Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina drinks a sample of the "Covid Organics" or CVO remedy at a launch ceremony in Antananarivo on April 20, 2020. "Covid Organics" or CVO is a remedy produced by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) created from the Artemisia plant and supposedly help to prevent any infection caused by the new coronavirus Covid-19. (Photo by RIJASOLO / AFP)

By Kingsley Okeke

According to data obtained on the 12th May 2020, from the Corona Virus Resources Centre at the John Hopkins University, the world currently has 4,277,832 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 292, 311 deaths across 187 countries. We are not even halfway through to the curve-line. The predictions still speak gloom. 

Throughout history, nothing has killed more human beings than viruses, bacteria, and parasites. A World Health Organization report puts the global infectious related deaths at 17 Million per year. The report further states that 30 new diseases have emerged in the past 20 years and now together threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people. More worrying is the fact that, for many of these diseases, there is no immediate treatment, cure or vaccine. 

In Africa, the novel coronavirus is exacerbating an already bad situation, occasioned by poor health infrastructure. Available data from the Africa Centre for Disease Control shows that as at the 12th May 2020, the continent has 69,597 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 2,402, COVID-19 related deaths. Painting a depressing picture, Scientists at Imperial College London in a recent research paper, predicted that if not aggressively checked, coronavirus could claim about 3 million lives across the continent. Add this number to the over 500,000 deaths that are to be expected from aids-related illnesses, due to the anticipated six months disruption in antiretroviral therapy, and we have a hideous situation. 

Though the World Health Organization and other experts have maintained that, to slow the spread of the virus, confinement, social distancing and other basic hygienic practices should become the routine, the only way to restore normalcy globally, would be the vaccine. 

Nearly 80 companies and institutions are aggressively pursuing the timely production of a vaccine, and five are already testing their vaccines in candidates.  As the world races to produce a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Africa appears to be spectating. Is the continent only primed as a perpetual ground for vaccine testing? When will Africa join the league of solution providers? 

However, Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina, stunned the world recently when he announced a local herbal remedy which is believed to cure the novel Coronavirus. At the last count, over ten countries in Africa have already indicated interest to share in Madagascar’s “miracle remedy.” During the launch of the remedy in the country’s capital, Antananarivo, President Rajoelina said that “ tests have been carried out, and this treatment has now cured two people. Since then, about 105 COVID-19 patients have recovered, using the herbal mixture. The treatment which was developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, IMRA, gives results in seven days. 

President Rajoelina, who was the first to drink the herbal tea, in demonstration of his absolute faith in the treatment, maintained that “the treatment will be offered to school children.” He brushed aside concerns that the treatment needs authentication by the world health organization and other international organizations. The President slammed the World Health Organization for not endorsing its herbal remedy. In an interview with newsmen, president Rajoelina maintained that “ if it were a European country which had discovered this remedy, would there be so many doubts.” Continuing he said, “the problem is that 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.”         

Thus far, Madagascar is among a handful of countries that hasn’t recorded any COVID-19 related deaths. More significantly, Madagascar has about 192 cases of coronavirus with about 105 recoveries and no documented cases of death, since March, when it recorded the first case of COVID-19. While the country is only one among about 31 countries yet to record any COVID-19 related-death according to coronavirus tracker by google, it is the only country that has made a government-backed claim to a potential solution to the pandemic. President Rajoelina, while backing his claim, maintained that “a marked improvement was noticed in the health of patients who received this remedy just 24 hours after they took the first dose. The cure was noted after 7 to 10 days. This remedy is natural and non-toxic.”    

The practice of herbal supplement dates back to thousands of years. A report by Martins Ekor titled: The growing use of herbal medicines: issues relating to adverse reactions and challenges in monitoring safety, stated that: “the use of herbal medicinal products and supplements has increased tremendously over the past three decades with not less than 80% of people worldwide relying on them for some part of primary healthcare.” Similarly, a report by Jon Tilburt & Ted Kaptchuk, published in the World Health Organization Bulletin, titled: Herbal medicine research and global health: an ethical analysis, observed that: “ eighty per cent of African populations use some form of traditional herbal medicine and the worldwide annual market for these products approaches US$ 60 billion.” The study further stated that: “In China, traditional herbal medicine played a prominent role in the strategy to contain and treat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).”

Countries like China, India, Nigeria, the United States of America (USA) and the World Health Organization have all made substantial research investments in traditional herbal medicines. The Pharmaceutical companies have also invested millions of US dollars looking for promising medicinal herbs and novel chemical compounds.  Madagascar’s herbal remedy should, therefore, attract global attention, especially from pharmaceutical companies. Though herbal supplements are not subject to scrutiny by governing agencies, making the use somewhat controversial, it wouldn’t hurt to subject potential remedies like the CVO to fair trials to prove the veracity or otherwise of the claims. 

The Herbal remedy may be Africa’s unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the face of growing calls for Africa inspired solutions to the continent’s challenges. Africa is home to over 1000 different plants species that have proven to cure various types of ailment. It has also proven to be cheaper and more accessible to the continent’s rural dwellers where quality healthcare facility remains a mirage for over 90% of them. 

Comparatively, Africa may not have the requisite funding or the institutional capacity to research the same ethical standards as the west independently. But it has the local knowledge to pursue domestic remedies to what troubles the health of her people. 

Africa doesn’t have to be the testing ground for vaccines, like the two French doctors- Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira, suggested in a live TV interview, eliciting continent-wide condemnation. There is nothing wrong in being part of a clinical trial for a potential vaccine. However, the continent must go beyond playing at the fringes. The continent can dictate the pace of her post-COVID-19 recovery and adaptation by pursuing local solutions – one that can be managed locally. 

Last month, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina participated in a teleconference meeting of the Bureau of the Assembly of AU Heads of State and Government with the Chairpersons of the AU Regional Economic Communities. He joined as the Chairperson of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). During the meeting, he made a presentation to his peers regarding the herbal remedy. The teleconference was convened by President Cyril Ramaphosa of the Republic of South Africa, and Chairperson of the African Union (AU), and had the aim of appraising the Chairpersons of the RECs about the actions and initiatives undertaken by the African Union in response to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the continent. 

Consequently, the African Union has opened discussions with the Republic of Madagascar, through its embassy in Addis Ababa, to obtain technical data regarding the safety and efficiency of a herbal remedy. The AU is expected to make her position known after reviewing the technical data to be supplied in line with global standards. In a statement on its website, the AU said, “once furnished with the details, the Union, through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), will review the scientific data gathered so far on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 Organics. “This review will be based on global technical and ethical norms to garner the necessary scientific evidence regarding the performance of the tonic,” the AU statement further disclosed.

Countries like Tanzania, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau, among others have already received the herbal remedy.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, WHO; have reiterated its caution against people putting their faith in herbal remedies that have not been scientifically tested. Madagascar on its part has requested South Africa’s assistance with scientific research on Artemisia – the herb used in the production of COVID-Organics. The country is building a factory to scale up production. The President also said the cure was to undergo clinical trials and that aside from the drinks, injection options were being pursued. 

COVID-19 has presented yet another opportunity for the continent to put its best foot forward, and it will require the concerted efforts of all stakeholders and leaders. Should the continent not be involved, it will be an aberration. The alternative is to wait, for the world to find a solution, then come to the continent’s rescue. The choice is ours.