The Ground Breaking: On the 20th April, 2020, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina stunned the rest of the world when at a ground breaking ceremony in Antananarivo the capital of the tiny Indian Ocean African Island nation, he officially launched a purported herbal remedy called “Covid – Organics” which he claimed is a reliable cure for the corona virus disease currently ravaging the world. President Rajoelina even took a sip in the full glare of the cameras as a measure of attestation to the authenticity of Covid-Organics.
No doubt, the announcement caught medical experts and researchers around the globe by surprise who by the way are still in the scramble to find a cure for a disease affecting 212 countries and territories around the world as well as two international conveyances with global cases at the time of this report standing at 4, 181, 221 and 283, 877 confirmed deaths. In Africa the current figure stood at 63,414 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,290 deaths while in Nigeria current figures stood at 4,399 confirmed cases and 143 deaths.
“This herbal tea gives results in seven days”, he said while also claiming that as at the day of the launch two people had already been cured. After the ground breaking launch, soldiers in the Indian Ocean Island nation have since been going from door-to-door dispensing the remedy. So far the country has recorded far less cases and no fatalities with current figure at 193 confirmed cases, 101 recoveries and zero deaths so far, a feat attributable to the said “Covid Organics” remedy.
Moving forward, President Rajoelina had continually ceased every opportunity that comes his way to promote Covid Organics not only to his fellow countrymen but to everyone around the world who cares to listen to him especially to fellow leaders on the African continent. Only recently, in a one-and-a-half-hour televised speech, President Rajoelina sat next to an artemisia plant, a bottle of artemisia tonic and boxes of Covid-Organics – the branded artemisia products that he is promoting as a treatment for the coronavirus.
“Clinical trials of artemisia-based injections on new Covid-19 patients will start next week,” he said, adding that any criticism of the plant-based remedy must stop.
Enters Covid Organics: What exactly is Covid Organics, how exactly did it come about and what is it made of?
The Covid-Organics therapy was developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA). Its chief ingredient is reported to be sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), a plant of Asian origin that gave rise to the antimalarial drug artemisinin.
Artemisia annua has long been used for the treatment of malaria. The plant’s antimalarial properties were first identified in 340 BC as part of traditional Chinese medicine, according to expert Zhou Yiqing from the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology of the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences.
Zhou’s research in the 1970s led to the plant’s application against the mosquito-borne disease. Artemisia was selected for further research from a list of herbs and traditional medicines used to treat malaria that screened by experts. The research, known as Project 523, involved two groups pursuing antimalarial drug development: one investigating synthetic medicine, the other examining traditional remedies.
Project 523 first isolated the compound artemisinin from the plant and then ran clinical trials confirming its antimalarial effects. Researchers later identified the molecular structure of artemisinin and discovered more derivatives, eventually producing the first artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) for malaria, known as Coartem (yes, that very ACT or Coartem you know for the treatment of Malaria).
ACT therapy combined artemisinin with another active ingredient to provide different actions within the same treatment. Thus, ACTs are considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the most effective antimalarial medicines available today.
But coming to Madagascar and the development of Covid Organics, it remains unclear to date how the remedy (Covid-Organics) is prepared, as IMRA (the institute which develops it) has not reported any data on its efficacy or side effects just yet. As a matter of fact, the institute declined comment when questions were thrown at it. Nevertheless, a statement by the National Academy of Medicine of Madagascar was reported to have cautioned as follows:
“It is a drug whose scientific evidence has not yet been established, and which risks damaging the health of the population, in particular that of children,”.
Despite such warnings, some African leaders and indeed citizens appear keen on obtaining the product and some have even been reported to have taken deliveries while a growing list of others are either already conducting their own clinical test on Covid Organics or are on the verge of mass importing the product for the benefits of their citizens. Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Congo and recently even Nigeria amongst numerous others have all been reported to have indicated some form of interest in Covid Organics.
Interestingly though, there are some hints that artemisinin might have an effect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In 2005, Chinese scientists reported that an alcoholic extract from A. annua was able to neutralize its cousin, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, in a petri dish. (The extract was never tested against SARS in animals or humans, however.) Based on that study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces are now collaborating with ArtemiLife, a U.S. company that grows sweet wormwood, to test plant extracts on SARS-CoV-2 in vitro. Lead scientist Peter Seeberger says they expect to publish the results “very soon.”
On its part, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been careful not to rule out the possible use of artemisia as a treatment for Covid-19, said it should be tested for its efficacy and adverse side effects first.
“Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” the WHO said in a statement recently.
“Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical.”
“Many plants and substances are being proposed without the minimum requirements and evidence of quality, safety and efficacy. The use of products to treat Covid-19, which have not been robustly investigated can put people in danger, giving a false sense of security and distracting them from hand washing and physical distancing which are cardinal in Covid-19 prevention,” the WHO added.
The African Union on its part has asked the Madagascan government to produce the scientific evidence to back up its treatment, and says it will work with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to assess its safety and efficacy once it has those data. But even if the extract, or artemisinin alone, proved effective in treating COVID-19, its use would pose a huge ethical problem, says Marsh:
“We’d have a big issue on how to use it on COVID-19 without sacrificing it as an antimalarial treatment.” This on its own is another issue and subject for another day.