Russia Claimed It Created a Coronavirus Cure, but It’s an American Malaria Drug

Julia Davis
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The headline of the Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti read, “Russia Created the Treatment for Coronavirus.” The article went on to boast about the remedy based on the drug mefloquine, an antimalarial drug created in fact at the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center shortly after the Vietnam War and widely known as Lariam. 

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Mefloquine was created to replace chloroquine, another anti-malarial, which was President Donald Trump’s recent drug of choice in his dubious battle against COVID-19. It is still prescribed in many countries to prevent and treat malaria, but it is known to have severe and sometimes shocking side effects. A study conducted from 2001-2003 “confirmed mefloquine's potential for causing psychological illness.”

Facing a wave of ridicule in social media, Russian state media changed the headline, which now reads: “Russia Offered a Drug for Treating the Coronavirus.”

It should be noted that there is no known cure or approved treatment for the coronavirus. Multiple clinical trials for potential medical treatments are still underway.

The purpose of all this is less pharmacological than propagandistic. While Kremlin-controlled media outlets propagate conspiracy theories blaming the United States (and even Ukraine) for creating and spreading the coronavirus, Russia is presented as the potential savior of all of humanity. 

At a time when the Kremlin’s cynical effort to hide the extent of the pandemic in Russia is becoming ever more apparent, state media are criticizing American and European tactics for containing the pandemic. 

Virologist Mikhail Shchelkanov, head of the Laboratory of Ecology of Microorganisms, FEFU School of Biomedicine, described the Western approach as “18th-century tactics.” In contrast, he claimed that, “Russia, since the days of the Soviet Union, has had the world's best biological safety system.”

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Russian coronavirus measures recommended by the government agency to the general public indeed seem more stringent than those offered in the United States. 

For example, everyday use of face masks in public is recommended for all individuals. Single-use masks are to be replaced every 2-3 hours. The risk to younger individuals is not being downplayed. To the contrary, parents are being advised to keep their children at home or in the yard of their own home. When in public, children are to be prevented from touching any surfaces or interacting with others. There is public guidance with respect to the disinfection of store-bought food and merchandise.

During his state TV show, The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, the host described Russia’s approach to the pandemic as superior to that of Europe and the United States. “They’re behaving in an uncivilized manner,” Soloviev said, “They are being amoral. Our people unite and want to help others. Americans are just buying up guns.”    

Speaking to RIA Novosti, Shchelkanov praised China’s response to the pandemic and condemned the United States and Western Europe for their lack of coordinated actions, predicting that coronavirus “can easily spread like fire—and is spreading to neighboring countries.” He claimed that “the Russian Federation continues to be a bulwark of European stability.”

In reality, the true numbers of coronavirus infections in Russia are grossly understated due to the lack of testing and creative approach to recording the number of deaths. Some quarantined Russians report receiving negative test results, in spite of not being tested. The cause of death for coronavirus patients in Russia is being determined posthumously through an autopsy, and sometimes attributed to other causes, such as pulmonary thromboembolism—therefore being excluded from the official statistics.

The aid supplied to Western countries by China and Russia has been criticized as largely defective and mainly useless. But Russian state media claim such support as the manifestation of “soft power.” Appearing on Soloviev's show, political scientist Dmitry Evstafiev noted, “Every country is using the coronavirus pandemic as cover, trying to achieve their own goals.”

One of the Kremlin’s most pressing aims is the removal of U.S. and European sanctions against Russia and its informal allies: Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. Experts on Russian state television repeatedly suggest that the Kremlin should bring up the removal of sanctions at every opportunity, especially while offering coronavirus aid to Western countries.

During his state TV show, Soloviev expressed frustration that Trump “didn’t understand anything” and ignored President Vladimir Putin's proposal at the recent G-20 summit calling for the immediate removal of all sanctions.

Soloviev opined that the first country that is able to create the coronavirus vaccine would acquire an instrument of enormous political pressure. Russia is actively seeking to develop such a lever of global influence, but the unproven panacea it is currently touting was made in the USA.

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