A new anti-COVID 19 herbal drug is strongly gaining traction in other African countries and beyond the continent. Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina gave a long, televised address last weekend praising the benefits of artemisia, a herbal remedy increasingly promoted as a treatment for Covid-19. However, the World Health Organization has warned it must be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects.
During a one-and-a-half-hour speech on Sunday, 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,” said Rajoelina, saying that any criticism of the plant-based remedy must stop, according to RFI’s correspondent in Antananarivo.
The president called for people to continue following measures put in place to stop the spread of the virus. But much of Rajoelina’s address focused on artemisia. He talked about increasing production of the plant and setting up a factory to process it over the next month.
“This plant can treat lots of diseases. If we don’t act quickly, other researchers will overtake us,” said Rajoelina, as reported by RFI correspondent Laetitia Bezain.
Authorities in other African countries have expressed interest in using artemisia in the fight against Covid-19.
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli said he was in touch with Madagascar’s government and had despatched an airplane to pick up supplies of artemisia.
Following a video conference with Rajoelina, Congo Brazzaville’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso said his country would also import artemisia and adopt the Covid-Organics treatment, according to government spokesman Thierry Moungalla.
Senegal on 24 April placed its first order, depicted in a social media post by Madagascar’s leader. Niger has equally placed orders for the new herbal remedy.
The Malagasy authorities are not the only ones to see the potential benefit of artemisia in the struggle against Covid-19 – Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces and US company ArtemiLife Inc are also working on tests.
The study, conducted in Denmark and Germany, focuses on the same plant as the one cultivated and processed in Madagascar – artemisia annua. The plant materials for the test are being provided by ArtemiLife Inc, a Delaware-based company, that says it has fields growing artemisia outside Lexington, Kentucky.
ArtemiLife is advertising two products containing artemisia annua – tea and coffee. The company recommends that customers take the products twice daily “to maintain an active shield and to maximize the benefits”.
A 30-day supply of ArtemiCafe is to be available for sale at 91 euros and ArtemiTea for 73 euros. Customers are encouraged to register their interest on the ArtemiLife website since the products are currently in development and not yet on sale.
The company says these products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease”. ArtemiLife says their claims about artemisia have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
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 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.
ACT therapy combined artemisinin with another active ingredient to provide different actions within the same treatment. ACTs are considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the most effective antimalarial medicines available today.
Artemisia is the subject of some questions surrounding its use against malaria, notably the form of treatment administered -either a tea infusion based on plant extracts, or artemisinin, which is usually produced by pharmaceutical companies through a chemical process of semi-synthesis.
A January 2019 documentary produced by France 24 asked whether the use of artemisia tea infusions for malaria treatment was discouraged and subject to pressure by big pharmaceuticals.
The documentary suggested that offering infusions based on the plant could threaten the business of synthetic ACT treatments produced by drugs companies.
At forefront of this battle is Congolese doctor Jérôme Munyangi from the faculty of medicine at the University of Kolweri-Lualaba.
Munyangi has conducted research in the Democratic Republic of Congo comparing tea infusions to an ACT treatment using a combination of artesunate, a derivative of artemisinin, and amodiaquine, another commonly used antimalarial drug.
The large-scale, double blind randomised clinical trial was published in the Phytomedicine journal in April 2019. It concludes that infusions of artemisia annua and artemisia afra, another species of the plant, provide better outcomes than the ACT treatment.
However, the WHO in its guidance on malaria treatment warns against using artemisinin as an oral monotherapy. It says this promotes the development of drug resistance to artemisinin as a treatment.