The Pandemic Puts a Soviet-Era Drug in the Limelight
Paolo Gellano was in a restaurant in New York City when he first heard about the “strange medicine from Russia.” The drug was called Arbidol, and, according to the other diners, was supposedly an effective treatment for coronavirus. When he looked it up on YouTube, Gellano, 45, found videos hailing it as a potential miracle solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 13, as the whole of Italy went into lockdown, Gellano left the United States to join his family back in Umbria, in central Italy. Almost all direct flights to Rome were canceled, and Gellano was forced to take an unusual detour via Moscow.
During his day-long layover at Moscow international airport, Gellano and his friend filmed themselves walking through the terminal, wearing masks and sunglasses. “We’re in Moscow airport, and we’re going to buy this famous Arbidol that fights coronavirus,” Gellano told the camera. They entered the airport pharmacy, and Gellano bought two packets of Arbidol: one for him, one for his wife. “So many people in Italy are dying – and they don’t have this drug. Can you tell me why?” he says, signing off the video with “a big kiss from Moscow.”
Gellano uploaded the video to Facebook. “I don’t know why I did it, but I did it,” Gellano told Coda Story. “I told myself – ‘I’m making this video for the good of my country, for the good of the world.’”
The video went immediately viral, gaining more than 33,000 shares on Facebook, and circulating heavily over WhatsApp. “You’re a celebrity,” one of his friends texted Gellano.
On March 17, a senator in Italy’s governing Five Star Movement, Elio Lanutti, tweeted about the drug: “Arbidol is a drug used against the most common flu viruses, it works by preventing the virus from crossing the cell membrane and penetrating inside it to replicate itself. Abidol 20 mg, is purchased in Russia in pharmacies.”
Over WhatsApp and Facebook, conspiracy theories began to circulate that the Italian government was purposefully withholding vital drugs from its citizens. The former health minister, Giulia Grillo, had another message for her followers: “Who do you trust more,” she asked, “a doctor or a masked man in Moscow airport?”
As the world undergoes a frenzied search for an effective treatment for the coronavirus, a host of drugs have been cited as potential cures. Last week, President Trump tweeted about hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin – despite only anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness against COVID-19.
Italy has meanwhile seen a storm of interest in Arbidol – an antiviral flu drug with the clinical name “Umifenovir” – as a potential miracle cure. But according to experts in Russia, any evidence for its effectiveness is thin on the ground.
Arbidol, developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, has not been approved for use in the United States or Europe, and has never undergone a full clinical trial conducted to international standards. Its effectiveness against COVID-19 – or indeed any other virus – has not been proven. But it’s still one of Russia’s best-selling over-the-counter drugs.
A group of doctors in Russia has been campaigning against the use of Arbidol, alongside a host of other Russian-made antiviral drugs, for years. In 2007, the drug was found to be “obsolete with unproven effectiveness” by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
“We have a lot of so-called “antivirals” and “immunomodulators” with unknown efficacy on the Russian market,” said Yaroslav Ashikhmin, a doctor of internal medicine in Moscow and one of Arbidol’s most prominent critics. “There is absolutely no basis for the effectiveness of Arbidol,” he said. “Our suggestion is if the drug was really effective, the manufacturer would have done a clinical trial, but they don’t want to go to clinical trials because their sales are very big.” Ashikhmin added: “You can’t sell hope, and we need to prevent the selling of hope.”
Arbidol, manufactured by a Russian pharmaceutical company called OTCPharm, has a history of being promoted by Russian politicians. In 2010, President Vladimir Putin personally endorsed the drug by asking for it during a presidential visit to a pharmacy in the northwestern city of Murmansk. During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, Russia’s then Health Minister, Tatyana Golikova, recommended Arbidol for treatment of H1N1 and was accused of corruption after she was found to have a close friendship with Arbidol’s billionaire owner. Golikova was given the nickname “Madame Arbidol” by the media.
The latest campaign to promote Arbidol as a miracle cure began back in January, as COVID-19 began to spread beyond China’s borders. In Russia, a strange and hopeful message was broadcast to millions across four of the country’s most popular radio stations. “Around the world, the number of patients with new coronavirus, which causes dangerous pneumonia, is increasing,” the advertisement ran. “Studies have proven: Arbidol is active even against coronavirus.”
Following the advert, a federal investigation into the drug company’s claims found them to be in violation of advertising law. Russian media reported that the company would be fined up to 500,000 rubles: around $6,300.
Today, on Arbidol’s homepage, the company continues to advertise the drug as “active against influenza, SARS, and coronaviruses.” OTCPharm did not respond to requests for comment from Coda Story.
The sales pitch has worked: pharmacies across Russia reported a sharp increase in demand, with more than 1.3 million packages of Arbidol sold in February alone. Russian eBay users have been selling the drug to international buyers at $67 for 20 capsules, a mark-up of 32 times the original price of around $2 – the listings are continually being removed.
In early February, one of Beijing’s leading epidemiologists, Li Lanjuan, recommended China include Arbidol in their official treatment plan, prompting a storm of renewed interest in the drug. Last week, a randomized study conducted by a group of Chinese doctors found that Arbidol had not shown any clinical benefit on patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
In Italy, a doctor called Ivo Bianchi, who frequently promotes “natural” treatments, posted a video in early March about Arbidol to his 17,000 subscribers on YouTube, commenting that Russia’s coronavirus victims had so far “healed very quickly.” “I think it’s interesting to mention this drug, even though it’s not approved in Europe,” Bianchi told his viewers. “As you know, there are political conflicts between Russia and Europe, there shouldn’t be this kind of division within the scientific community.”
Bianchi’s video was how Paolo Gellano – the Umbrian who first heard about the drug in a restaurant in New York – found out more about Arbidol.
Dr. Rohin Francis is a cardiologist in the UK who has been monitoring claims for potential COVID-19 treatments. He explained why some people find news of a potential viable treatment psychologically appealing. “All we can offer the public at the moment is maybes and uncertainties,” he said. “If somebody can come in saying “this will work, this will cure you – people are just going to gravitate towards that message.”
Last week, the Russian press reported that the country may soon experience a shortage of Arbidol as some of the drug’s key ingredients are manufactured in Italy. Meanwhile, Russia sent a huge military convoy of supplies to coronavirus-hit Italy, which so far has lost more than 10,000 people to the disease.
Paolo Gellano watched online from his home in Umbria as Russia sent its aid package. “I don’t know why they’re helping us – or if there’s something behind it,” he said. Gellano has now deleted his Facebook video after receiving multiple death threats, as well as offers to buy the Arbidol. “People wanted to pay €10,000 for it, but I said, ‘I’m not going to sell it,’” he said. “I never, ever thought it would go as far as it did.”
Gellano is currently in lockdown with his wife and family. His two packages of Arbidol remain unopened. “I haven’t taken it yet because I’m a little bit skeptical – and my wife is a little bit skeptical,” he said. “But in the unfortunate situation that I get coronavirus, I will take it.”
Reproduced with permission. Coda Story is an investigative journalism non-profit organization based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and New York City. Isobel Cockerell is a reporter and filmmaker with Coda Story. Katerina Fomina and Karina Levitina contributed research to this article.