ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
COVID hospitalizations are once again on the rise thanks to a new subvariant. But not everyone wants to go to the ER if they get seriously ill. And for Americans who don't trust the medical establishment, there is a network of doctors and natural healers ready to push unproven cures for COVID. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on the black market for bogus COVID treatments.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Stephanie died of COVID, but she didn't have to. She was 75, lived on Long Island. A few years ago, she was sucked into a world of conspiracy theories. When COVID came, it got worse. Stephanie's daughter, Laurie, remembers what her mother used to tell her about the vaccines.
LAURIE: Everybody who got vaccinated is going to die.
BRUMFIEL: We're only using first names to protect the family from online harassment. Because she feared the vaccine, Stephanie refused to get one. Then, just before last Thanksgiving, she caught COVID.
LAURIE: She was really not feeling well. And I was like, you know, just go to the doctor.
BRUMFIEL: But Stephanie didn't go. She was plugged into an alternative medical network. It's a small group of fringe doctors, natural healers and internet personalities who reject COVID vaccines even though the CDC currently estimates that unvaccinated individuals are six times more likely to die of COVID.
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PIERRE KORY: There's just tons of papers in journals showing that the vaccines are safe and effective. They are not. They are not safe or effective.
BRUMFIEL: That's one of these vaccine deniers speaking on a conservative podcast. He's a doctor named Pierre Kory. In his alternate medical universe, there is another drug that cures COVID. It's called ivermectin.
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KORY: People who have used ivermectin, their licenses have been threatened. I have eight complaints to my medical board. I don't know what's going to happen to my license.
BRUMFIEL: There's a good reason his medical license might be under investigation. Everyone from the American Medical Association to the Food and Drug Administration tell doctors not to prescribe ivermectin for COVID. David Gorski is a physician at Wayne State University School of Michigan. He says ivermectin was tested early on in the pandemic. It doesn't work.
DAVID GORSKI: The non-fraudulent, non-messed up clinical trials are all pretty uniformly negative.
BRUMFIEL: Gorski is a cancer surgeon. For years before COVID, he tracked doctors who offered alternative cures for cancers. And he sees plenty of parallels. Many of those pushing ivermectin promote it as a miracle cure. In the case of Pierre Kory, he offers personal consultations to sick COVID patients for $400. It all sounds really familiar to Dr. Gorski.
GORSKI: COVID's no different than quackery going back centuries.
BRUMFIEL: Kory did not respond to NPR's questions in time for our deadline, but he's been everywhere on right-wing media promoting ivermectin. And people like Stephanie were paying attention. In text messages, Stephanie's friends were passing around an ivermectin-based treatment that Kory helped develop. Timothy Mackey is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies online pharmacies. He says ivermectin promoters have spent months hyping the drug.
TIMOTHY MACKEY: They're creating demand, and this demand is being, you know, circulated in all these different online groups.
BRUMFIEL: It's hard to quantify how many people are seeking out ivermectin on the black market. It's not something easy to track. But Mackey believes that many Americans are affected.
MACKEY: There's probably, you know, thousands of people, tens and thousands of people that have looked for drugs, tried to buy something, maybe been defrauded and, at worst, maybe even been harmed from these products.
BRUMFIEL: And one of the people who sought out these drugs was Stephanie. A friend gave her the name of a woman in Florida who was willing to sell her ivermectin and some other unproven COVID drugs. Stephanie's order came to $390.
LAURIE: She was just waiting for the pills and really did not want to do anything else.
BRUMFIEL: Laurie's mom was getting sicker and sicker and refusing to go to the hospital. Laurie was worried that she'd invested so much in these mail-order pills.
LAURIE: And I was like, who'd you buy it from? Because I had read a lot of stuff about, you know, people getting it illegally. And she's like, I got it from a doctor. And I was like, you sure it's a doctor? And she was like, yeah, it's definitely a doctor.
BRUMFIEL: Except it wasn't a doctor. The woman's name was Elizabeth Starr Miller. According to her LinkedIn profile, she's a quantum healer who works as a loan officer. In text messages shared with NPR by Stephanie's family, Miller repeatedly told Stephanie to be wary of the hospital. Quote, "my concern with you going to a hospital is they will not give you the medication that you need," she said. "These hospitals are corrupt."
Meanwhile, the drugs weren't arriving. After a few days, Stephanie worried she might be getting conned. Nothing came for me today; are you sure we're not being scammed, she wrote. I would never scam anyone, Miller responded.
Stephanie became so ill she had to be rushed to the local hospital. That same day, the drugs arrived, stuffed inside a plain brown envelope. And when Laurie looked at them, she found ivermectin that wasn't licensed for use in the U.S. The pills appeared to be made by Indian pharmaceutical companies. Except when NPR shared photos of one of the packets with pharmaceutical researcher Tim Mackey, he wasn't even sure that the Indian company had made them.
MACKEY: It looks highly suspect the way this pill pack is kind of set up to begin with.
BRUMFIEL: Mackey points to one stamp on the pack. It's a real certification in India, but he's also seen it before on fake pills from overseas.
MACKEY: Once you see this mark here, you pretty much are going to throw out that sample.
BRUMFIEL: I called Elizabeth Starr Miller, the woman who sold Stephanie the suspicious drugs. I wanted to learn more about how she came to get the pills. At first, she told me she had nothing to do with them.
ELIZABETH STARR MILLER: I don't prescribe the medicine. Someone else does and ships it from here.
BRUMFIEL: You shipped the medicine. You sent her the tracking number. I have the tracking number.
MILLER: OK. I'm not going to go into this because that woman went into the hospital and - after I repeatedly told her not to go into the hospital.
BRUMFIEL: The call went dead. A few minutes later, though, she called me back.
MILLER: I promise to the bottom of my heart, promise God I would never hurt her or anyone else ever.
BRUMFIEL: Miller told me she is one of well over 100 doctors, homeopathic healers and online pharmacists willing to sell ivermectin. She claims she consulted a doctor about Stephanie, but she says that doctor since died of cancer and she had no notes from the meeting. She says she believed the drugs would help and that she can't be blamed for Stephanie's death.
MILLER: This is a grown woman who made the choice, asked for it, and I was just trying to help her. I was not trying to hurt her. I would never try to hurt anybody.
BRUMFIEL: Stephanie's faith in the unproven cures cost her valuable time. Doctors who treated her at the hospital told NPR they believe she wasted critical days waiting for them. Stephanie declined. She grew weaker, and eventually she succumbed to COVID just a few days after Christmas. I called Laurie to let her know that the drugs Stephanie had ordered weren't FDA approved and were highly suspect.
LAURIE: Wow. That is so sad. Oh, my God. I just feel like it's so abusive, so bad.
BRUMFIEL: Laurie and the rest of Stephanie's family have begun to heal in the months following her death, but she remains angry that both misinformers and profiteers continue to operate, promoting unproven treatments to the public.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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