Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the eccentric president of Turkmenistan, has claimed on television that the herb licorice might hold the answer to the cure for COVID-19 and has ordered scientists to work on a medicine.
"Scientists from across the world have been searching for an efficient means to fight against this dangerous infection. The licorice root could be one of them," Berdymukhammedov said during a televised government meeting on December 25.
"Scientists note that glycyrrhizic acid -- which is a part of the composition of licorice -- prevents the development of the new coronavirus," the onetime dentist claimed while holding what appeared to be a licorice root in one hand and a pharmacy bottle in the other.
In May, Chinese media reported that a compound found in licorice extract has shown potential to treat the new coronavirus. There has been no further reporting or scientific study to show that claim to be true.
Berdymukhammedov ordered the country's Academy of Sciences to "carefully study" the herb's "antiviral effects," adding that Turkmenistan has sufficient reserves of licorice "for the production of medicine."
He went on to say that the licorice root had long been used to treat "internal diseases, coughs, kidney diseases, upper respiratory problems, and stomach ulcers."
The secretive Turkmen government hasn't reported a single coronavirus infection in the country and prevents doctors from diagnosing any patient with COVID-19.
But medical sources and Turkmen citizens have been quoted in many media reports as saying that hospitals across Turkmenistan are full of patients with pneumonia and other symptoms that patients with COVID-19 have.
Berdymukhammedov, who is officially listed as the author of several volumes of a book, Herbal Remedies Of Turkmenistan, is known for making claims about the use of plants to cure various diseases.
In March, Berdymukhammedov urged Turkmen to use peganum harmala against all kinds of viruses that are spread through the air. In Central Asia, people burn dry peganum harmala to nominally "disinfect" their homes with its smoke.
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The authoritarian ruler's latest remarks come as the country is carrying out a nationwide, mandatory vaccination campaign against the flu.
RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat reported that medics are going door to door offering people free vaccinations. But people claim that anyone who refuses to get immunized faces the loss of his or her job and other retaliatory actions.
At least four employees of the state-owned district heating company in Ashgabat were fired after falling ill with the flu, RFE/RL correspondents reported on December 27, citing company sources. The employees are said to have been terminated for failing to get vaccinated.
RFE/RL correspondents were unable to get comments from Turkmen authorities about the ongoing vaccination drive.
The reporters say the compulsory immunization, which began with no prior announcement or explanation by the government, has sparked rumors and fear among the population.
Some people believe they're being given injections against COVID-19, RFE/RL reporters in Turkmenistan said. However, people are too afraid to ask questions.
Public-sector workers are being required to carry a document confirming that they've been immunized against influenza.