Eucalyptus, garlic, hot peppers and even neem leaves — politicians and influencers around the world have recommended a kitchen cabinet of wacky natural remedies for Covid-19. Now the president of Turkmenistan has a new possible miracle cure in mind — licorice root.

At a Cabinet meeting on December 25, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spoke about the abundant medicinal properties of the plant and pointed to one of its main compounds as a possible cure. “Today, scientists note that the glycyrrhizic acid contained in this plant prevents the development of a new coronavirus, which the whole world is fighting against. Moreover, even a small concentration of an aqueous extract of licorice root has a neutralizing effect,” he said, according to the state news agency TDH.

Licorice root, which contains plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, is widely used as a herbal remedy for respiratory infections, sore throats and ulcers. 

Berdymukhamedov’s comments appeared to follow the publishing of a preprint paper by scientists at University Hospital Essen in Germany which suggested that glycyrrhizin might be effective against the virus. While the scientists noted that their findings should be further investigated, officials at Turkmenistan’s health ministry seized the opportunity to hold an online meeting on January 19 with one of the authors of the study.

Coda Story has previously reported on the dangers of publishing open-access preprints during the coronavirus pandemic.

State-controlled media outlets in Turkmenistan have jumped on the licorice bandwagon. 

“Licorice breaks the popularity record,” read a headline in one state-controlled newspaper, Neutral Turkmenistan, which extolled the benefits of the plant and its production in the country. 

According to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, an agency of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkmenistan is an emerging supplier of licorice extract to Europe.

Another piece in Neutral Turkmenistan singled out Berdymukhamedov for praise. “The wisdom and foresight of the head of state, who identified the experience of ancestors and modern technologies as a priority in the development of the domestic medical industry, is confirmed by the research results of not only Turkmen, but also foreign scientists.”

The impact of the president’s recommendation can already be seen in schools across the country. Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen service reported that children have been ordered to include licorice syrup in their mandatory first aid kits, along with masks, disinfectants and rubber gloves, when attending school. 

While authorities in Turkmenistan have yet to officially acknowledge the existence of Covid-19 this month, local media reported the government has purchased “small amounts” of Pfizer and Sputnik V vaccines. Although a number of social distancing restrictions have been introduced in schools, mosques and on public transport, doctors have continued to report spikes in Covid-19 cases and deaths anonymously.

This is not the first time Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist, has advocated the use of unproven herbal remedies as a cure for Covid-19. Last March, he ordered all public spaces to be fumigated with smoke from an indigenous grass known as harmala.

“The situation is disastrous,” said Diana Serebryannik, who runs an activist group that consults medics and ordinary people in Turkmenistan on how to treat Covid-19.

Serebryannik said the government is unable to treat Covid-19 patients. “They still don’t have enough medicine, they still don’t know how to deal with the symptoms that appear after the disease.”