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Madagascar: Spike in COVID casts doubt on miracle remedy

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Wednesday, 2 September 2020 18:56

Virus Outbreak Madagascar Herbal Drink
Locals have their bottles filled with a herbal extract believed to protect from COVID-19, in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Thursday, April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)

The evolution of the coronavirus pandemic in Madagascar has cast doubt on the effectiveness of Covid-Organics, the remedy praised by President Andry Rajoelina. Other countries testing the miracle remedy are also becoming increasingly sceptical of it. 

Madagascar has long been one of the African countries least affected by coronavirus. Until the beginning of July, there were less than 100 cumulative cases (including cured patients) and only about 20 deaths.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Why Madagascar is back under lockdown

To authorities, and also part of the public across the continent, these good statistics were explained – totally or partly – by the launch of Covid-Organics (or CVO) on 20 April. An infusion based on artemisia developed by Malagasy scientists and whose main promoter was President Andry Rajoelina himself. He then swore that his country had discovered an “African remedy” to the virus and offered to provide his beverage to all countries on the continent that showed interest.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Madagascar’s ‘Covid-Organics’ born from local tradition

Problem: Since July, statistics began to show a strong progression of coronavirus in Madagascar. Between the beginning and the end of the month, the number of recorded cases rose from 2,300 to more than 10,000 (with a peak of more than 600 new cases in 24 hours recorded on 17 July) and the number of deaths exceeded 100.

One month later, at the end of August, there were nearly 15,000 cases and 191 deaths, although the peak seems to have passed and the number of active patients has fallen back to 850.

A worrying development

Nevertheless, the Big Island, which in the spring was the continent’s best pupil in managing the epidemic, is now the 11th country with the highest number of cases. The statistics, of course, must be considered with caution, and everyone has understood that the more a country practices testing, the more positive cases it finds.

And as Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Director for Africa, pointed out on 20 August: “In many countries the rate of positive tests is 5%. In Madagascar or Ethiopia, it currently reaches 15%”.

LISTEN Recognise public health as part of economic development – Dr. Moeti

Is the worrying evolution of the pandemic in Madagascar a sign of the ineffectiveness of Covid-Organics? It’s impossible to confirm that simply based on figures. Of course, it is tempting to many to link the two facts, just as, on the contrary, some may have considered in the spring that the low number of cases was proof of the effectiveness of CVO.

In this photo taken Friday, April 24, 2020 residents are given bottles of a herbal mixture which is said to prevent and cure COVID-19 in Antanarivo, Madagascar. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)

The dismissal of the Malagasy Minister of Health, Ahmad Ahmad, on 20 August, has further fuelled questions, even though it seems that he was primarily accused of having made statements deemed too alarmist about the spread of the virus in the country.

WHO and Congo very sceptical

Discrediting the Malgasy remedy CVO would be a big hit to those in favour of the therapeutic use of artemesia. But there were reservations about the medicinal plant right from the start.

“Our comment remain the same,” says Dr. Luisa Dologuélé of the Maison de l’artemisia. “We do not know the exact composition of the Malagasy beverage and it is distributed without indication of dosage. People do not know how much they should consume or for how long. Covid-Organics is essentially distributed in 330 ml bottles, but for the treatment to be effective a patient must drink one litre of the infusion per day. Moreover, the bottled liquid is not stabilised: it ferments and the plant loses its active principle.”

Only a serious study could demonstrate – or invalidate – the effectiveness of CVO on COVID-19 patients, but at this stage, the Malagasy authorities have not announced a research program on the subject.

For its part, the WHO remains extremely sceptical and refuses to advise consumption of the product. On the other hand, it calls on researchers to conduct clinical trials on artemisia.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Madagascar pursues clinical trials of injectable remedy

A trial of this type was launched in DR Congo by Dr. Jérôme Munyangi, also a member of the Maison de l’artemisia. But the doctor wants to distinguish between the plant and the Malagasy beverage: he will only test artemisia.

In this photo taken Friday, April 24, 2020 residents are given bottles of a herbal mixture which is said to prevent and cure COVID-19 in Antanarivo, Madagascar. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)

And the trial is planned to last until June 2021.

READ MORE Coronavirus: DRC doctor says clinical trials can begin using artemisia

In the Congo, where the Malagasy initiative was initially greeted with interest, a team of researchers has, for its part, conducted a study on Covid-Organics itself. Biologist Francine Ntoumi, a member of the expert committee that advises the National Covid Response Committee, summarises the conclusions of the study, which were presented publicly on 21 August: “The results of the tests show no effectiveness in either prevention or treatment.

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