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Madagascar’s president promotes unproven herbal cure for COVID-19

  • Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, unveiled an unproven cure for COVID-19 that is derived from a plant, Artemisia annua.
  • His comments at a launch of the herbal remedy on April 20 suggested that the remedy, called COVID-ORGANICS, would act both as a cure and a vaccine.
  • No evidence from any clinical trials was shared to back up the claims.
  • The World Health Organization did not respond to Mongabay’s questions about COVID-ORGANICS, but the agency has warned against the spread of misinformation and purported miracle cures.

The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, on April 20 appeared to promote an unproven treatment for COVID-19.  The remedy, named COVID-ORGANICS, is effective against the virus, Rajoelina said, speaking in Malagasy at the launch of the product in the capital Antananarivo. The product strengthens the body’s immune system, he added.

The president’s office did not respond to Mongabay’s request for information supporting the claim that the product helps cure COVID-19. Rajoelina shared images of the product on his social media page: bottles of a dark amber liquid with the label COVID-ORGANICS and Tisane Bio. The word tisane refers to herbal teas.

The principal ingredient in the concoction is derived from Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood, a green leafy plant that emits a striking odor. Dried leaves from the plant are considered  to have medicinal properties in Madagascar. But there is no evidence to show it actually works against COVID-19, a respiratory disease that has claimed more than 165,000 lives and infected almost 2.5 million people across the world.

Herbal remedies made from A. annua leaves are often touted as a cure for malaria. But its use against malaria is controversial. “WHO does not recommend the use of A. annua plant material, in any form, including tea, for the treatment or the prevention of malaria,” a 2012 position paper from the World Health Organization said. The WHO’s office for Traditional and Complementary Medicine had not responded to questions about its use for COVID-19 by the time this article was published.  However, artemisinin, a compound isolated from the A. annua plant is used in combination with other drugs as a treatment for malaria.

“Medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 and should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects,” the WHO regional office for Africa said in a statement, adding that “Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world. Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical.”

Though the release did not refer to Madagascar, the global health agency warned against the spread of misinformation especially with regard to potential remedies.

“There is as far as I know no evidence that the artemisinins can treat COVID-19,” Arjen M. Dondorp, a professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford told Mongabay in an email. “There are anecdotal reports that artesunate was tried in China when the outbreak was rampant there, and that the drug had no clear clinical benefit.  As far as I know, no official clinical trials with artesunate to evaluate whether artemisinins are beneficial in COVID-19 have been registered.” Artesunate is derived from artemisinin.

The product also bears the stamp of the Malagasy Institute for Applied Research (IMRA), where the purported cure was developed.

Madagascar has a low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases — just 121 out of a population of 26 million — and no reported deaths as of April 20. The country declared a national emergency after the first confirmed cases emerged on March 20, and placed the major cities of Antananarivo, Fianarantsoa and Toamasina under lockdown. But on April 20 some restrictions were eased in these cities.

It was not clear if the preparation the president unveiled is supposed to act as a cure or a vaccine. Rajoelina suggested not just that patients of COVID-19 were treated with it but that students would have to drink it in order to return to school, implying that it would prevent them from getting the disease.

He also said the product will be made available for free to the poor.

The raging spread of the disease and the global economic fallout from measures to contain it have created a cavernous demand for a cure. However, no proven cure has emerged yet.

Banner image: A screenshot showing bottles of the purported cure, COVID-ORGANICS, on the Facebook page of Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina.

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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[Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to include a comment from Arjen M. Dondorp, a professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, and to include a statement issued by WHO Africa on May 4.]

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