Can a Soviet-developed medicine treat coronavirus?

The Bell

This week, China included a drug invented in the Soviet Union, Arbidol, in a draft plan (Chi) for treating coronavirus. The Bell’s article on this caused a social media storm, so we decided to explain why Russians are so concerned with Arbidol, and how it links to Putin.

  • Arbidol is an antiviral medication developed in the 1970s. Arbidol is its Russian brand name — the drug is called umifenovir. Since the patent expired, the medicine has been produced in other countries, including in China. 
  • Experts from China’s ministry of health said (Chi) earlier this month that Arbidol might be useful in treating coronavirus. This was immediately reported, in both English language publications such as The New York Times, and in Russian, including by The Bell. However, other media outlets claimed the medication in question was a different one with a slightly different name – Abidol. Despite the confusion, the news was welcomed by the market as a breakthrough, and became one of the drivers behind a 4 percent jump in the price of crude oil.
  • The Bell double-checked that the drug in question was indeed Arbidol. Reports to the contrary are bizarre: Abidol is an analogue of Tramadol, an opioid painkiller. 
  • The news that China had included Arbidol in its plan for treating coronavirus patients led to a social media storm, and The Bell received dozens of emails about the issue. Why are Russians so bothered? 
  • The simple answer is that there are plenty of doctors in Russia who do not adhere too closely to the principles of evidence-based medicine. In state-run clinics, it’s common to be prescribed dietary supplements, and dubious medicines (like Arbidol). The effectiveness of Arbidol has never been proven by research conducted to international standards. And the whole picture is made more complex by the fact that Arbidol seems to have high-level backers in Russia: it is produced by a friend of Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, who oversees healthcare, and in 2010, it was personally recommended (Rus) by Putin. Unsurprisingly, Arbidol has been the most popular (Rus) over-the-counter drug in Russia for several years in a row.  
  • The combination of the medication’s disputed effectiveness and its incredible popularity leads to big arguments between skeptics and believers. 

Why the world should care 

The story of Arbidol is not really about coronavirus, but rather a glimpse into the Russian mentality. If China can trial the effectiveness of Arbidol on thousands of patients in challenging conditions it might provide an answer to a question that gets a lot of people very exercised: is Arbidol real medicine or simply a glorified sugar pill?

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