Could traditional African medicine “change the course of history” in the combat against COVID-19? Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina believes so, and he is also convinced that the island country has a special role to play in stemming the pandemic.
On the evening of 8 April, the head of state made a surprising revelation to his fellow citizens on national television: “I received a letter on 24 March indicating that Madagascar possesses a remedy that could – and I say could because it has not yet been proven – cure the coronavirus.”
While staying mum about the name of the miracle remedy derived, he said, from a “medicinal plant”, Rajoelina added that Madagascar could potentially “change the course of history” thanks to this discovery.
What plant was the president referring to? And what evidence does he have to back up his statements? Initially, his staff seemed caught off guard.
“We’ll find someone who can answer your questions, but please call back later,” an official source from Madagascar’s Ministry of Health said, while one of the president’s advisers dodged our queries, saying that “further clarification is forthcoming, I’ll keep you posted.”
At the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which specialises in the study of medicinal plants, our contact gave no more information: “We’re working on a potential remedy, but it’s confidential.”
Four days later, the president’s remarks made a comeback on social media.
On Easter Sunday, Rajoelina reiterated his conviction about the discovery of an antidote to COVID-19 in two back-to-back tweets: “On this Easter Sunday, #Madagascar would like to send a message of hope to the world with the help of our biodiversity, 80% of which are endemic species. To tackle #COVID-19, we will be able to propose an enhanced traditional remedy made up of Malagasy medicinal plants which have already been proven effective.”
This time around, he described the antidote as involving more than one plant.
“As we await the clinical trial results, we are confident that we will be able to change the course of history in this global war being waged against the pandemic. We are also going to conduct laboratory testing during which the drug will be administered to patients in different formats,” he added in another tweet later that same day.
Although the president continues to pursue his conviction and has given his approval of further study, the plants involved remain a complete mystery. In Madagascar, none of the individuals able to specify which plants are likely to cure COVID-19, as the head of state alluded, are willing to talk.
Small clue to shed light on this mystery
The only clue capable of shedding light on this mystery is a letter written in French and from which Rajoelina quoted a short excerpt during his televised speech. Jeune Afrique was able to get its hands on a copy.
Dated 24 March, the letter was sent by Lucile Cornet-Vernet, founder and vice president of La Maison de l’Artemisia.
Based in Paris, this humanitarian organisation with a presence in 23 African countries, including Madagascar, promotes artemisia annua and artemisia afra; two medicinal plants with antimalarial properties, “to the most vulnerable populations in the Southern Hemisphere.”
According to La Maison de l’Artemisia, “both plants have been used in traditional medicine for centuries in China and East Africa.”
While not endemic plants, these two varieties of artemisia (also known as sweet wormwood) are nevertheless widely grown in Madagascar. What’s more, the French organisation believes that they have a promising potential to treat COVID-19.
A low-cost treatment
Writing to the Health Minister Ahmad, the vice president of the Paris organisation added: “Your decision has the power to change the course of history.”
Rajoelina would later reuse this very same expression on television and Twitter.
According to Cornet-Vernet, around 10 African countries have already agreed in principle to perform clinical trials focused on artemisia, including Benin, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Rwanda.
Studies are just getting underway
Madagascar already has the capacity to grow and produce artemisia. An executive from one of the sector’s leading companies, Bionexx, said that each year it produces 25 tonnes of artemisinin, the plant’s medicinal active ingredient, i.e., a share of around 10% of the global market.
But what are the potential benefits of this plant, typically consumed as an infusion, when it comes to treating COVID-19?
Scientific studies are just getting underway. The renowned Max Planck Institute in Germany, which has received 18 Nobel prizes since 1948 and publishes 15,000 papers each year, launched an in vitro trial on 8 April, in collaboration with the US company ArtemiLife and Danish researchers.
In a press release, the research institute explained that studies have shown artemisia annua to be somewhat effective against a virus similar to the novel coronavirus.
“Given the similarities between those two viruses, plant extracts and artemisinin derivatives need to be tested against the new coronavirus,” said Professor Peter Seeberger, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces.