Ivermectin has been called a Covid “miracle” drug, championed by vaccine opponents, and recommended by health authorities in some countries. But the BBC can reveal there are serious errors in a number of key studies that the drug’s promoters rely on.
For some years ivermectin has been a vital anti-parasitic medicine used to treat humans and animals.
The health authorities in the US, UK and EU have found there is insufficient evidence for using the drug against Covid, but thousands of supporters, many of them anti-vaccine activists, have continued to vigorously campaign for its use.
Members of social media groups swap tips on getting hold of the drug, even advocating the versions used for animals.
The hype around ivermectin – based on the strength of belief in the research – has driven large numbers of people around the world to use it.
Campaigners for the drug point to a number of scientific studies and often claim this evidence is being ignored or covered up. But a review by a group of independent scientists has cast serious doubt on that body of research.
The BBC can reveal that more than a third of 26 major trials of the drug for use on Covid have serious errors or signs of potential fraud. None of the rest show convincing evidence of ivermectin’s effectiveness.
Dr Kyle Sheldrick, one of the group investigating the studies, said they had not found “a single clinical trial” claiming to show that ivermectin prevented Covid deaths that did not contain “either obvious signs of fabrication or errors so critical they invalidate the study”.
Major problems included:
- The same patient data being used multiple times for supposedly different people
- Evidence that selection of patients for test groups was not random
- Numbers unlikely to occur naturally
- Percentages calculated incorrectly
- Local health bodies unaware of the studies
The scientists in the group – Dr Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, Dr James Heathers, Dr Nick Brown and Dr Sheldrick – each have a track record of exposing dodgy science. They’ve been working together remotely on an informal and voluntary basis during the pandemic.
They formed a group looking deeper into ivermectin studies after biomedical student Jack Lawrence spotted problems with an influential study from Egypt. Among other issues, it contained patients who turned out to have died before the trial started. It has now been retracted by the journal that published it.
The group of independent scientists examined virtually every randomised controlled trial (RCT) on ivermectin and Covid – in theory the highest quality evidence – including all the key studies regularly cited by the drug’s promoters.
RCTs involve people being randomly chosen to receive either the drug which is being tested or a placebo – a dummy drug with no active properties.
The team also looked at six particularly influential observational trials. This type of trial looks at what happens to people who are taking the drug anyway, so can be biased by the types of people who choose to take the treatment.
Out of a total of 26 studies examined, there was evidence in five that the data may have been faked – for example they contained virtually impossible numbers or rows of identical patients copied and pasted.
In a further five there were major red flags – for example, numbers didn’t add up, percentages were calculated incorrectly or local health bodies weren’t aware they had taken place.
On top of these flawed trials, there were 14 authors of studies who failed to send data back. The independent scientists have flagged this as a possible indicator of fraud.
While it’s extremely difficult to rule out human error in these trials, Dr Sheldrick, a medical doctor and researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, believes it is highly likely at least some of them may have been knowingly manipulated.
A recent study in Lebanon was found to have blocks of details of 11 patients that had been copied and pasted repeatedly – suggesting many of the trial’s apparent patients didn’t really exist.
The study’s authors told the BBC that the “original set of data was rigged, sabotaged or mistakenly entered in the final file” and that they have submitted a retraction to the scientific journal which published it.
Another study from Iran seemed to show that ivermectin prevented people dying from Covid.
But the scientists who investigated it found issues. The records of how much iron was in patients’ blood contained numbers in a sequence that was unlikely to come up naturally.
And the patients given the placebo turned out to have had much lower levels of oxygen in their blood before the trial started than those given ivermectin. So they were already sicker and statistically more likely to die.
But this pattern was repeated across a wide range of different measurements. The people with “bad” measurements ended up in the placebo group, the ones with “good” measurements in the ivermectin group.
The likelihood of this happening randomly across all these different measurements was vanishingly small, Dr Sheldrick said.
Dr Morteza Niaee, who led the Iran study, defended the results and the methodology and disagreed with problems pointed out to him, adding that it was “very normal to see such randomisation” when lots of different factors were considered and not all of them had any bearing on participants’ Covid risk.
But the Lebanon and Iran trials were excluded from a paper for Cochrane – the international experts in reviewing scientific evidence – because they were “such poorly reported studies”. The review concluded there was no evidence of benefit for ivermectin when it comes to Covid.
The largest and highest quality ivermectin study published so far is the Together trial at the McMaster University in Canada. It found no benefit for the drug when it comes to Covid.