A drink made from a bright-green fern-like plant is being promoted in African countries as the go-to cure for COVID-19.
But detractors, with undisguised scorn, dismiss claims for the concoction as at best useless — and at worst dangerous.
Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina is the promoter-in-chief of the substance, marketed as COVID-Organics and sold in the form of a herbal infusion.
Asserting that the Madagascan brew has the potential to “change history”, Rajoelina has widely distributed it in his Indian Ocean island nation and exported it to many parts of Africa.
The East African countries of Tanzania and the Comoros are among enthusiastic customers as well as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast.
Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo made a point of personally taking delivery of his country’s Covid-Organics order at the airport.
Artemisia annua has a long history in its native China, where scientists discovered an active ingredient that made the plant a front-line weapon in the fight against malaria.
Flying off shelves
Covid-Organics seems to be selling like hotcakes in Madagascar, costing 30 euro cents (35 US) for a 33-centilitre (11-ounce) bottle.
In Senegal, Belgian agronomist Pierre Van Damme markets the product under the label Le Lion Vert (The Green Lion).
“Since the start of the epidemic, demand for artemisia has gone through the roof,” Van Damme said. “But since the Madagascan president’s declarations, it’s been crazy.”
Sales jumped 15-fold in a few weeks, forcing Van Damme to hire eight staff to handle some 2,000 orders a day.
As demand surges for the purported coronavirus remedy, prices have followed suit.
Ibrahima Diop, a producer in the Dakar area, says the retail price has soared by two-thirds.
“I’m swamped,” grinned Haoua Wardougou, an apothecary in a working-class district of the Chad capital N’Djamena. “I have lots of customers who want to buy some, but I’m out of stock.”
The counterpart to this enthusiasm is the cool reception that the drink has met in the West.
The substance has proven effectiveness against malaria, but no clinical trials have tested it against COVID-19, either as a cure or as a preventative.
In recent weeks, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have underscored the need for empirical testing of local formulas to demonstrate they are safe and effective as claimed.
“We would be very proud if a solution in this war against COVID-19 comes from an African country,” said John Nkengasong, head of the Gabon-based Africa CDC. “But we must be methodical before approving such a remedy.”
Some African countries are exercising caution, handing over their stocks of Covid-Organics for expert analysis.
“They will be subjected to the same process as all other products before they are put on the market,” said Boss Mustapha, Nigeria’s point man in the fight against coronavirus. “There will be no exceptions.”
Even in Madagascar, doubts persist. The dean of the medical faculty in the eastern city of Toamasina, Stephane Ralandison, warned against methods that were “not fully scientific” behind the Covid-Organics’ launch.
“I am extremely cautious,” said sociologist Marcel Razafimahatratra, asking why the drink was not used in China, where the pandemic originated and where artemisia has long been used in traditional medicine.
Clearly thrilled by his new continental fame, Rajoelina is an unabashed defender of Covid-Organics, charging that the West scorns the concoction because of its condescending attitude toward traditional African medicine.
“If it was a European country that had actually discovered this remedy, would there be so much doubt? I don’t think so,” he told French media.