Fact check: Merck's molnupiravir and ivermectin are not the same drug – USA TODAY

A new contender has entered the fight against the novel coronavirus. On Oct. 1, an antiviral drug made by Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics in Miami was found to cut the risk of hospitalization or death in half for patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 infection. 
The twice-daily, five-day course of molnupiravir – a name inspired by Mjölnir, the hammer of the mythological Norse thunder god Thor – was effective not only against the predominant Delta virus strain but other variants of concern like Gamma and Mu.
The drug’s promising results are expected to greenlight its emergency use authorization. But some social media users are less than thrilled, claiming Merck’s new COVID-19 drug is actually not new at all. 
“Looks like Merck is repackaging the ‘horse drug’ and making it more expensive! It will be the ‘new’ treatment for (COVID-19) in pill form,” reads an Oct. 2 Facebook post, referring to Merck’s antiparasitic drug ivermectin, which made headlines for its unproven use and potentially dangerous against the virus.
The post asserts that in repurposing ivermectin, Merck has simply changed the drug’s “formula just a bit to rebrand and patent.” It also claims the federal government has designs to buy up to $3.7 billion worth of the medication, citing a screenshot of a viral Oct. 1 tweet that accompanies the post.  
The Facebook post was shared more than 300 times in 10 days, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. 
But it’s completely untrue.
Fact check: Viral video falsely claims to show a man fleeing from COVID-19 vaccination
Molnupiravir and ivermectin aren’t the same by any stretch. The drugs are made up of different chemicals, and they work differently to fight different pathogens.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user for comment.
Molnupiravir is an antiviral drug first developed in 2003 by researchers at Drug Innovation Ventures, a nonprofit biotech company affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta 
Early studies showed the small, synthetic molecule was potent against viruses known as RNA viruses, which use a genetic material similar to DNA. These viruses include hepatitis C, seasonal and pandemic flu viruses and coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, MedPage Today reported.
Molnupiravir works similarly to how some anti-HIV drugs, called nucleoside analogs, work – by preventing a virus from growing and spreading.  
When absorbed into the body, molnupiravir is broken down into one of the building blocks that make up RNA. This building block, much like constructing a building with Lego bricks, inserts itself into the virus’ genetic material and introduces mutations that impair the virus’ structural integrity and its ability to survive. 
Before being diverted toward the COVID-19 effort, molnupiravir was being tested as a treatment for influenza. In studies looking at ferrets and human airway cells infected with influenza, not only did the drug appear to prevent the virus from replicating, it also prevented antiviral drug resistance, a problem often encountered with antiviral flu drugs.
Fact check: French doctor arrested for assault, not for prescribing ivermectin
Merck acquired molnupiravir after it entered a collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics in July 2020. The Miami-based biotechnology company itself had obtained molnupiravir’s license just four months earlier after partnering up with Drug Innovation Ventures, Emory University reported
Ivermectin was discovered and developed by Merck several decades earlier, in the 1970s. In the 1980s it was commercially distributed worldwide for the treatment of parasitic diseases, particularly river blindness. 
Ivermectin is derived from avermectins, a group of molecules originally found in a soil-dwelling bacteria in Japan, USA TODAY previously reported.
The semi-synthetic drug is classified as a macrocyclic lactone, a molecule made up of a ring of mostly carbon and oxygen atoms. It has nothing to do with inhibiting RNA replication, the mechanism used by molnupiravir.
Unlike molnupiravir, ivermectin is most effective against parasitic worms, primarily killing them by binding to proteins lining a parasite’s muscle and nerve cells. Ivermectin’s binding makes these nerve and muscle cells more porous, causing paralysis and death in the parasite, according to DrugBank Online, a drug information database.
When it comes to viruses, studies in the lab suggest the way ivermectin binds to proteins that control cellular transport in humans may prevent those proteins from being hijacked by viruses that cause Zika, HIV and yellow fever.
Fact check: Xylitol may be helpful against viruses, but experts warn against hydrogen peroxide
But no clinical trials to date have established a clinical benefit in patients infected with those viruses, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some limited studies have suggested ivermectin could help treat COVID-19. But other, more rigorous research has found little or no impact, as USA TODAY has reported in debunking prior claims of its effectiveness.
The Facebook post is right about one thing: in June, the U.S. government entered into an agreement with Merck to buy $1.2 billion worth of molnupiravir, or 1.7 million treatment courses. The U.S. also has an option to buy an additional 3.5 million courses if needed, Reuters reported.
Fact check: New York hospitals aren’t stopping unvaccinated parents from taking newborns
And Merck’s overall earnings from molnupiravir are expected to be much more. The company plans to produce 10 million courses of the drug by the end of 2021, which could bring its revenue upwards of $7 billion. Molnupiravir, which was recently submitted to the FDA for emergency use authorization, is currently priced at $700 per treatment course.
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim Merck’s new COVID-19 drug molnupiravir is ivermectin repurposed. Molnupiravir is an antiviral drug known as a nucleoside analog, which is capable of inhibiting the replication of RNA viruses, like COVID-19. Ivermectin was developed by Merck in the 1970s, decades before molnupiravir, and is classified as a macrocyclic lactone. It kills its target pathogen, parasitic worms, by binding to proteins on cell membranes.
Contributing: Karen Weintraub, Daniel Funke
Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.
Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart