When Madagascar’s president touted an herbal potion that he said could cure COVID-19, he touched off a swell of pride in a product steeped in African traditional medicine – and a wave of concern that it hadn’t been sufficiently tested.
“This herbal tea gives results in seven days,” President Andry Rajoelina said at an April 20 news conference, claiming it had cured two people. The event took place at the country’s Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which developed the tonic branded as Covid-Organics, or CVO.
In recent weeks, CVO – made with Artemisia annua, a plant whose artemisinin extract is used in antimalarial drugs – has been dispensed to Madagascar high school students and by soldiers going door to door, according to news reports.
Elsewhere in Africa, the Republic of Congo received a donation of the herbal remedy on Tuesday. Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia have imported CVO or said they plan to do so. Tanzanian President John Magufuli said last weekend that he would order a planeload.
Magufuli’s news generated many positive social media comments that invoked “a sort of patriotism,” Neville Meena, secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum, said on VOA’s “Daybreak Africa” radio program.
“Now when the Madagascars claim that they have the medicine for coronavirus,” he said, “now, the debate is: ‘Why should [we] not just support this innovation from our own continent?' ”
Dr. Erick Gbodossou, president of Senegal-based Prometra International, an organization committed to preserving African traditional medicine and science, praised Madagascar’s Rajoelina for having “the courage to test artemisia” and for trying to help his people via Covid-Organics.
“This courage is to be saluted,” he told VOA’s French to Africa service via Skype, “because we Africans must try to make humanity understand that Africa is not just dances and songs, that Africa can bring real, effective, serious solutions to the various health concerns of humanity.”
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization issued a statement voicing respect for traditional medicines while insisting on rigorous testing.
“Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” it said.
The African Union said in a news release that it was “in discussion” with Madagascar diplomats “to obtain technical data regarding the safety and efficiency of a herbal remedy.” It said its Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would review the data.
The herbal drink CVO was tested on fewer than 20 people for just three weeks before its release, a top aide to the president of Malagasy told the BBC.
Stanley Okolo, a physician and director general of the West Africa Health Organization, said the organization and the broader Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were committed to promoting traditional medicines – if they have passed rigorous, scientifically sound testing.
Political gain or liability?
Madagascar’s Rajoelina is not alone among political leaders endorsing products or protocols of uncertain value in the COVID-19 response.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted the anti-influenza drug Avignan, saying his country would “expand to the greatest possible extent its administration to patients wishing to take it,” The Japan Times reported in late April. The news organization said a Chinese study found the drug to be effective, especially among patients with mild symptoms, so Beijing is including it in treatment guidelines. But the drug – also known as favipiravir – may cause birth defects.
U.S. President Donald Trump has encouraged using chloroquine to treat COVID-19. He also suggested at a briefing – in jest, he later said – that injecting disinfectant might help patients. Medical experts and the makers of cleaning products quickly responded with warnings.
Political leaders take risks when backing a product or protocol that hasn’t been fully vetted, said Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on governance in Africa.
“The president of Madagascar might benefit from looking at the situation that we recently had in the United States, where there was a lot of enthusiasm in the White House for a drug that had historically been used to treat malaria” and that had “some promising indications” for treating COVID-19, said Bruton, director of studies for the Atlantic Council’s Africa Program.
If chloroquine had proved effective against COVID-19, the White House “would have looked very prescient,” she said. “The problem is it didn’t turn out that way.”
The National Institutes of Health website notes “insufficient clinical data to recommend either for or against using chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine” in treating COVID-19.
If the Madagascar potion proves ineffective or even harmful, Bruton said, Rajoelina “will be less credible … particularly if a large number of people have failed to social distance and the disease has spread more rapidly in Madagascar than it would have otherwise because of his conduct.”
Madagascar had 193 confirmed COVID-19 cases but no deaths as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Prometra’s Gbodossou remains convinced that a COVID-19 medicine lies within reach in Africa – and within the bounds of traditional medicine.
“We haven’t had yet, in many African countries, the courage to say the North does not have the solution,” he said. “If our politicians, the political leaders, do not yet understand it, it will be a pity.”
This report originated in VOA's Africa Division, including its French and English to Africa services. James Butty and Jason Patinkin contributed.