As COVID-19 spread across Africa and leaders put their countries in lockdown, Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina last month launched an herbal remedy that he claimed could prevent and cure the disease.
The announcement caught medical experts, who have scrambled to find a cure for the disease that has killed more than 252,000 and infected at least 3.6 million people globally, by surprise.
Rajoelina, a former DJ who in 2009 at the age of 34 became the continent’s youngest national leader, claimed at the launch that the remedy, named Covid-Organics, had already cured two people.
“This herbal tea gives results in seven days,” Rajoelina, 45, told journalists and diplomats in April.
Soldiers have since been going door-to-door in the Indian Ocean island country, which has reported 149 cases and no fatalities, dispensing the concoction.
The herbal remedy is produced from artemisia, a plant with proven efficacy against malaria, and other indigenous herbs, according to the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which developed the beverage.
The plant was first imported into the island nation in the 1970s from China to treat malaria.
It is now marketed in bottles as a herbal tea, while Rajoelina has said clinical trials are under way in Madagascar to produce a form that can be injected into the body.
Following Rajoelina’s claims, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised people against using untested remedies for COVID-19.
“Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” WHO, the United Nations health agency, said in a statement on Monday.
“Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical,” the statement added.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also warned people against using unproven remedies.
“There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure the illness caused by COVID-19. In fact, some of them may not be safe to consume,” the CDC said.
Meanwhile, the African Union said it was in discussion with Madagascar with a view to obtain technical data regarding the safety and efficiency of the herbal remedy.
In an attempt to reassure people and brush aside safety concerns, Rajoelina took a dose of Covid-Organics at the launch event and said it was safe to be given to children.
Several African countries, including Tanzania, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, have either placed orders or have received consignments of the remedy.
On Sunday, Tanzanian President John Magufuli said he was dispatching a plane to Madagascar to collect a shipment of the tonic.
“I’m communicating with Madagascar,” Magufuli said during a speech, adding: “They have got a medicine. We will send a flight there and the medicine will be brought in the country so that Tanzanians too can benefit.”
Meanwhile in Guinea-Bissau, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo went to the airport on Saturday to receive a shipment of the beverage donated by the Madagascan leader.
COVID-19 has spread to all but one country in Africa, Lesotho. As of Tuesday, at least 1,862 people across the continent have died from the virus.