Could African indigenous knowledge hold answers to COVID-19? (file) Leading by example . . . Malagasy president Andry Rajoelina drinks a herbal drink — Covid Organics, which is said to have had tremendous results when taken by people affected by coronavirus

Kumbirai Nhongo
Could Africa be the source of the elusive cure for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

This question has come up during the global discourse around the quest for a prevention or cure for the deadly coronavirus, which has so far affected about 5 million people globally and claimed more than more than 330,000 lives.

Madagascar has attracted global attention after announcing in April that it has a herbal remedy for the coronavirus.

Unfazed by international criticism that scientific evidence was lacking, President Andry Rajoelina launched COVID-Organics, a herbal remedy that he claimed could prevent and cure the disease.

“This herbal tea gives results in seven days,” he said, to choruses of disapproval from health experts and pharmaceutical companies from the usually dominant industrialised nations and curiosity from other African leaders aware that the northern companies often find and patent medicines that originate in Africa, with little benefit to the continent.

According to the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, the organisation that developed the beverage, the remedy consists of a number of indigenous herbs, along with artemesia annua, a plant with proven efficacy for malaria treatment.

Figures from the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) show that as of 10 May, Madagascar had one of the highest COVID-19 recovery rates on the continent at 52 percent.

Out of the 193 COVID-19 cases at the time, Madagascar had 101 recoveries and no fatalities, a situation Malagasy authorities say adds credence to their claims about the effectiveness of the remedy and the potential of the contribution of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) to modern medicine.

While the industrialised world and its medical experts have been slow in warming up to COVID-Organics, some African countries including Chad and Nigeria have placed orders.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has remained open to the role of IKS in modern medicine and has welcomed innovations based on traditional medicines and plants.

“WHO is working with research institutions to select traditional medicine products which can be investigated for clinical efficacy and safety for COVID-19 treatment,” WHO said in a statement.

The United Nations agency, however, added a cautionary note, emphasing the need to subject such remedies to clinical trials.

“We are advising the Government of Madagascar to take this product through a clinical trial and we are prepared to collaborate with them,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

Similarly, the African Union (AU) has said it would look into the Malagasy remedy after President Rajoelina presented the medicine to other African leaders during a teleconference held on April 29.

The AU said in a statement, “once furnished with the details, the Union, through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, will review the scientific data gathered so far on the safety and efficacy of the COVID Organics.”

The AU emphasised that this review would be based on “global technical and ethical norms to garner the necessary scientific evidence regarding the performance of the tonic.”

The South African government has expressed its willingness to assist Madagascar in conducting the required clinical trials.

“We received a call from the government of Madagascar, which asked for help with scientific research.  Our scientists would be able to assist in the research,” South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.

Despite the cautionary approach from both the WHO and the AU, the Madagascar remedy is proving popular with some other African countries.

Equatorial Guinea, which as of May 10 had 439 COVID-19 cases and four deaths, became the first African country to receive the product from Madagascar on April 30.

The consignment contained 11,500 packets of COVID-Organics weighing 1.5 tonnes. Niger, with 821 COVID-19 cases and 46 fatalities as of 10 May, has taken delivery of the Malagasy product.

Souley Zaberou, a health ministry official from Niger, said the consignment contained enough product to treat 900 people.

The Senegalese President Macky Sall commended Madagascar for its “efforts in the search for therapeutic solutions which Senegal is following with interest.”

In the United Republic of Tanzania, President John Magufuli announced plans to import the product for use by locals.

“I have been in talks with Madagascar. They say they have discovered the medicine for COVID-19. We will send a plane to bring the medicine so that Tanzanians can also benefit,” he said.

Other countries that have received the Malagasy remedy include the Republic of Congo and Guinea Bissau.

COVID-19 has had a serious economic impact in Africa, and a study conducted by the AU predicts that the continental economy could shrink by more than four percent in 2020 due to the adverse impact of the virus.

As of May 10, South Africa had the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa at 10,015 followed by Egypt with 9,400 cases. Ten days later, by May 20, these figures had almost doubled.

A number of countries around the world are conducting scientific research to find a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus and patented medicine often includes IKS from Africa.

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