As Africa battles a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the growing popularity of herbal remedies touted as a treatment or cure for the virus is raising concern.
In Uganda, which has wrestled with a surge in infections over the last month, the National Drug Authority recently approved a herbal remedy Covidex as a “supportive treatment” for Covid-19 and Ugandans have scrambled to get hold of the new medicine.
Like some other herbal formulations promoted as coronavirus treatments in Africa, Covidex has not been evaluated by the World Health Organization (WHO), but such treatments are popular across a continent with a long history of traditional medicine and healers.
The promotion of these remedies could feed existing scepticism over imported vaccines for COVID-19. Ugandan tutor Abby Nakku Makubuya said on Twitter:
Uganda is grappling with a wave of infections which has just dipped from a mid-June peak. The most contagious strain yet, the Delta variant, was detected in 97% of samples taken from people who had tested positive for Covid-19.
Professor Pontiano Kaleebu, Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute and Professor of Immunovirology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said there was a danger that remedies such as Covidex, derived from a plant found in western Uganda, could be mistaken for an anti-viral treatment or cure.
“When there’s no cure, anything that can help you lead a better life is welcome,” he told a WHO press briefing last week. “But the danger is to misinterpret it [Covidex], to label it differently, like it’s an anti-viral or a cure.”
Over the course of the pandemic, several African countries have embraced traditional herbal remedies. Zimbabwe and Madagascar have authorised herbal remedies to help treat patients with Covid-19.
And in Tanzania, former president John Magufuli encouraged people to inhale herb-infused steam as an alternative to vaccination . This was before his sudden death in March, after a two-week absence from public life that prompted rumours that he had contracted Covid-19.
Covidex too originally appeared on the market with unproven claims that it could prevent and treat Covid-19. Demand has soared, with NTV Uganda reporting that pharmacies in Busia town in eastern Uganda had run out of the medicine days after the National Drug Authority’s announcement of its approval.
Interest in Covidex has also reached neighbouring Kenya. Grace Tanga, a trader in Busia near to the Kenyan border, told NTV: “It is in high demand in Kenya - Kenyans ask us to take it to them. It should be stocked in plenty”.
The Executive Director of Uganda’s National Drug Authority, Dr David Nahamya said: “After engagements, the innovators have removed unsubstantiated claims that the product treats and prevents Covid-19 and revised it to ‘supportive treatment in management of viral infections’”.
Yet one man, Oromcan Wathum, told Uganda’s Daily Monitor: “This Covidex drug works. I have used it on both sick person and also taking it as prophylaxis (preventative treatment).”
The World Health Organisation says it supports scientifically proven, traditional medicine, but Dr Alex Chimbaru, the WHO Uganda Incident Manager for Disease Outbreak said: “this herbal remedy did not go through the WHO evaluation process. All therapeutics to be used as Covid-19 treatment should go through the assessment to be listed by WHO.”
The approval of the herbal remedy comes as the Ugandan Ministry of Health confirmed that 800 people had been given fake Covid-19 vaccinations. Professor Kaleebu said he was concerned that stories of counterfeit jabs could dent the uptake of genuine Covid-19 vaccines when supplies resume.
“The Ministry is working firmly and strongly together with other enforcement agencies to see how this can be stopped. If we don’t stop this, it’ll put us back to people avoiding the vaccination, which will be terrible and bad.”
So far, around 1.5 per cent of Uganda’s population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with supplies coming via the UN’s COVAX vaccine sharing scheme and over 100,000 doses from the Indian government. Though stocks of the vaccine were severely depleted last month, at least 660,000 more doses are expected to be delivered by the COVAX program in early August.