Jérôme Munyangi was met with pomp and circumstance. Freshly arrived in Kinshasa on 7 May after leaving his country in a hurry back in March 2019, considering himself “persecuted” in the Democratic Republic of Congo for having promoted artemisia as an antimalarial treatment, this time around the doctor travelled in “a jet with a presidential security detail”, as he delightfully recounted during an appearance on Radio-Télévision Nationale Congolaise, the country’s national broadcaster.
One week after his return, he was received by none other than President Félix Tshisekedi himself. In the presence of the president, he gave an overview of his research on the effects of artemisia on malaria and advocated for the plant to be fully integrated into “research on an African solution” to the coronavirus.
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On Wednesday, 13 May, the young 36-year-old doctor agreed to be interviewed by Jeune Afrique at the headquarters of the task force responsible for informing Tshisekedi on developments relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. A sign of the attention the president is paying to the researcher’s opinion, Tina Salama, Tshisekedi’s deputy spokesperson, served as the go-between to organise the meeting.
We have nothing to lose by trying to put Congolese and, more broadly, African scientists to work.
During all of his trips, the doctor, who maintains that he has received threats from drug resellers working in conjunction with Indian and Chinese pharmaceutical firms, is under the protection of a presidential security detail.
Jeune Afrique: You’ve returned to your home country after being gone for more than a year, a period during which you claimed to have been subject to persecution and threats in the DRC. Are you still afraid that you are at risk?
Jérôme Munyangi: Before agreeing to leave Paris, the first condition I laid down was that my safety be ensured. And it is. Today, I feel safe. And, to paraphrase the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s no need to dig up the past when you agree to return home. I have been very well received. The president invited me here… now I think it’s time to try to get to work in earnest to help combat the diseases impacting the DRC.
Who put you into touch with Tshisekedi?
Dr. Roger Kamba, the president’s adviser on universal health coverage, and Alexis Kayembe, his special adviser on infrastructure, contacted me on his behalf to organise my return to the country. Talks, primarily with La Maison de l’Artemisia, lasted two weeks.
What is your role within the president’s task force?
My role within the task force is related to research. The goal is to make our contribution to the various African solutions already in existence or currently under development.
What are your thoughts on the pandemic’s progression in the DRC? Were enough measures taken?
It’s exceedingly difficult to predict with certainty what’s going to happen, even when relying on epidemiological models. This was even the case in countries like France, where, at the outset, people were saying that the country wouldn’t be impacted. We all saw what happened afterwards.
Given the circumstances, the measures taken – even though the resources mobilised are perhaps insufficient – have helped stem the spread. While the responsible actions of the authorities certainly matter, those of the population do too.
Did you take part in developing Covid-Organics, the remedy promoted by the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina?
I work for an NGO called La Maison de l’Artemisia France and the organisation contacted the authorities in numerous African countries, including Madagascar, which was the first to agree to integrate the plant into the combat against COVID-19. As head of clinical and medical research at Fondation Terra Artemisia France, I participated in this process.
What do you think needs to be done to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the DRC?
To start, people need to comply with preventative hygiene practices and the measures implemented by the government. We also need to consider ways in which we can draw on our own scientists and solutions, and conduct clinical trials on the latter.
Take, for instance, hydroxychloroquine: despite the controversy it sparked, someone had the courage to defend it, and it has helped certain patients. We have nothing to lose by trying to put Congolese and, more broadly, African scientists to work.
We’ve come up with a solution which entails working towards conducting a clinical trial with artemisia. We’ve made proposals regarding this work to the African Union and the WHO. We have a coherent, ready-to-use protocol.
The same as that in effect in Madagascar?
No, Madagascar doesn’t have a clinical protocol. The solution known under the name Covid-Organics is an herbal tea containing artemisia and another medicinal plant. It’s a solution. What we’re proposing is a protocol, with a plan that complies with clinical research standards. Today, we’re ready to start the testing and clinical trial phase, which will help us determine whether or not the protocol can treat people diagnosed with COVID-19.
When will the clinical trial begin? And how many patients will be involved?
That’s up to the authorities to decide. We can quickly begin a trial with 20 to 40 patients. Within two weeks, we’ll have the results.
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