“As efforts are under way to find treatment for COVID-19, caution must be taken against misinformation, especially on social media, about the effectiveness of certain remedies,” the agency wrote.
“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.”
How unproven claims can fuel drug resistance
Madagascar’s President, Andry Rajoelina, has put himself front and center in the push for the tonic he calls a preventive and curative remedy against the coronavirus. But he has not detailed how it supposedly treats the virus or discussed potential side effects. His spokeswoman has not responded to CNN’s request Wednesday for comment.
CVO is made from the artemisia plant and other local Malagasy plants, the president said. The herb is a source of artemisinin, a significant component of modern antimalarials, and the plant has been the subject of Western studies looking at possible coronavirus treatments.
But the tonic promoters are drawing erroneous conclusions from unproven claims that artemisinin, much like antimalarial chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, will work against the coronavirus, Dr. Arthur Grollman, professor of pharmacological science and experimental medicine at Stony Brook University in New York told CNN.
“The flaw in their thinking is that antimalarial activity has anything to do with antiviral activity, which it does not,” Grollman said.
Widespread use of Artemisia annua in the pandemic will accelerate resistance to it, endangering people in countries, including Madagascar, where artemisinin-based drugs are being used to treat malaria, he said.
“The product won’t work and will result in more people dying from coronavirus due to the false sense of security created by the advertisement and also more people dying from malaria due to artemisia resistance,” Grollman said.
Independent validation is critical
“Any medicine that is being used including this product in Madagascar, we advise be taken through some assessment,” she said. “How effective it is? … What might be the side effects that may be undesirable? What could be the dosing that needs to be adjusted?”
The WHO country office has “initiated” a conversation with authorities in Madagascar to test and assess the tonic, officials said.
Independent validation with appropriate bodies is key, he said. Potential treatments, including traditional medicines, must pass safety, efficacy and quality checks, among other criteria before they can be accepted globally.
“If you’re confident about the clinical and scientific studies you’ve done, then submit to a regulatory body for revalidation to give it more credibility,” Wambebe told CNN.
But WHO warned in its earlier statement May 4 that Artemisia annua and other medicinal plants must be “tested to the same standards as … 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,” the agency wrote.
Still, the President insisted the possibility of a treatment should not be ignored.
“You speak of proof; I spoke of war earlier,” Rajoelina said when asked about evidence of his claim. He again did not share any further evidence of the tonic’s efficacy or safety.
“When we are in this period of war, what is the proof we can show or give?” he said. “It is, of course, the healing of our sick.”
No exception for clinical trial
WHO is not opposed to countries developing research into potential treatments, but they must follow established scientific protocols and guidelines before any product can be recommended for wider use, said the agency’s program manager for emergency response for Africa, Dr. Michel Yao.
“Instead of exporting it, like in the case of Madagascar, and having blanket statements about it, why don’t we set up a clear protocol that is already on ground so we can have stronger evidence of its impact in this outbreak,” Yao told CNN.
WHO has licensed dozens of herbal medicines for the treatment of other ailments and also matched traditional practitioners with research institutes to help their work, Yao said.
Researchers are working on treatment options for Covid-19, and at least 110 potential vaccines are in development, according to WHO.
CNN’s Niamh Kennedy and Devon Sayers contributed to this report.