Internal documents obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the federal Food and Drug Administration was absolutely delighted to do a fire tweet discouraging the use of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19. In internal emails, supervisors with the agency’s public affairs office congratulated the author of the tweet for their “clever (humorous)” approach, suggesting the agency will employ more humor in its desperate, often ineffective efforts to keep the American public from continuing to poison themselves with unproven treatments for the novel coronavirus.
The use of both veterinary and formulated-for-humans versions of ivermectin has skyrocketed in the United States and around the world despite the fact that the best available evidence to date indicates that it’s not effective for preventing or treating COVID-19. Poison control centers in Florida and Mississippi have reported spikes in calls related to people taking livestock versions of the drug, and two people in New Mexico—a 38-year-old woman and a 79-year-old man—recently died after delaying treatment for COVID and taking ivermectin instead. The run on the veterinary versions of the drug is also creating a shortage for animal care experts who actually need it to deworm animals.
In an unprecedented display of being kind of funny, the FDA responded to this state of affairs with an August 21 tweet reading, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” along with a link to an information page about why you shouldn’t use ivermectin for COVID. The tweet was authored by Brad Kimberly, the director of social media for the agency’s Office of External Affairs. He noted in emails that the tweet quickly became the second most popular in the agency’s history, just after a significantly less humorous one back when the agency recommended a temporary pause on administering Johnson and Johnson vaccines due to reports of rare but serious blood clots. (The FDA and CDC lifted the pause in late April.)
Horse paste overtook blood clots within a couple of days, per the emails. “As of right now, it’s the most popular post we’ve ever had on Twitter,” Kimberly wrote of the horse paste tweet in an August 23 email to Erica V. Jefferson, the Associate Commissioner for External Affairs with the FDA. “I say ‘right now’ because the vax approval is on its heels… much like a horse race.” The tweet garnered over 23 million impressions, according to data Kimberly provided in his email updates, and got the agency 11,000 new Twitter followers.
Jefferson was equally enthused to have some tiny measure of success in the battle against getting the American public to quit stuffing livestock drugs down their gullets instead of getting any of the three vaccines that are proven to be overwhelmingly safe and effective in combating COVID and will keep you from severe hospitalization and death far more effectively than raiding Ferdinand’s medicine cabinet.
“As you know, the OEA team and I have been meeting over the past several weeks to discuss ways in which we can more effectively use our social media platforms to share important public health information with consumers,” Jefferson wrote in an email to a group of Office of External Affairs staffers, which appeared to prompt the tweet. “I’m sure you saw some of the news coming out of Mississippi on Friday regarding the use of ivermectin to treat / prevent Covid-19 and the increase in adverse events (poisonings) the state highlighted as a result of its use.”
“Brad’s edgy tweet was a hit,” wrote another External Affairs staffer, Sandy Walsh, in a separate email. Walsh also noted that Rex Chapman, a former professional basketball player with inexplicably popular tweets, “also Tweeted last night about not using ivermectin.”
Kimberly told a trade publication, Fierce Pharma, that the agency’s tweets “are designed to get peoples’ attention and, most importantly, combat dangerous viral misinformation.” Or, as he put it in an early morning email to the rest of the External Affairs staff the day they put out the tweet, “We’re gettin’ crazy in here.”
“As you know, I am committed to identifying unique (for FDA) ways for us to reach the ‘everyday’ American to ‘brand’ FDA,” wrote Jefferson in another email. “I am grateful the OEA team is enthusiastically supportive of this goal and in particularly [sic], I want to recognize Brad, Chris and Sandy, for mobilizing quickly Friday night and Saturday morning to create a unique viral moment at such a critical time for the FDA’s image and in our fight against Covid-19.”
Jefferson added that such communications wouldn’t always be possible from the agency, but suggested it will attempt to make additional stabs at humor. “While we won’t always be able to take this approach (we are still a government entity),” she wrote, “we will seek to develop content that allows the agency to feel both accessible and informative in a time of incredible misinformation. We will be meeting with OCC soon to discuss our new recommended approach for social media engagement. We look forward to sharing more about these efforts in the weeks ahead, including an ambition [sic] effort to counter much of the vaccine information out there as we prepare to approve Comiraty.”
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