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Infectious Diseases

Updated 06 May 2020

WHO backs traditional medicines as potential Covid-19 treatments - but must be scientifically proven

Is there a place for traditional or alternative medicine in the war against Covid-19?

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday said it would back traditional or alternative medicines as potential treatments for Covid-19, as long as the efficacy and safety of these treatments were established through rigorous clinical trials.

In a statement, it said it welcomes innovations around the world including repurposing drugs, traditional medicines and developing new therapies in the search for potential treatments for Covid-19. 

"WHO recognises that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an important role in providing care to populations."

But, it said, medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua, which are being considered as possible treatments for Covid-19, should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects.

The statement, while not specifically making reference to it, appears to be in response to the situation in Madagascar as the country continues to ship what it claims to be a remedy for Covid-19.

The drink is derived from Artemisia – and other indigenous herbs, and has been baptised Covid-Organics, according to an AFP report.

While the Artemisia plant has proven efficacy in malaria treatment, the WHO has said that the herbal tea's effects had not been tested, and there are no published scientific studies on it, the report added.

Despite this, Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina has touted the mixture as a powerful remedy against the new coronavirus and hopes to distribute across West Africa and beyond.

Establishing efficacy and safety

But the WHO said that Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world.

"Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical," it insisted.

It also warned on misinformation on potential Covid-19 treatments, saying caution must be taken, especially on social media, about the effectiveness of certain remedies.

"Many plants and substances are being proposed without the minimum requirements and evidence of quality, safety and efficacy.

"The use of products to treat Covid-19, which have not been robustly investigated can put people in danger, giving a false sense of security and distracting them from hand washing and physical distancing which are cardinal in Covid-19 prevention, and may also increase self-medication and the risk to patient safety."

Undergoing strict protocols

It said that African governments – through their Ministers of Health – had adopted a resolution urging Member States to produce evidence on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine at the Fiftieth Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa in 2000.

According to the WHO, countries also agreed to undertake relevant research and require national medicines regulatory agencies to approve medicines in line with international standards, which include the product following a strict research protocol and undergoing tests and clinical trials.

"These studies normally involve hundreds of people under the monitoring of the national regulatory authorities and may take quite a few months in an expedited process."

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Image credit: Lisa Hobbs, Unsplash