The one red pill Covid conspiracy theorists refuse to swallow
On 4 November, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to approve molnupiravir, an antiviral drug developed by the U.S. pharmaceutical companies Merck & Co and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, for the treatment of Covid-19. The following day, a nurse for the country’s National Health Service, Nyrah Saleem, posted about it to her 105,000 TikTok followers.
“The drug will be given twice daily to treat vulnerable patients with the disease,” she said, then explained that the manufacturers have stated that it almost halves the risk of hospitalization or death when given to patients with mild to moderate symptoms.
Rapidly, Saleem’s video was flooded with angry comments. “New World Order,” read one. “It’s population control. They know some of us don’t want the jabs. Do they want to kill us with pills?”
“So if u don’t want an experimental jab u can take an experimental tablet,” said another.
Relatively inexpensive to manufacture and hailed as a “godsend” to parts of the world without comprehensive vaccine coverage, molnupiravir is being widely viewed as an exciting breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19.
But the anti-vaccine brigade has rejected it, believing that the drug is part of a global conspiracy to scam and oppress people. Some have developed more elaborate explanations, stating that it is really ivermectin — an anti-parasitic treatment unproven against the coronavirus, but long touted by conspiracy theorists — in disguise.
This narrative has been pushed by an online movement known as the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance. The group, which has more than 140,000 Twitter followers, is formed of doctors and commentators who dismiss vaccines as a preventative measure against Covid-19 and promote ivermectin as a miracle cure.
A number of doctors took to TikTok to debunk the theory, showing how the chemical structures of the two drugs are not the same. “The Ivermectin cult is already on this. These people never stop. These are completely different drugs. This is basic research,” Dr Siyab Panhwar, a U.S.-based heart doctor, told his 300,000 TikTok followers.
“It’s funny because the backlash started right away, as soon as the first press release came out from Merck a few weeks ago,” Panhwar told me, explaining that anti-vaxxers appear to now have a kneejerk response against any treatment for Covid-19 developed by the pharmaceutical industry.
“They want ivermectin, they want herbs, they want vitamin D,” he said. “It’s very politicized. I think the idea of being anti-Big Pharma, anti-establishment, anti-government is very attractive to people.”
Some scientists have raised concerns that the drug could hasten the arrival of new variants. Merck, however, says it has found no evidence of this, in a statement made by the company’s head of infectious disease discovery to the Advisory Board, a Washington D.C.-based health consulting organization.
Other companies are also developing pills for the treatment of coronavirus. Last week U.S.-based Pfizer unveiled trial results indicating that its antiviral pill could cut risk of hospitalization or death from Covid-19 by 89% and that, pending approval, it could be ready by early 2022.
While many medical professionals appear to be optimistic about the new tablets, they remain committed to vaccination as a first line of defence against the virus. “It sounds very promising,” said Panhwar of molnupiravir. “But it’s a treatment. None of it is preventative. The only thing that’s preventative is the vaccine — and prevention is better than any cure.”
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