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Infectious Diseases

Updated 28 September 2020

Coronavirus: SA scientists look to identify potential of medicinal plants

Scientists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Durban University of Technology are looking at the potential of South African plants to fight SARS-CoV-2.

  • Research into reliable medication to fight SARS-CoV-2 and treat Covid-19 is ongoing 
  • Recent studies, focused on plant-based substances, could potentially show these to be effective 
  • SA researchers have published the findings of phase 1 of their research

The potential of medicinal plants to fight SARS-CoV-2 and treat Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, is slowly attracting interest and being studied by scientists around the world.

This week, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) announced that they are involved in joint research to assess bioactive compounds from South African plants that could potentially be effective in the treatment of the new coronavirus.

The first phase of their research was recently published in The South African Journal of Botany.

According to a news release by UKZN this week, the plant species chosen for the research were selected based on their use in traditional medicine for fighting the common cold, flu, respiratory infections, and malaria, among other ailments and diseases.

First study to look at SA indigenous plants and SARS-CoV-2

For the study, researchers looked at inhibitors extracted from South African medicinal plants that could potentially fight SARS-CoV-2, using molecular modelling approaches.

During the first stage of the study, UKZN’s Professor Mahmoud Soliman, Dean and Head of the School of Health Sciences and head of the Molecular Bio-Computation and Drug Design Laboratory, together with his doctoral student and laboratory assistant, Clement Agoni, found 29 compounds in South African indigenous plants used in traditional medicine.

The process identified arabic acid, L-canavanine, uzarin and hypoxoside as "favourable for the treatment of the virus", the researchers wrote.

Study lead, UKZN alumnus Dr Depika Dwarka of DUT’s Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology, confirmed that this was the first study to scientifically examine South African indigenous plants for the treatment of SARS-CoV-2.

Dwarka commented: “The next stage of the research is underway, focusing on the in vitro antiviral activity of the compounds identified as potential inhibitors. If the study secures promising results, further research will be done using animal modules.

“Consequently, these compounds could serve as a starting point for the discovery of a novel SARS-CoV-2 therapeutic.”

Other researchers and co-leaders of the project include DUT’s Professor Jason Mellem, as well as UKZN’s Professor Himansu Baijnath, an honorary research professor and past curator of the Ward Herbarium at the School of Life Sciences on the Westville campus.

WHO: expert panel endorses protocol for Covid-19 herbal medicine clinical trials 

In a news release published on 19 September, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that The Regional Expert Committee on Traditional Medicine for Covid-19 (formed by WHO); the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention; and the African Union Commission for Social Affairs, have endorsed a protocol for phase 3 clinical trials of herbal medicine for Covid-19. Phase 3 clinical trials are critical in fully assessing the safety and efficacy of a new medical product.

The release mentions that a charter and terms of reference for the establishment of a data and safety monitoring board for herbal medicine clinical trials were also endorsed.

“Just like other areas of medicine, sound science is the sole basis for safe and effective traditional medicine therapies,” said Dr Prosper Tumusiime, Director of Universal Health Coverage and Life Course Cluster at WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Tumusiime added that the outbreak of Covid-19 has “highlighted the need for strengthened health systems and accelerated research and development programmes, including on traditional medicines”.

In the event that a traditional medicine product is found to be safe, efficacious and quality-assured, Tumusiime explained that WHO will push for fast-tracked, large-scale local manufacturing.

According to Tumusiime, through the African Vaccine Regulatory Forum, there is now a benchmark upon which clinical trials of medicines and vaccines in the region can be assessed and approved in under 60 days.