The loudest COVID-19 vaccine skeptic in Oregon? You might think it’s pistol-packing, Trump-loving talk radio host Lars Larson. Or Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten, whose opposition to mask and vaccine mandates is stoking her run for governor.
You’d be wrong.
Instead, the loudest voice may be that of a Toyota-driving Bernie Bro who lives near Lewis & Clark College, an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. who studied and taught at two of the nation’s most liberal universities and participated in Occupy Wall Street.
His name is Bret Weinstein, and he makes his living preaching the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines while extolling ivermectin, the controversial drug often used to deworm horses.
Weinstein, 52, is one of the foremost proponents of ivermectin. He’s appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to flog the drug. He and his wife, Heather Heying, also a Ph.D. biologist, went on Real Time With Bill Maher in January, an appearance that boosted interest in their DarkHorse Podcast, which has 382,000 subscribers on YouTube alone.
Weinstein’s biggest fan is probably Joe Rogan, host of the most popular podcast in the U.S. Weinstein appeared with Rogan four times, including a June 2020 show that’s gotten almost 8 million views on YouTube. In June 2021, it turned into a lovefest.
“Your podcast is one of my very favorites,” Rogan said. “I listen to it or watch it all the time. It’s an amazing source of rational thinking by educated people who talk about things they understand, which is exactly the opposite of what I do!”
Now, because of people like Weinstein, a drug meant for 1,000-pound animals is flying off the shelves in feed stores not just in red states, but even in Multnomah County, where the vaccination rate is approaching 80%.
Tyler Blach, a sales associate at Linnton Feed & Seed just west of the St. Johns Bridge, says the store has no more of the paste form—flavored with apple—that’s used for horses and has proven popular with vaccine-skeptical humans.
“Before this, I can’t recall a time when we were out,” Blach says.
Weinstein, 52, is no dummy. He has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan and, until recently, held a tenured professorship. Weinstein declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he would not be treated fairly. But Weinstein and Heying reveal much in their prolific writing and podcasting, where talk about minutiae goes hand in hand with postulating megatrends.
Weinstein, for example, would fit in well with much of Portland. He is gluten intolerant and a keen cyclist. He has a bike helmet that plays music. Heying loves paddle-boarding on the Willamette and watching wildlife. In an April piece for the online outlet called UnHerd, Weinstein said he and Heying considered cities around the world before choosing Portland for its “proximity to nature and its world-class food culture.”
But unlike most of their fellow residents in Multnomah County, both say they are not vaccinated. Instead, they protect themselves from COVID by eating whole foods from farmers markets and by taking weekly doses of ivermectin, along with vitamins C and D, and zinc.
Interviews with Weinstein’s former colleagues and a review of his work—starting with an explosive op-ed in his college newspaper—draw a picture of Weinstein as a tilter at windmills, someone who for much of his career has challenged authority and is now trafficking in what many medical experts and scientists say are false and dangerous theories about COVID.
“Bret Weinstein is one of the foremost purveyors of COVID-19 disinformation out there,” says Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and professor at Wayne State University who also debunks quack remedies as managing editor at a website called Science-Based Medicine. “Weinstein can be ‘credited’ with playing a large role in popularizing the belief that ivermectin is a miracle cure or preventative for COVID-19, that the vaccines are dangerous, and that the disease itself is not. Why are Rogan and Maher attracted to his messages? Contrarians and conspiracy theorists tend to be attracted to each other.”
Gorski says ivermectin is the new hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment pushed by former President Donald Trump and later proven worthless.
Nancy Koppelman, a former colleague of his at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, thinks Weinstein hasn’t done the work required to make broad claims about COVID and ivermectin but is instead just raising doubts based on dubious information—and monetizing the fear and ignorance of his audience.
Koppelman says he’s a modern-day P.T. Barnum. “What Barnum did was fool people into thinking that they were making sound judgments,” Koppelman says. “Bret is pandering to a principle of skepticism, but the substance is not there.”
Weinstein is correct that ivermectin is a miracle drug, just not for COVID.
In 1970, a microbiologist named Satoshi Omura took a soil sample near a golf course in Japan and coaxed a previously unknown species of bacteria from it. After a decade of research, Merck & Co. marketed ivermectin as a treatment for roundworm in animals.
It was approved for use in humans in 1988 and became the go-to treatment for onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a terrible disease caused by a parasitic worm commonly found in the rivers of Africa. Ivermectin became a blockbuster. Omura and a Merck scientist shared a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2015.
The idea that ivermectin might be used to prevent or cure COVID-19 appears to have started with a 2020 study in Australia, where researchers exposed the coronavirus to ivermectin in a petri dish and stopped it from multiplying. Seeing that study and others, Weinstein, who had been following COVID closely on his podcast, went all in.
“I am unvaccinated, but I am on prophylactic ivermectin,” Weinstein said on his podcast in June. “And the data—shocking as this will be to some people—suggest that prophylactic ivermectin is something like 100% effective at preventing people from contracting COVID when taken properly.”
Weinstein likes ivermectin, he says, because it has a stellar safety record (it does) and it’s cheap (it is, at about $5 a pill). Vaccines, meantime, are the opposite. They aren’t proven to be safe yet, Weinstein says, and they’re more expensive (for the governments who purchase them).
Weinstein prides himself on being an iconoclast. He calls DarkHorse “a show for curious minds and freethinkers.” On COVID and ivermectin, he is definitely bucking the establishment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have endorsed use of the COVID-19 vaccines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Aug. 23.
For ivermectin, it’s the opposite. The FDA has warned people not to take the drug because there is scant evidence it works against COVID-19. One promising Egyptian study was pulled amid charges of plagiarism and flawed data. Critics of the Australian study say the concentrations of ivermectin used in the petri dishes would be toxic in humans, and, indeed, people are poisoning themselves with the stuff.
In humans, ivermectin cream is used to treat head lice and the skin condition rosacea. Tablets are used for intestinal worms. The human formulation requires a prescription, but formulations for horses are widely available in farm stores and on Amazon, and people are taking them.
Poisonings are on the rise across the country, including in Oregon, as people ingest ivermectin in amounts intended for 1,000-pound animals. On Aug. 24, Oregon Health & Science University warned people not to use ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID. The Oregon Poison Center managed 21 ivermectin cases in August after handling just three in all of 2020, OHSU…