More African countries are indicating their interest in artemisia, the wonder drug of Madagascar, as a viable option for treating patients with the coronavirus disease. To date, close to ten African nations have ordered or shown interest in the herbal remedy.
When Andry Rajoelina, President of Madagascar officially launched COVID-Organics as both a prophylactic (preventative) and a cure to the new Corona Virus disease, he was roundly mocked internationally and derided for touting an untested herbal concoction as a cure. But the 45-year old Malagasy president was not to be dissuaded. Instead, he emphatically declared his cure to be the solution and punctuated his rhetoric with new government decrees that made the drug mandatory for his people. Of course, he took the lead by drinking the drug on national TV to drive home his confidence in the efficacy of this new orange-coloured liquid.
The persimmon coloured liquid is bottled in long-necked plastic bottles with the “COVID-Organics” label boldly printed on it. These bottles have been the subject of much conversation lately with the World Health Organization(WHO) dismissing the claims of Rajoelina as unproven. The calls to test the merit of the drug are not unfounded. It is important to make sure a drug can be safely used without any side effects as much as it can be used as a cure. Perhaps even more.
The WHO is not the only one denouncing the Madagascan cure. Private individuals, the media, and even regional African bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have variously called for caution, or in the case of ECOWAS rejected COVID-Organics outrightly. Interestingly, Nigeria, the largest member of the ECOWAS has just received its first batch of COVID-Organics. Ironically, the Nigerian president leads the ECOWAS coalition to contain the virus.
Unlike the ECOWAS, the African Union is far more conciliatory, offering to review the Madagascan Institute of Applied Science’s data on the cure. Amidst this, the president of Madagascar responded to the WHO’s doubts, slamming concerns as biased because “it comes from Africa” and they cannot accept that a country like Madagascar, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, has discovered this formula to save the world.
An era mistrust…
What is the problem with the Madagascan cure? Why is it so controversial? The answer lies in the cloak of mistrust that has almost overshadowed the virus itself.
From the start of this pandemic, the Chinese government responded of secrecy while assuring the rest of the world that all was well is the singular greatest mistake that set the pattern for coverups, lies, and dismissals. The WHO’s contradictory and unreliable reporting (that might have been influenced by China) also contributed to the mortal wound of trust. For any governance to function optimally, trust is key. The WHO lost that initiative when they pandered to Chinese influence at the expense of serial warnings from a non-WHO nation like Taiwan. To date, there has not been any apology from this leading global health agency.
Despite Madagascar featuring prominently in the news for its cure, it is not the only nation promoting herbal remedies for COVID-19. China has also touted its herbal alternative cure although it did not receive as much media attention as COVID-Organics. China has a long history of natural medicine, some of which form the basis of certain drugs that are widely used today. While herbal cures can be effective against some diseases, the Corona Virus disease is still a mystery and the root of conflicting science reports. Almost every new morning, a new study or report claims to have uncovered something new about the way the virus behaves, usually only for a conflicting report to denounce the earlier report.
The WHO has maintained a public “non-aligned” stance on a Corona Virus cure even as different countries adopt different approaches and treatment guidelines. To be clear, the WHO itself does not “approve” drugs. That function is largely a duty of regulatory bodies in different nations.
A conflict of cures
The problem with Madagascar’s cure may not really be about the racial bias that Rajoelina thinks or the lack of “rigorous scientific research” as some claim. One problem with COVID-Organics is that in a world where an accelerated vaccine is touted as the requirement for things to go back to normal, cures have little chance in the long-term. Asides vaccines, the ongoing ‘Battle of the Cure’ also means that the wonder drug of the Indian Archipelago nation is facing a range of far more polished cures in the race for public acceptance. Consider the top contenders.
1. The Remdesivir Remedy
A drug that was initially developed to combat Ebola and is now being repurposed as an anti-viral for the coronavirus disease. Two incidents that perhaps require greater scrutiny in the progress of remdesivir however, are two leaks that occurred a few days apart, one showing positive results, the other showing faster improvement in patients.
Despite this, the drug was recently given emergency authorization by the American Food and Drugs Agency. According to the Washington Post, “Government clinical trial investigators changed the primary metric for measuring the success of Gilead’s experimental drug remdesivir as a coronavirus treatment two weeks before Anthony S. Fauci’s announcement that the drug would be the new ‘standard of care’.”
2. King HCQ
Unlike remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine is not a new drug, It has the advantage of being a staple drug for people suffering from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis as well as a well-known anti-malarial. Early in January, Chinese doctors reported that the drug was showing some promise in Corona Virus patients, following which clinical trials were started. However, after US President Donald Trump mentioned the drug in a press briefing, HCQ is almost regarded as a certain poison in some quarters while it is also touted as ‘The Cure’ by others.
The United States is notorious for its growing political polarization. One would not expect that the Great War would be allowed to spill over into healthcare. Unfortunately, that is not the case. While Americans continue to bicker HCQ which is already being used by several countries with less political biases and more common sense has also been granted permission for compassionate use by the American FDA.
3. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Meanwhile, in China, TCM is an important part of the Chinese health care response to the disease. The Chinese who are already familiar with TCM reportedly prefer it to Western medicine, because it does not have as many side effects as conventional drugs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the drug can prevent milder cases from becoming more serious.
4. Vaccines! Vaccines!! Vaccines!!!
No other ‘solution’ carries more controversy than a much-hyped and equally derided silver-bullet vaccine. There are calls to hyperloop vaccine trials through the necessary time and standard scientific checkpoints. None other than billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates has declared that society cannot go back to normal until a vaccine is found.
Epidemiologists, politicians and some economists echo his statements even though it is, at least on the surface, an impracticable statement. To be sure, a vaccine could be ready today, but a rushed vaccine for a new virus may be a costly and deadly mistake. On one side is a healthy fear of rushing a vaccine through time via compressed parallel trials with billion-dollar investments. One the other is complete distrust of a mass vaccination campaign against coronavirus disease.
These four are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the court of public opinion, several other “cures” and therapies are jostling for the limelight. The –vir ending antivirals, antibody therapy, concoctions of all kinds, and placenta-based cell therapy are the other players in the race.
Straddling the fence as the referee is the severely conflicted science of new viruses in a state of flux and a virus that is actively mutating as it crosses from one person to another and across continents.
It is against this backdrop and a variety of other lesser-known drugs that Andry Rajoelina’s COVID-Organics appears making boisterous and very audacious declarations about its efficacy. The problem with this Madagascan cure is that it lacks the sophistication and geopolitical lever to swing opinion in its favour. It is just stepping into the ring and while the other drugs look battered by the court of public opinion to which they have been subjected, they’re no less dangerous.