A CLAIM circulating on several WhatsApp groups in Nigeria says that aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs are the best cures for COVID-19.
The claim started spreading in 2020 in various parts of the world, especially the United States, but it gained momentum in Nigeria between March and May 2021.
“After a period of scientific discovery, doctors in Russia explained the treatment method by saying that the disease is a global trick,” part of the claim said.
“It is nothing but coagulation inside blood vessels (blood clots) and a method of treatment. Antibiotic tablets anti-inflammatory and take an anticoagulant (aspirin). This indicates that it is possible to treat the disease.”
The propagators of the information attribute the drug prescription to the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, which, they say, claims that ventilators are no more necessary.
In this report, the reporter investigates the efficacy of aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs in treating COVID-19 patients.
Who is circulating the claim?
From the WhatApp platforms, the information is investigated on Twitter to identify those spreading it. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is used to achieve this result. One of the OSINT tools, Hoaxy®, is deployed by the reporter to visualise the spread of the information on Twitter.
Hoaxy® identifies several individual Twitter handles spreading the information to various communities. One of them is @unseen1_unseen, which has spread the information to at least five communities.
The communities have further disseminated the claim to eight other communities of Twitter users.
The Twitter handle @unseen1_unseen has 26 500 followers and follows 11 700 handles. It does not look like anyone’s real name, but it is an influential handle. The handle was created in July 2017, but a reverse image search shows that the handle stole the profile picture. The picture belongs to Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), one of the leading advocates of free markets and free trade in the mid-19 century.
Two of the handle’s followers are @Matt_VanDyke and @MurrayNewlands, founder of Sons of Liberty International Mattew VanDyke and contributor at Forbes Murray Newlands. Tweets from @unseen1_unseen support former President Donald Trump of the United States to handle shared sentiments with the former president.
The handle criticised the media for blaming the ex-president for January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington D.C. It also lampooned Jim Acosta of CNN for criticising Trump’s claim that COVID-19 originated in China.
Another identified disseminator of the information is a Twitter account, @mitchellvii, which posted the same claim on August 12, 2020. This particular handle has spread the information mainly to a large number of Twitter users in a community. It is operated by Bill Mitchell, an American whose tweets support the Republican Party. In one of his posts, he casts aspersions on Liberals and immigrants in the United States. His tweets on immigration and COVID-19 are not different from Donald Trump’s.
However, the handle has been suspended by Twitter. It is not clear why the social networking service took that line of action.
One other major player visualised by Hoaxy is @cofefe777. This account quoted another Twitter user, @knucklebuster80, on October 15, 2020, regarding a claim that “doctors rate Hydroxychloroquine ‘most effective’ coronavirus treatment.”
The account has, however, been suspended by Twitter. It is also not clear why Twitter has taken that step.
But Twitter often takes action against the spread of false or misleading information or, in this case, disinformation. Trump’s tweets were once deleted, and his account later suspended by Twitter.
Covfefe or cofefe is a misspelling used by Donald Trump in a viral tweet in 2017. The meaning is not clear up to the moment.
All the three accounts are of American origin, not Russian, though the information was said to have emanated from the Eastern European country.
Did Russia claim that aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs are the best cure for Covid-19?
Russia has taken unusual steps in handling COVID-19. In June 2020, barely six months after the virus broke out, Russia approved an anti-influenza drug, Aviifavir, for the treatment of COVID-19 and the country planned to start delivering it to hospitals that month. In September, the country approved another drug, R-Pharm’s Coronavir, for treatment of outpatients with mild to moderate COVID-19 infections.
The information on aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs being cures for COVID-19 was attributed to the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation.
The reporter combs through the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation’s website, but there is no evidence that it supports or has approved the use of those drugs to treat COVID-19.
Russia’s support for the three sets of drugs is also not published in all the papers investigated online. Russia, in March 2021, debunked some of the accompanying claims, such as the assertions that COVID-19 was man-made and it did not exist.
How effective are aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs for COVID-19 treatment?
A fact-check done by Reuters in April 2021 said symptoms of COVID-19 “can be treated with anticoagulants and anti-inflammatories, but antibiotics are not effective against the viral infection, and are only recommended for COVID-19 patients who also have a bacterial infection.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance says the body has not recommended antibiotic therapy or prophylaxis for patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 unless signs and symptoms of a bacterial infection exist.
“Antibiotics cannot affect viruses,” a virologist, Bola Oyefolu, professor of virology at the Lagos State University (LASU), tells this reporter.
He says viruses are acellular and do not have enzymes that can digest food.
“If viruses infect a man, they would live in the body. They are like the military that appoints the best hands to man various government ministries,” he notes.
“They direct the enzymes to start digesting their own food. Thus, antibiotics cannot affect virus, but it is possible to prepare chemicals that can affect the virus. However, they have bad side effects.”
He concludes that it is false to claim that antibiotics can cure COVID-19 – a virus.
Medicals News, an online magazine, supports Oyefolu’s claim.
“Antibiotics do not treat viruses but are only effective against bacterial infections. People with COVID-19 may receive antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections,” the magazine says in one of its 2020 articles.
On aspirin, the WHO has not approved the drug for the treatment of COVID-19, but health researchers claim it can affect the virus.
A group of researchers surveyed 24 COVID-19 patients.
They found that mortality in the aspirin group was significantly lower than that in the non-aspirin group (P = .021 and P = .030, respectively).
A news magazine HealthDay News supports this claim, asserting that low-dose aspirin can shield people from COVID-19.
But a Nigerian trader Joy Ikonne claims that she used aspirin in March 2021 while suspecting COVID-19 infection – without conducting tests.
“I had terrible side effects such as abdominal pain, and I had heartache,” she says.
“I nearly died,” she added.
Biochemist Ife Azih, who has studied aspirin for over 30 years, tells this reporter that “aspirin in a minute concentration increases the body’s immunity.” Azih explains that the mechanism of treating COVID-19 with aspirin is not yet known.
He warns Nigerians and the world against using drugs without doctors’ prescriptions.
“Do not use it if it is not approved; it can kill. And let nobody assume that aspirin is a cure for COVID-19,” he says.
So far, there is no approval for the use of aspirin to treat COVID-19. The WHO and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), the body regulating drug use in Nigeria, has not conducted clinical trials on aspirin and have only approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for prevention and treatment COVID-19.
On anti-inflammatory drugs, Harvard Medical School advises doctors to prescribe dexamethasone and other corticosteroids as potent drugs against the virus.
Oyefolu agrees, explaining that any anti-inflammatory drug can ginger an immune response.
“The body is hostile to anything foreign. When there is something foreign in the system, the cells will send microphages – their first line of reaction,” he says.
“The microphages are like soldiers. They have strong enzymes that will tear those foreigners into pieces. Other cells in the body will produce antibodies,” he explains.
Researchers, however, say that “it is biologically plausible that anti-inflammatory therapy should be revisited or explored.”
They argue that “only safe and efficacious vaccines and antiviral drugs were possibly the final answers to the control of the new coronavirus pandemic.”
NAFDAC, on its part, has not approved aspirin, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs for the treatment of COVID-19 in Nigeria.
“Clinical trial is not a thing one can handle casually; it requires guidance, supervision and experiment before approval so that it will not cause further damage,” NAFDAC’s Director-General Mojisola Adeyeye says.
“The trial is to determine whether it is actually working or not, after a sustained observation. NAFDAC is supposed to be the centre of the regulation of clinical trial effects,” she explains.
“Nobody can do any job of the clinical trial in the clinic or anywhere without passing through NAFDAC protocol,” she warns.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.