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Covid patients were unknowingly given ivermectin in an Arkansas jail

An Arkansas doctor allegedly gave ivermectin to prisoners for Covid-19 without their knowledge. It's a reminder of a dark tradition in American medicne.
Photo illustration: Circles showing vials and test tubes, an ivermectin tablet over bars that show a prison fence.
Treating prisoners with experimental drugs has a dark and long history in America. Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Several inmates at an Arkansas jail have reported that they were given the antiparasitic drug ivermectin as treatment for Covid-19 without their knowledge, and despite the fact that the medicine has no proven ability to treat the disease effectively.

Giving ivermectin to prisoners as a therapeutic without telling them amounts to treating them as subjects of a science experiment.

It’s disturbing news: While there is a tiny, fringe set of physicians who claim that ivermectin can be used to treat Covid, experts say there is no empirical evidence that it can be done effectively or safely, and federal health officials warn against it. Which means that prescribing the drug as a treatment is effectively using prisoners as subjects in an experiment, a practice that has a dark history in America.

Edrick Floreal-Wooten, a 29-year-old inmate at the Washington County jail where the dosage took place, told CBS News that after testing positive for Covid-19 in August he was given ivermectin without his consent.

"They said they were vitamins, steroids and antibiotics," he said. "We were running fevers, throwing up, diarrhea ... and so we figured that they were here to help us. ... We never knew that they were running experiments on us, giving us ivermectin. We never knew that."

Floreal-Wooten said that he and other inmates did not know they were taking ivermectin until five days after starting their regimen, and the only reason they found out was because of news reports that the jail’s physician was prescribing it. After that, he said, he and 20 other inmates turned down the pills. "It was not consensual. They used us as an experiment, like we're livestock," Floreal-Wooten told CBS News. Other prisoners have shared similar stories with The Associated Press.

The jail physician has confirmed that he prescribed ivermectin, but disputes that it was dispensed without the consent of the inmates. He’s now under investigation by the state medical board, and the American Civil Liberties Union has made record requests to look into the matter.

The episode is deeply worrying, because ivermectin has been studied as a potential treatment for Covid-19 and has not proven effective — there’s the possibility it’s being used as a substitute for other scientifically backed and effective remedies.

Ivermectin is generally used to treat parasitic infections in humans and in animals like horses and cows. While it can have antiviral effects, that requires doses that are too high for safe use in humans, as Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist, explained to NBC News THINK. Even the company that manufactures ivermectin has warned against using it to treat Covid-19 based on the available studies showing it isn’t effective.

In light of the absence of data showing that ivermectin is a reliable treatment, giving it to prisoners as a therapeutic without telling them amounts to treating them as subjects of a science experiment. It’s ethically indefensible. It also echoes a longer history in America of dehumanizing prisoners and exploiting them for the purposes of studying disease.

As recently as the early 1970s, more than 90 percent of investigational drug toxicity testing was conducted on prisoners.

An Associated Press investigation in 2011 found more than 40 examples of physicians and scientists using prisoners and disabled people as test subjects for their experiments, predominantly during the mid-20th century. Some involved giving diseases like hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut and deliberately infecting Maryland prisoners with a pandemic flu virus. In the 1960s, at least half of states allowed prisoners to be used for medical experiments. “At best, these were a search for lifesaving treatments; at worst, some amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results,” the AP investigation found.

Scholars of how prisoners have been exploited for biomedical research have found that as recently as the early 1970s, more than 90 percent of investigational drug toxicity testing was conducted on prisoners.

There’s also a history of prisons sterilizing incarcerated women without their consent, something that happened to thousands of women throughout the 20th century, and a practice carried on as recently as a couple years ago when immigrants were subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention center in Georgia. While infecting someone with a disease or giving them experimental treatment is different than sterilizing someone, the consistent theme is the dehumanization of incarcerated people — the assumption that they lack the right of informed consent or of freedom from suffering that people outside of prison do.

Floreal-Wooten, the Washington County prisoner, has said that he’s had abdominal pains and diarrhea since he took the pills, but that he doesn’t trust the jail's medical staff to treat him. He said he’d rather wait until he is out before getting his new problem looked at. Can you blame him?