken is called ivermectin and it’s used to treat parasitic infections. While there is a version available for humans, people have been seeking out the version for livestock, and doing so in such large numbers that it triggered a flood of calls to Mississippi’s poison control center. (Neither the human or veterinary version, by the way, has been approved for any sort of treatment for COVID-19. They are treatments for parasites, not viruses.)

If you’re wondering how we got to this point, where people are seeking out livestock meds instead of taking the free, FDA-approved vaccine, you’re not alone.

As would be expected, Fox News has played a major role in putting ivermectin on people’s radars. Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson have all promoted the drug on their shows.

But before the drug made its way onto Fox News, it was being shared, unsurprisingly, in Facebook groups and on Reddit.

NBC News correspondent and prolific explainer of stupid things Ben Collins shared a thread of information laying out the origin of this particular drug’s rise among anti-vaxxers. And surprise! It’s pretty much exactly the same origin as the last drug people were misusing for ill-advised COVID treatment.

Before it was being celebrated by Tucker Carlson, ivermectin was being peddled by a group called America’s Frontline Doctors. That’s the same group that was featured in a video last year pushing hydroxychloroquine, telling people they “don’t need masks, there is a cure” for COVID-19.

The video was widely shared on social media platforms before finally being taken down and even, notably, getting Donald Trump Jr. temporarily suspended from Twitter for sharing misinformation. (Trump Sr. also shared the video but this was before Twitter was willing to take action against him.)

America’s Frontline Doctors is probably best known because of one of its members, Dr. Stella Immanuel. Immanuel, who is a pediatrician and a minister, not only claimed hydroxychloroquine could cure COVID-19 and that masks were useless, but she has also said that a number of medical issues—specifically women’s health issues—are caused by people having sex with demonic spirits while they are asleep.

America’s Frontline Doctors was also founded by an extreme anti-science, anti-vax advocate named Simone Gold who’s gained a huge foothold with anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists online.

As for how ivermectin came to be so popular, Collins writes, “Over the last year, as HCQ failed to become the miracle cure America’s Frontline Doctors claimed, antivaxxers became obsessed with COVID therapeutics. They’re largely experimental cocktails from countries that didn’t have—but wanted—vaccine access. Some included Ivermectin.”

“Antivaxx groups on Facebook and Reddit wanted ivermectin. Doctors wouldn’t prescribe it,” he continues. “Members did whack-a-mole with telehealth providers, trying to get doctors to sign off on scripts. But one reliably obliged: SpeakWithAnMD, who partners with… America’s Frontline Doctors.”

On the intake form for SpeakWithAnMD, patients were asked what drug they preferred and were given a choice between ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, or “not sure.” They also partnered with a pharmacy that would deliver those specific medications right to patients’ doors.

“This got out of hand fast,” Collins explains. “SpeakWithAnMD now hits you with a prompt warning of long wait times due to ‘overwhelming demand.’ Antivaxxers were worried about family members dying of COVID, and they were told ivermectin cured it. They were getting really impatient.”

“This is how people started eating horse goo.”

In private Facebook groups and in subreddit communities, people were encouraging each other to ingest the horse version of ivermectin, which comes in the form of a reportedly vile-tasting paste.

They also shared their side effects, which ranged from dizziness after a potential overdose to “strong diarrhea.” Some users were sharing terrifying advice on how to administer the drug to children. In order to avoid potential bans for sharing misinformation, Facebook and Reddit users adopted anti-trans rhetoric claiming to “identify” as horses and sought advice for how to properly measure dosage for their “horse” based on weight.

So essentially, an anti-vax group with a large online presence pushed a deworming medication as a COVID-19 treatment, anti-vaxxers got tired of jumping through hoops for the medication and decided to try an alternate version of the drug meant for animals.

This series of events feels all too similar to the period where people were ingesting chloroquine phosphate—an aquarium cleaner—as well as other forms of disinfectant after then-President Trump praised a potential (but also still largely untested) treatment with a similar name.

As for why people are seeking out such risky alternate treatments in the first place when the vaccine is free, widely available, and proven to be far safer than horse medications or fish tank cleaners, well, that’s a tougher question. I would guess it boils down to a distrust of medical professionals that is, especially in regard to COVID-19, highly partisan. But that mentality is definitely not entirely confined to a certain political affiliation.

The excellent podcast Maintenance Phase had a truly upsetting but really informative episode about the “wellness”-to-QAnon pipeline—how a lot of people with no interest in Donald Trump or right-wing politics found their way into the conspiracy theory via junk science health fads shared on social media.

As Collins notes, there is “one final twist” in the horse dewormer story and that’s that the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors is currently awaiting trial for participating in the January 6 Capitol riot—not that that has stopped her from continuing to preach anti-vaxxer gospel in the meantime.

(image: Nicole De Khors from Burst)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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