Until this past January, Ralph Lorigo had never heard of ivermectin. But after getting a call from a former client seeking the dubious pandemic treatment—hailed by many on the far right as a COVID-19 wonder drug—for his sick mother, everything changed for the seasoned attorney with a small commercial law practice in upstate New York.
Lorigo successfully argued for court-ordered treatment in that case, in which the man’s 80-year-old mother ultimately survived. Local news stories hailing the turn of events, and perhaps leading readers to conclude the drug made the difference, were written and shared widely.
Practically overnight, Lorigo told The Daily Beast, he became the most in-demand attorney for people across the country, attempting to force the hand of burdened hospitals and doctors to give dying loved ones ivermectin as a last-ditch effort. This despite ample warnings from all major health agencies in the country that the treatment has not been proven effective against COVID-19—and, in fact, could be dangerous.
Experts say trumpeting ivermectin risks discouraging people from getting vaccinated; instead they just take an unproven drug when they get very sick with COVID-19. But Lorigo has built a potentially lucrative brand as the go-to guy for desperate people willing to buck science in the pandemic’s fourth wave.
Not that he sees it that way. In fact, Lorigo argues—without evidence—that doctors, hospitals, and “Big Pharma” are the ones turning people away from ivermectin in chase of their own profits.
“While I certainly believe in the medical profession, what I’ve seen here is that the bottom line is what’s trumping what I used to believe was the Hippocratic oath,” Lorigo told The Daily Beast.
Ivermectin gained traction on the pandemic scene in late 2020, when doctors affiliated with a group called Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance began to tout its alleged success in treating COVID-19 infections, despite no substantial body of evidence. While most people advocating for the use of ivermectin point to the FDA-approved version that has been used for decades to treat parasites, the craze has notoriously led some Americans to seek versions of the drug meant for animals and sold in Tractor Supply stores.
This summer, agencies like the FDA began issuing sharp rebukes of ivermectin as a COVID treatment, and many doctors and experts have said the hype around the drug has sadly led too many to ignore proven methods of protection against COVID-19, like vaccines.
Just don’t tell Lorigo, who has gone all-in on the treatment.
According to the lawyer, he’s expanded his small practice by two attorneys and spends all day working on ivermectin cases lately, citing dozens of studies that have been largely disputed or discredited by the medical community. He says he works closely with groups driving the ivermectin craze, like the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, a spokesperson for which did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
All the while, he argues, bafflingly, that a rig led by “Big Pharma” is purposefully putting the stop on the “truth” about ivermectin from getting out, because it is a generic drug with little profit incentive.
Thanks to COVID rules, Lorigo generally appears in courtrooms virtually to argue against the advice of doctors and hospitals. News stories highlighting his victories only increase his stature among the fringe, largely unvaccinated crowd worshipping ivermectin.
No matter the courtroom, though, Lorigo said the details of each case and his arguments to local judges are the same.
“We have a patient who is on a ventilator and whose chances of survival are no better than 40 percent and in some cases as low as 20 percent,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that most of his calls are from frantic family members as their loved ones seem near death despite receiving the “traditional protocol” in COVID ICUs.
Lorigo’s main argument for allowing the patient to use the treatment is essentially, “Why not?” he said.
But physicians treating COVID patients and infectious-disease experts who spoke to The Daily Beast uniformly say it’s not that simple. Instead, they argue, Lorigo’s burgeoning practice and the argument he’s helping to popularize are only adding more stress to hospital systems dealing with a crush from largely unvaccinated COVID patients—and could fuel further vaccine hesitancy.
After all, very few of those who end up in hospitals in America have taken the vaccine.
“Hospitals are dealing with the unvaccinated COVID-19 patients at a very high pace,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And then you’re going to burden them by filing a lawsuit or creating legal problems over them trying to provide the best care for these people who chose not to be vaccinated and who are now crushing their hospitals?”
Adalja, like other doctors who spoke to The Daily Beast, said he’s received inquiries from lawyers representing hospitals being sued by attorneys like Lorigo. They often wonder, he said, if he might provide expert testimony to make the case most infectious-disease experts across the country will make when it comes to ivermectin: that there is nowhere near enough data to support its use for COVID, and until that changes, it can be dangerous to take.
Unfortunately, Adalja said, there is poor scientific literacy in the U.S., and people cling to anecdotes about patients surviving COVID or quickly recovering after taking the drug—often in combination with other treatments. Frequently, he said, it leads them to ignore proven methods of protecting themselves from serious illness, like getting vaccinated.
“I think that anytime someone hears about some miraculous recovery, or even that someone got better with ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine or whatever it might have been, it takes on a life of its own,” he said, adding that lawyers like Lorigo were “capitalizing” on the craze for profit, while making life harder for doctors and hospitals.
Lorigo disputed the idea that he’s after profits, telling The Daily Beast he takes on clients at a “substantially reduced” hourly rate and claiming he’s turned away more lucrative clients coming to him with the commercial law work he spent much of the last 40 years practicing.
He also said his cases were the result of “legitimate disputes” between hospitals, doctors and families, and called hospitals “arrogant” in the matter. “They only stick to their protocols,” he said. “It’s like they think they’re gods. They wear white coats, but they’re not God.”
Unlike other ivermectin enthusiasts, Lorigo said, he is not against vaccines, and is vaccinated himself. Rather, he argued, he believes court is the only tool to get doctors who’ve tried everything else on largely unvaccinated patients to use an “alternative remedy” he believes they “totally turn their back on.”
Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at UCLA and a doctor who treats COVID-19 ICU patients, strongly disagrees.
“In general, whenever the courts try to practice medicine, it usually doesn’t work out well for anyone involved,” he said in an interview.
Brewer added that a financial incentive isn’t what’s stopping doctors like him from using ivermectin. Instead, it’s the actual process of discovering whether a drug works—which involves rigorous study and trials, not one-off anecdotes about miracle cures.
Although Brewer agreed the direct-treatment options available to doctors treating the coronavirus are limited, he said that doesn’t make Lorigo’s “why not?” argument sound.
“That’s not practicing medicine,” Brewer said. “That’s voodoo.”
Brewer, like other doctors who spoke to The Daily Beast, said there have been about 20 solid studies looking at ivermectin. But the results have not been conclusive, and most studies are either very small or involve much higher doses of the drug than is safe; one study written by members of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance was notoriously taken down in March after concerns over unsubstantiated claims, The Scientist reported.
Lorigo said this argument is a common one he hears from detractors. “If the claim is that we don’t have enough studies for ivermectin,” he said, “why hasn’t Big Pharma ever done the study?”
“Why doesn’t the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or FDA commission the major study that they want?”
In fact, spokespeople for the NIH and FDA both told The Daily Beast those studies are actively happening and the results being monitored.
According to a spokesman from the NIH, a large, ongoing ivermectin Phase 3 trial is enrolling people who are at least 30, have tested positive for COVID, and are showing symptoms. The spokesman said preliminary results would likely be available in early 2022.
In the meantime, a spokeswoman from the FDA said they have been “conducting ongoing, daily surveillance” of other clinical trials involving ivermectin, as well as reports from a system that tracks adverse reactions. The spokeswoman said that while clinical trials to date have shown “mixed results” for the treatment, there have been “concerning cases” of patients who’ve required medical treatment or were hospitalized for using ivermectin to treat COVID—including some versions of the drug meant for animals.
“While FDA-approved products may be prescribed by physicians for unapproved uses if they determine it is appropriate for treating their patients, including during COVID-19, the safety and efficacy of ivermectin for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 has not been established,” the spokeswoman said.
Thomas Russo first caught wind of the Lorigo phenomenon in January.
The professor of infectious disease at the University of Buffalo Department of Medicine has been treating COVID-19 patients at a veteran’s hospital. This winter, he began getting passed articles and questioned by patients and colleagues about two of Lorigo’s clients in upstate New York who received court-ordered ivermectin treatment and survived their infections.
“Everyone got asked about it for a while,” he told The Daily Beast.
Russo said the attention has since died down, but he’s noticed Lorigo’s new clients in states like Ohio and Illinois drawing media coverage.
Despite Lorigo’s assertions about a conspiracy theory between pharmaceutical companies and doctors, Russo said, he doesn’t have a particular grudge against ivermectin—and would use it if there were “good, quality data” to support it.
That isn’t the case.
“Until we get some sort of signal it’s beneficial,” he said, “it’s in our patients’ best interest to hold off.”
“It’s not like we’re not treating these patients and don’t have some drugs that work,” the doctor added. Like others, Russo said he believes it is dangerous for courts to enter into the argument and force the hand of doctors.
It isn’t uncommon in America for people to attempt to get experimental, unproven treatment, particularly at the end of life. But according to Jennifer Bard, law professor at the University of Cincinnati who also teaches in the college of medicine, what is novel here is that, in some cases, courts have been siding against the advice of most medical professionals, hospitals, and agencies like the CDC, FDA, and NIH.
Bard worried that Lorigo’s cases could result in a “dramatic change” for the field of medicine in a new normal of disinformation-fueled vaccine and expert skepticism.
“From a legal point of view, ivermectin is the treatment that people are going to court for now. But it could be anything,” she said.
Despite these concerns, Lorigo is proceeding apace, telling The Daily Beast he has about 40 open cases across the country. He argued it’s difficult to define exactly how many cases he’s won and lost, since some of his patients have died while legal battles played out, and others have received some ivermectin treatment only to have it reversed—which recently happened in a widely reported case in Ohio. But he claimed to have been largely successful at getting judges to initially grant patients the treatment.
Lorigo said he counts each of those orders as a win for families he firmly believes he’s helping. “I can’t in good conscience turn away from these people who are calling me crying because they’ve got a loved one who is about to die,” he said. “I can’t turn my back on these people.”
In return, his clients have professed admiration for Lorigo—particularly those who’ve seen their loved ones recover from COVID and go home, even if the role of ivermectin is unclear at best.
In April, Desareta Fype’s 68-year-old mother was suffering from a serious COVID infection and in a coma at an Elmhurst, Illinois, hospital when she said she read about Lorigo’s past success and called him up. After a back and forth with her mother’s hospital and a judge’s order, a pro-ivermectin doctor was allowed credentials into the hospital to administer the drug to Fype’s mom in May.
The woman later recovered and is now out of the hospital, Fype told The Daily Beast, declining to say if her mother had ever been vaccinated, adding that it was a “personal” question. Fype also declined to specify if her mother was receiving other treatments in addition to ivermectin during her recovery.
Whatever the science, the target of her gratitude was clear.
“I appreciate him so much,” Fype said of Lorigo. “He’s like our family friend now because of what happened—even though we don’t know each other in person yet.”
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