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Herbal medicine for COVID-19

Is this hope or gloom for Africans?

COVER STORY | THE INDEPENDENT | The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it encourages innovations in the search for potential treatments for the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) including repurposing drugs, traditional medicines, and developing new therapies.

COVID-19, a newly identified strain of coronavirus, was first identified in the Chinese city, Wuhan, in early December 2019. By mid-March WHO had pronounced COVID-19 as a global pandemic. The outbreak has since sparked a global rush by scientists to find a cure or vaccine.

The WHO statement issued in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, appears to have been sparked by a surge in Africa traditional medicine practitioners proclaiming possible cures.

WHO says it recognises that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an important role in providing care to populations.

It says it welcomes every opportunity to collaborate with countries and researchers to develop new therapies and encourages such collaboration for the development of effective and safe therapies for Africa and the world.

The WHO statement comes days after Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina rolled-out a herbal concoction that he said has the potential to cure Covid-19.

The President said the “preventive and curative” remedy is artemisia-based. The manufacturers are calling it Covid-Organics.

Reports from Madagascar say around 10 African countries have already agreed in principle to perform clinical trials focused on this Artemisia remedy for COVID-19. They include Benin, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which specialises in the study of medicinal plants, Covid-Organics was released on April 20 and has since sparked worldwide controversy.

The medicinal plants used in the Madagascar concoction remain a mystery. But it appears to have been developed with the knowledge of the Paris-based NGO La Maison de l’Artemisia which promotes artemisia annua and artemisia afra otherwise called sweet wormwood. These two have been proven to have antimalarial properties.

“There is a lot of conjecture that artemisia is useful in the treatment arsenal for the virus, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying that this plant cures COVID-19,” said La Maison de l’Artemisia founder and vice president Lucile Cornet-Vernet in a letter to African heads of state. She said China used artemisia to combat COVID-19. La Maison de l’Artemisia is said to operate in at least 23 African countries.

The Artemisia plant has been prominent in medical circles for ages. It gained prominence when, in 1972, the anti-malaria drug Arteminisin was extracted from it. The Chinese pharmaceutical chemist and malariologist, Tu Youyou and two others jointly won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on Artemisia.

In Uganda, Artemisia gained prominence when in 2005, the government introduced Artemisia-based artemether and lumefantrine as the first line malaria treatment.

The government encouraged Ugandans to grow the medicinal plant which also grows abundantly in the wild. At the time, Prof John Kasenene of Botany department, Makerere University, said Artemisia grows in Tooro where it is called Akeerurukara and in the Rwenzori Mountain area where it is called Akayibwe.  It was also grown on farms in western and eastern Uganda.

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