Covid Pills Face a Truth Problem
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 13, 2021
Merck’s new medicine is set to enter a landscape where misinformation is widespread
By James E.Ellis

Thirty-five years ago drug manufacturer Merck & Co. invented a groundbreaking treatment for river blindness, a disease that affects millions of people in Africa. The company donated billions of doses and frequently touted its philanthropy, building a narrative about the good a drugmaker can do.

Few people had ever heard of the tropical disease treatment until this year. Now that antiparasitic— ivermectin—is a household name, and the story is well out of Merck’s hands. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, anti-vaxxers embraced it as a treatment for the virus despite a lack of scientific evidence to support its use. Merck has recently developed molnupiravir, a Covid treatment the company hopes will soon become a key tool in stemming the pandemic, even though it’s entering a world in which rampant misinformation could undermine the use of new drugs. So the company is now in the odd position of telling the public both that molnupiravir works against Covid and that ivermectin doesn’t.

The pharmaceutical industry hasn’t found effective ways to combat misinformation thus far. Merck took a stab when it became obvious that people were turning to ivermectin—mostly known in the West as a medicine for livestock—as a Covid treatment after lab research showed it could inhibit replication of the virus. Studies in humans didn’t prove it worked.

In an unusual move, Merck put out a press release about the use of ivermectin, saying in February there was “no meaningful evidence” it was effective against the coronavirus and noting “a concerning lack of safety data.” The statement had no discernible effect: Ivermectin sales took offafter that, with the biggest spike taking place over the summer months. Average monthly prescriptions this year in the U.S. are nearly 150,000, up more than sevenfold from 2019 levels of about 20,000.

Conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to suggest Merck is actively down playing ivermectin, a generic drug that costs around $35 for 20 tablets, in favor of urging patients toward molnupiravir, for which it’s charging the U.S. government $700 for each 40-pill course of treatment.

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