by Dr Vidushi Neergheen*
Ever since the President of the Republic of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, announced holding the cure against COVID 19 on 20 April 2020, there has been an upsurge of support for this herbal concoction named COVID organics from many African countries. The drug developed as a herbal tea by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research is composed of 60% Artemisia annua and 40% of herbs/plants with medicinal values.
At a time, where scientists are forcefully looking for treatment options and are repurposing drugs used against malaria and Ebola, this herbal remedy comes to the forefront with claims to prevent as well as to cure COVID 19 caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). As an African scientist in the field of natural product research, it would be my most cherished desire to see a cure against the rapidly spreading SARS-CoV-2, which has created an unprecedented and a near to complete global lockdown, coming from the continent. This wish is further enthused by the already known weaknesses of our health care systems.
The merits of Artemisia annua cannot be ignored since the plant and its active compound artemisinin are well tolerated and have saved millions of lives from malaria worldwide. The discovery of artemisinin even led to a Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Professor Youyou Tu in 2015. The scientific report showed that Artemisia annua, an important plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine has been effective to treat coronavirus infections during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-CoV and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)-CoV outbreaks and the antiviral effect against these coronavirus strains dates back to 20051. A recent meta-analysis showed that 83 purified natural products from plants could prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections2. The multi-targeted nature of these compounds makes them effective antivirals possibly by inhibiting enzymes involved in the proliferation of the virus as well as by prohibiting the spike protein on the surface of the virus to bind with the cell surface protein of the host cells, hence the virus is barred from entering and infecting our cells.
Looking to nature for medicine is nothing new – we have been doing it for tens of thousands of years and although modern pharmaceutical science has progressed from those ancient roots, nature is and will always be an important source of useful compounds and inspiration. With approximately 25% of 1562, food and drug administration (FDA) approved drugs and 11% of the 252 life-saving drugs being derived from plants, the power of plants cannot be marginalized. In fact, we should not dismiss nature as we face the pandemic especially since evolution is the greatest problem solver and the biological and chemical diversity of compounds produced by the immense variety of species hold much promise.
Nevertheless, it is still early to claim to have a cure against COVID-19, it is of utmost importance not to create a false sense of security amongst the African population, which could jeopardize the sanitary measures put in place so far to contain the spread of the disease. The risk-benefit ratio should be assessed using a proactive and multipronged approach. It is important to ascertain the active constituents and the batch- to -batch uniformity of the product as well as to standardize the product, and to design and conduct the well-controlled clinical study. Gauging the efficacy of this polyherbal drug remains complex albeit not impossible under rigorous clinical testing.
This calls for an urgent Pan African, an international and interdisciplinary partnership among diverse stakeholders to validate COVID organics’ efficacy and safety. Clinical trials under the existing operational guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for herbal products as well as monitoring the safety of the latter are the starting point prior to its large-scale endorsement.
Vidushi Neergheen has been an Associate Professor since April 2019 and is from the Department of Health Sciences and the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research at the University of Mauritius and a 2019 Next Einstein Fellow from Mauritius.
1.Li et al (2005) Identification of natural compounds with antiviral activities against SARS-associated coronavirus. Antiviral Research, 67 (1),18-23.
- Mani et al (2020) Natural product-derived phytochemicals as potential agents against coronaviruses: A review. Virus Research, 284, 197989.