Thirty-five years ago drug manufacturer Merck & Co. invented a groundbreaking treatment for river blindness, a disease that affects millions of people in Africa. The company donated billions of doses and frequently touted its philanthropy, building a narrative about the good a drugmaker can do.
Few people had ever heard of the tropical disease treatment until this year. Now that antiparasitic—ivermectin—is a household name, and the story is well out of Merck’s hands. In the midst of the Covid‑19 crisis, anti-vaxxers embraced it as a treatment for the virus despite a lack of scientific evidence to support its use. Merck has recently developed molnupiravir, a Covid treatment the company hopes will soon become a key tool in stemming the pandemic, even though it’s entering a world in which rampant misinformation could undermine the use of new drugs. So it’s in the odd position of telling the public both that molnupiravir works against Covid and that ivermectin doesn’t.