SA scientists testing traditional medicine to fight Covid-19 – with promising early results

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  • Research into traditional, indigenous medicines as potential Covid-19 remedies is growing
  • Two remedies have shown encouraging results, with one of them moving into a phase 2 study involving human participants
  • Professor Motlalepula Matsabisa, who is involved in the study, said that traditional medicines should be given a fair chance 

All eyes may be on the global race for the development of Covid-19 vaccines, but results from preliminary studies looking at the potential of natural, indigenous medicines are slowly shifting to the forefront.

Last year the minister of higher education, science and innovation, Blade Nzimande, announced that the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) will fund studies looking at the use of "African medicines" as immune-modulators and anti-coronavirus therapeutics.

Speaking about bringing African traditional medicines from the margins to the centre, Motlalepula Matsabisa, Associate Professor of Pharmacology in Traditional Medicines at the University of the Free State (UFS), said he and his team have been assessing the potential of plant-based therapeutics for Covid-19.

Matsabisa shed light on the work they have been doing during a virtual webinar hosted by the DSI on Wednesday.

“In medicine, we know that not one single therapeutic would be effective for a particular disease – a lot of interventions are put into place to fight one common disease. Instead of focusing too much on one aspect of vaccine development … we should have an equitable distribution of resources towards the development of other therapeutics,” he said.

The potential of Phela

Matsabisa and his colleagues have been studying a number of plants that have previously been shown to be effective against certain symptoms caused by respiratory diseases, such as fever.

Their work included looking at both single plants and a mixture of plants. Phela, a traditional medicine prepared from four African medicinal plants, and which has been developed through the UFS and the DSI platform, gained their attention.

Historically, this mixture has been used for HIV and has been repurposed for Covid-19, Matsabisa said.

Phases of Covid

Matsabisa explained that certain drugs and therapeutics target different stages of illness in Covid. For example, vaccines are used in the early stages to prevent disease, while drugs such as dexamethasone have been used in hospitalised patients with severe Covid-19.

There is also a phase that is known as “post-Covid syndrome”, where Covid-19 survivors suffer long-term symptoms including high fevers, fatigue, shortness of breath, and brain fog, he explained.

“Different therapeutics and drugs work differently … Once the disease progresses, [certain] drugs are ineffective. Therefore, you need another intervention as the disease progresses,” he said.

Matsabisa added that at the later stages where the severity of Covid disease is at its highest, doctors have turned to immunosuppressants, such as dexamethasone, which, in fact, are derived from plants.

“So plant-based therapies could contribute at a disease phase, and, more importantly [for] post-Covid syndrome. People suffer after the disease, and these are the people that have been neglected and suffer in silence,” he said, adding that natural, indigenous plants could play a role in the prevention (prophylaxis) or the curative phase of Covid-19, as well as the mitigation of the symptoms of the disease.

Early results from his study 

The team tested the pre-clinical safety and efficacy (how well a product works) of Phela and found that it had “potent” effects against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease.

“It is very potent in microgram quantities, and based on this, we wanted to move this product to a clinical trial because we have done all our phase 1 safety studies. So we repurposed Phela for a multi-centre, open-label, randomised controlled study for Covid, and we are now looking at a phase 2 clinical trial,” he said.

The study is supported by the DSI and is being done in conjunction with Farmovs, the clinical trial centre at UFS. It will last around 30 days, and the researchers are aiming to recruit 500 participants for the trial.

Three sites have been identified for the study: Port Elizabeth, Kimberley, and Vereeniging. Matsabisa said that all these study sites are equipped to handle Covid-19 clinical studies and that all the personnel who have been placed at the sites have experience in conducting clinical trials. 

The danger of 'putting all our eggs in one basket'

“We realise that there is something risky that our government is doing. You are always told to never put all your eggs in one basket. And to me this is exactly what we’re doing,” said Matsabisa.

“We know in medicine that no one intervention will treat or eradicate the disease. It stifles innovation and local research and development. [So] let us begin to look at all the avenues and be open-minded when we do our research. We need more investment into our natural medicines and products. Let us give traditional medicines a fair chance.”

Studies conducted in lab

Professor Nceba Gqaleni, who has experience in research on African traditional medicines against HIV/Aids and immunomodulation, also repurposed South African indigenous medicinal plants and conducted a pilot, in vitro (conducted in a laboratory) study to test its antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2.

“We looked at plants that are used for respiratory and viral infections, and then we produced laboratory quantities of these herbal extracts for testing,” he said.

Gqaleni cautioned against referring to the name of the plants during his presentation, saying that “there’s a danger” of doing so, as some individuals recently harvested the roots of particular plants in the wild after finding out through reports that they had been effective against Covid.

He said that the extracts were found to disrupt the ability of the virus’s spike to bind to the host ACE-2 receptor (which allows it to enter host cells).

Product Nkabinde

There are other herbal mixtures – which Gqlani referred to as “samples of Product Nkabinde” – that he and his colleagues had initially been looking into for HIV, but have since shifted their focus to its potential effects against Covid-19.

Some of these extracts exhibited antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2, and were found to generate up to a 70% inhibition of the virus, he said. According to Gqlani, Product Nkabinde was tested in animal studies and was shown to be safe.

“These are the first reports of indigenous plants and medicines from South Africa to demonstrate in vitro antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2, acting in part, by inhibiting virus entry. Further research is required on these products in terms of safety and efficacy on humans,” Gqlani explained.

“We are now looking at further developing these products to the stage where we can test it on humans,” he added.

READ | Long Covid: In some people with mild illness, symptoms can linger for up to 9 months, study

READ | How the coronavirus mutates and what this means for the future of Covid-19

READ | Coronavirus: SA scientists look to identify potential of medicinal plant

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