Research Into Traditional Remedies For COVID-19 Welcomed By World Health Organization
Rows of artemisia annua in West Virginia

Research into traditional medicines for COVID-19 should be welcomed, so long as it is held to the same standards as research into other drug candidates, the World Health Organization Africa Regional Office expressed in a statement issued Monday.

The diplomatically-framed WHO statement came after widespread media coverage of Madagascar’s president and other African leaders over the weekend, who suggested that the medicinal plant artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) was effective against the coronavirus.

“WHO recognizes that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits, and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine,” said the WHO statement. 

Several decades ago, the same plant was found to be effective against malaria parasites, leading to the development of modern artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which are now a worldwide standard for malaria. 

While no such studies of the plant’s effect in COVID-19 patients have been published, initially promising results from cell studies conducted by Chinese researchers in 2005 showed that artemisia annua extract may have activity against the SARS-CoV virus – a cousin to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The Max Planck institute in Germany recently announced a collaboration with researchers in the United States and Denmark to investigate the plant’s efficacy against SARS-CoV-2.

According to WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, there are “hundreds” of ongoing clinical trials exploring the use of traditional remedies for the coronavirus. The idea of traditional medicines, particularly for COVID-19, is something that is is well under investigation,” she told reporters Monday.

However, WHO warned that, “caution must be taken against misinformation, 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.””

The statement comes as hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug is making headlines as a potentially dangerous COVID-19 therapeutic. While hope is still being pinned on the drug, recent studies showed that it could cause heart arrhythmias at high doses, underlining the importance of conducting proper clinical trials before approving a drug for use. The naturally-occurring source of hydroxychloroquine is the chinchona tree, a national symbol of Peru.

Global Trends

Number of cases by WHO region

Of the 27 000 new cases recorded Sunday in Europe, almost a third of cases, some 10 000 new cases, were in the Russian Federation, and 20% of new cases were in the UK, according to the latest WHO situational report. So far, Europe hosts about half of COVID-19 cases and 60% of deaths worldwide.

As countries like Italy, Portugal and Austria relaxed their lockdowns on Monday, and Spain recorded its lowest numbers since a peak in March, COVID-19 is still not over in Europe, nor in any other region of the world. 

This week, the UK will announce a comprehensive roadmap to lift its month-and-a half- long lockdown despite the meagre reductions in cases since mid-April, with 5000 new cases reported over the past day.

On Sunday morning, the third flight from China delivered 2.1 million face masks and 32,000 surgical gowns to Ireland’s capital, Dublin. The three flights were organized and funded by Dublin-based aircraft leasing company Avolon, which has raised a total of €350,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. Rock band U2 contributed € 10 million to the cause.

In the Americas, meanwhile, the USA, Brazil and Peru accounted for over 80% of new cases reported in the continent in the past day, according to the latest WHO situational report. As of Monday, 26 000 new cases were confirmed in the USA and 6000 new cases were reported in Latin America’s epicentre Brazil, with a total of 102,717 cases and 7,025 deaths

The Amazonian city of Manaus emerged as the new hotspot of the virus, experiencing widespread chaos in morgues and coffin shortages after recording most of the country’s new cases. On Monday, Brazilian Health Minister Nelson Teich arrived in the Manaus to expand testing and to ensure that the region received reinforcements of some 270 health professionals.

In the Western Pacific, two countries have experienced an uptick in cases in recent days – Singapore and Japan. Singapore’s outbreak declined in mid-April, but it has reported the most new cases in the Western Pacific in the past day, with 650 cases on Monday and 932 new cases on Friday.

The majority of Singapore’s cases in past days have been traced to dormitories of foreign construction workers and common worksites, said Lawrence Wong, Minister For National Development, in a statement on Monday. To curb the outbreak, Singapore has halted the movement of workers in and out of all dormitories, and put the construction workers living outside the dormitories on a stay-home requirement. Like Singapore, Japan’s cases have also risen since last week, mostly in Hokkaido and the capital, Tokyo, with 300 new cases reported in the past 24 hours.

In the Eastern Mediterranean region, cases are growing in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

In the past day, Saudi Arabia became the Eastern Mediterranean region’s hotspot. Over 70% of civilians in the holy city of Mecca could be infected with the virus, according to senior Saudi medical sources, reported Middle East Eye late last week.Like in Mecca, up to a third of people in the capital Kabul could have COVID-19 according to a random test of 500 Afghanis, reported AP on Sunday.

Total cases of COVID-19 as of 12:32PM CET 6 May 2020, with active case distribution globally. Numbers change rapidly.

-Updated on 6 May 

Image Credits: Jorge Ferreira, WHO, Johns Hopkins CSSE.