While Africa applauded the first announcement of a remedy for Covid-19, the West was sceptical.
Developed countries joined the World Health Organisation (WHO) in demanding scientific evidence that Madagascar’s herbal mixture actually worked. Meanwhile, African leaders rushed to place their orders.
Now, as research into the active ingredient in the artemisia plant heads towards scientific findings, the tables have turned. Many African countries have lost confidence in the home-grown treatment after initial testing.
But, as the unique properties of the artemisia plant start to show promise for wider medicinal use, pharmaceutical companies around the world are showing renewed interest. Some are collaborating with researchers.
But interest in Covid-Organics on social media has waned, despite recent news stories that some researchers are becoming increasingly excited about the potential of artemisia for anti-viral medicines.
Here’s a summary of how the debate played out on social media and in the news:
. This tweet by President Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar, unveiling Covid-Organics, went viral around the world: “#Madagascar will launch tomorrow the
. This announcement was well received: “Covid-Organics will be distributed free of charge to our most vulnerable compatriots and sold at very low prices to others. All profits will be donated to IMRA to fund scientific research. Believe in our ability to cope and move forward.”
. More than 500 526 news sites report on the stunning announcement.
. Then Rajoelina announces Senegal is on board: “#Senegal congratulates #Madagascar for the improved traditional remedy Covid-Organics & launches a 1st order. Long live Africa and live its natural wealth.”
. A Madagascar news story claims: “Madagascar: Not a single new case since the Covid-Organics remedy was announced.”
. The pro-Africa narrative centres on promoting African products.
. A news outlet in France was the first to cast doubt on the fresh announcement. The news report said: “Covid-19: Covid-Organics, this remedy that Madagascar has validated against the advice of the WHO, the Madagascan president validated the trials for a treatment based on the well-known artemisia plant in the fight against malaria.”
. The doubts of Western media are clear in this news story, stating: “No test in Senegal of the Malagasy remedy ‘Covid-Organics’ for the moment.”
. In a tweet, the Malagasy president had announced the “1st order” of the remedy by Senegal after an interview with his counterpart Macky Sall. According to a source familiar with the matter in Dakar, the Senegalese president said he was open to receiving samples, but no order has yet been placed.
. President Rajoelina then announced: “Thank you to the President of Guinea Bissau @USEmbalo of his proposal to supply his country & its West African neighbors with TAMBAVY CVO / Covid-Organics. He will charter a plane to transport them from #Madagascar. It is united & united Africa that fights #Covid_19!”. This post received almost 5 500 likes/retweets.
. #madagascarcure had over 23 193 mentions on Twitter in under two weeks.
. This article blows up in Nigeria: “BREAKING: Buhari orders importation of Madagascar Covid-19 ‘remedy’ http://bit.ly/2LwfYAl”, with more than 8 500 likes/retweets.
. This tweet goes viral, with no references or evidence: “Madagascar has a coronavirus recovery rate of 72%. Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea have purchased and taken packages of Madagascar’s Coronavirus medicine. It has lifted its lockdown. It is compulsory for its students to drink their coronavirus medicine, Covid Organics.” It had nearly 14 500 likes/retweets.
. Tanzania starts to distance itself, according to this news story: “The government of Tanzania said the #COVID19 herbal ‘remedy’ CovidOrganics that has been donated by Madagascar to the east African nation were for clinical trials and not for prescriptions to patients http://xhne.ws/WWSSQ.”
. France24 reported: “Last month, #Madagascar launched Covid-Organics, a drink said to treat and prevent #Covid19. Now, other countries in the region are beginning to import the herbal remedy, despite a lack of scientific research to back up its billing as a miracle cure.”
. Amid President Rajoelina’s claims that the world – and the WHO – were biased against Africa, the WHO began taking a more conciliatory line. WHO Africa issued this statement: “Innovation in the search for treatments for #Covid19 are welcomed, but must be tested to ensure they are safe & effective. @WHO recognizes Africa’s long history of traditional edicine & the important role that practitioners play in providing care.”
. The director-general of the WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus, stated: “Good call with @SE_Rajoelina, President of #Madagascar, about the #Covid19 situation in his country. We discussed how to work together on therapeutics research and development. And we agreed that solidarity is key to fighting the pandemic and keeping the world safe.”
. But some African leaders take up a cautious position. Ghana’s department of information posted: “We have received the Madagascar cure for Covid19 and we are testing it for efficacy – @konkrumah #AskTheInfoMinistry #Covid19”, and received more than 8 200 likes/retweets.
. Posted by Leigh Mathys: “SAns are mocking Madagascar for having 2800 cases. Apparently that number is proof that their herb is a failureSA population: 56m 190k covid cases. Madagascar: 28m 2800 cases. Their population is 1/2 ours. They must have at least 95k cases for us to declare their herb a failure.”
The tide of public opinion had by now turned against the Madagascan mixture. The sceptics felt vindicated.
. Example: “Message to the gullible ones who pushed the so called ‘Madagascar cure’ and ‘Proudly African’
. Example: “Indeed. And when you think people were accused of being traitors and demonized for legitimately questioning this quackery called #covidorganics. Science is about knowledge, facts and rationality, not about the subjectivity of the tribe.”
. Increasing disenchantment around the Madagascan “cure” followed, as news of a vaccine emerged from Russia. Meanwhile, news of two Madagascan MPs dying provided additional ammunition for the sceptics.
. Tweet: “Two Madagascar lawmakers, one member of the senate and one deputy, have died after contracting coronavirus. 11 other deputies and 14 senators also tested positive for the virus. Where is the Madagascar Cure?”
. The next peak in the conversation was triggered by this news from Nigeria: “Madagascar drug can’t cure Covid-19, says NIPRD.”
. Bashir Ahmad, personal assistant on new media to the president of Nigeria, posted: “When the news of Madagascar’s Covid-19 herbal emerged, a lot of Nigerians insulted the President for not giving an immediate approval to procure the herbal.
Today, Madagascar itself agreed the herbal doesn’t cure the virus, and it’s now seeking for help elsewhere, desperately.” It got more than 3 700 likes, and more than 1 000 retweets and comments.
. Tweet: “Madagascar went from wanting to sell the cure for Covid-19 to being the country with one of the worst Covid-19 outbreak on the continent.”
. Tweet: “I was called all sorts for insinuating that the Madagascar herbal miracle cure was a sham and for asking for non-anecdotal, concrete evidence. A few months later and Madagascar’s Covid-19 death toll keeps rising. Maybe – just maybe – trust science-based evidence and not propaganda.”
. Tweet: “FLASH: Madagascar govt has now sacked its Health Minister in the middle of rising Covid-19 cases despite the scam herbal drink marketed to some countries as a cure.”
As public interest in the herbal cure wanes, scientists report that their research into the benefits of extracts from the artemisia plant is making some headway.
Chemists Peter Seeberger and Kerry Gilmore with the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany have worked with Artemisia annua. This work led the start-up company ArtemiFlow to produce medications based on the plant.
Seeberger and Gilmore have begun studies to assess the effects of the plant’s ingredients against the novel coronavirus, Sars-CoV-2 (the causative agent of Covid-19).
UK HealthCare is launching the first human studies on the efficacy of Artemisia annua against Covid-19, led by the Markey Cancer Centre, College of Medicine and College of Pharmacy.
Building on the existing partnership with ArtemiLife, the new arms of the clinical trial will test the effectiveness of the plant extract.
Research studies are also under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mexico.
In South Africa, African wormwood (Artemisia afra) is among six herbs that government is trialling against Covid-19. About R15 million has been diverted from existing indigenous knowledge projects to fund the research.
While many scientists around the world are hopeful that their work with artemisia will yield benefits in the treatment of Covid-19, interest in the Madagascan mixture that started it all has faded.
But the scientific jury is still out. With several studies yet to prove the efficacy of the herb in treating Covid-19, the final verdict on whether those who support the herbal remedy will prevail against those who are sceptical is still to bring this debate to a conclusion.