Controversy trails Nigeria’s search for traditional remedy for coronavirus

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned against untested COVID-19 traditional remedies, some African countries are set to embrace…

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned against untested COVID-19 traditional remedies, some African countries are set to embrace the Madagascar drug. The WHO says it supports scientifically proven traditional medicine and that complementary and alternative medicine have many benefits and that the medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua, touted as possible treatments for Covid-19, should be tested for efficacy and side effects.But Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, has gone ahead to promote a cure based on the plant and has made some consignments of the drugs available to some African countries for their use in managing the pandemic.

This was confirmed by a top Nigerian official, Mr. Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). Mustapha told journalists on Thursday, May 14, in Abuja that the Nigerian government did not request for COVID-Organics, a herbal medicine used by Madagascar to treat COVID-19 patients. He explained that the medicine was offered as a general gesture of ‘brotherly love’ from the Malagasy government to all African countries.

“Nigeria did not ask Madagascar for any solution, the Madagascar government decided to airlift quantities meant for African countries. It was taken in the spirit of African brotherly love to Guinea Bissau and we have asked our ambassador there to establish the location, the quantity and he has done that,” he said.

The Nigerian official had earlier said that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had directed the Presidential Taskforce on COVID 19, which he chairs to accept the drug from Madagascar.  He, however, said that he had instructions from the Nigerian President to make arrangements to freight it home, but “with a clear instruction that I should subject it to the validation process similar to what will happen to any other medicine or syrup or vaccine that is discovered or created internally”.

“So it will be subjected to the same process before it is put into any form of use. There’ll be no exception for that,” he said.

But this acceptance has raised mixed reactions from Nigerians over the stand of the Nigerian government since it has paid little or no attention to earlier claims of drugs for the management of the virus produced locally in Nigeria.

For instance, a Professor of Pharmacognosy and President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bioresources Development Group (BDG), Abuja, Maurice Iwu, had claimed that besides inhibiting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), a drug patented by his company also stopped the growth of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and dengue fever. He said his company had plans for clinical trial of the herbal-based COVID-19 drug at the NCDC isolation centre in Lagos or other suitable sites.

“We had screened thousands of plant extracts for various biological activities. Many of them including black seed oil, neem, lemon grass, citrus leaves and peel, turmeric, many other spices and herbs, etc. showed some antiviral activity but these three compounds exhibited remarkable antiviral activities and significantly inhibited the growth of Severe Active Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus in laboratory studies,” Iwu said in a recent interview with a local newspaper, the Guardian.

Reacting in the same vein, some Nigerian Pharmacists under the aegis of Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) frowned at the acceptance of the Madagascar drug by the Nigerian government. The President of the PSN, Mr. Sam Ohuabunwa, said that importing herbal tonic from Madagascar “is thoroughly disgraceful”.  

According to him, Nigeria has about 174 universities (43 federal, 52 state and 79 private), 20 Faculties of Pharmacy and about 69 federal-funded research Institutes, including National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), Abuja, and the National Institute for Medical Research, Yaba, Lagos, while Madagascar has only six universities, one Faculty of Pharmacy and nine research centres.

“Nigeria has some of the best scientists (pharmaceutical, medical, biochemical, biological etc.) in the world, who have done so much work on natural and herbal medicines.

Nigeria has developed a pharmacopeia of natural and herbal products and has one of the richest flora and fauna – potent sources of phytomedicines.

“Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, a number of them have raised their voices that they have herbal and natural products that can be used to treat or manage COVID-19. Some have patents. Many herbal companies and producers have announced specifically that they have herbal formulations that can do what this ‘invention’ from Madagascar can do,” he said in a statement to the Nigerian media.

“While in principle, we would not mind the Nigerian government importing any new drug that is proven to cure COVID-19 or indeed any other disease for which we have neither the capacity nor the technology to produce locally, we are totally appalled that Nigeria is about to spend scarce foreign exchange to import ‘Coal into Newcastle’.  Even if we are not going to pay for this, it is thoroughly disgraceful that a country that should be the leader of Africa, with the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will allow itself to be dragged this low,” he said.

“This dependency mentality needs to change and now is the time. We must seize this opportunity to look inwards, build confidence in our abilities, competences and re-orientate our national economic philosophy from import dependency to export driven. And Nigeria can beat India and China in the production and export of herbal products if anyone is willing to lead us down this path,” he added.

As the controversy rages on, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and
Control (NAFDAC) is yet to come out with any approved drug. The government has,
however, directed the agency to assess local herbal mixtures as possible COVID-19

But an African expert has lent her voice to the development of African traditional medicine for the management of the virus, assuring that Africa has the capacity to develop such drugs.  Dr. Mariane J. Ngoulla, an international public health development consultant, said the use of African traditional medicine has been recognised, encouraged, developed and established and that African leaders should look inward in finding a solution to Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Ngoulla, an industrial pharmacist, who had an illustrious career with the WHO, the European Union and the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, said in an interview with Realnews, a Nigerian online news magazine, that African leaders should establish close partnership with Madagascar to have more information so as to make the product available to the population, adding that this should apply to other products developed and used in Africa.

She confirmed that some African countries have already requested for the product from Madagascar. “The world, including Africa is looking for the cure to this Coronavirus. And I’m very happy that this time around prominent experts in the pharmaceutical industry and specialists on herbal medicinal products have come up with some products.

“This is what we need and it will surely encourage the many experts, researchers, universities to come up with more options. This is an opportunity for national governments, regional institutions like ECOWAS, SADC, and at continental level, the African Union to harness the huge potential existing in Africa.

“I pray after two decades of traditional medicine as declared by the African Union we will at last be able to take to another level the potential that has kept Africa going as we all know that at least 80 percent of our population depend on Traditional Medicine,” she said.

Ngoulla appreciated African leaders for the response so far. “Our response so far is good as we are not experiencing great number of death even-though one death is an irreparable loss for that family. In any situation there is room for improvement and an intensified well coordinated widespread awareness campaign will help achieve behaviour change and reassure the population that will help curb community transmission,” she said.

Since most African countries are abandoning their lockdown measures and the harsh and negative impact on their economies, the production of drugs and vaccine for the management of the virus appear to be the only workable option available for the management of COVID-19 in Africa and the world.