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Demand soars as Africans order Madagascan Covid-Organics to battle coronavirus5 minutes read

“Since the start of the epidemic, demand for artemisia has gone through the roof,” said Van Damme, a Belgian agronomist marketing it in Senegal said. “But since the Madagascan president’s declarations it’s been crazy.”

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Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina is the promoter-in-chief of the substance, marketed as Covid-Organics and sold in the form of a herbal infusion.

A drink made from a bright-green fern-like plant is being promoted in African countries as the go-to cure for COVID-19.

But detractors have dismissed its claims saying that the concoction remains untested scientifically.

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina is the promoter-in-chief of the substance, marketed as Covid-Organics and sold in the form of a herbal infusion.

Asserting that the Madagascan brew has the potential to “change history”, Rajoelina has widely distributed it in his Indian Ocean island nation and exported it to many parts of Africa.

The East African countries of Tanzania and the Comoros are among enthusiastic customers as well as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic Coast.

Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo made a point of personally taking delivery of his country’s Covid-Organics order at the airport.

Artemisia annua has a long history in its native China, where scientists discovered an active ingredient that made the plant a front-line weapon in the fight against malaria.

– Flying off shelves –

Covid-Organics seems to be selling like hotcakes in Madagascar, costing 30 euro cents (35 US) for a 33-centilitre (11-ounce) bottle.

In Senegal, Belgian agronomist Pierre Van Damme markets the product under the label Le Lion Vert (The Green Lion).

“Since the start of the epidemic, demand for artemisia has gone through the roof,” Van Damme said. “But since the Madagascan president’s declarations it’s been crazy.” 

Sales jumped 15-fold in a few weeks, forcing Van Damme to hire eight staff to handle some 2,000 orders a day.

As demand surges for the purported coronavirus remedy, prices have followed suit. 

Ibrahima Diop, a producer in the Dakar area, says the retail price has soared by two-thirds.

“I’m swamped,” grinned Haoua Wardougou, an apothecary in a working-class district of the Chad capital N’Djamena. “I have lots of customers who want to buy some, but I’m out of stock.”

– Western doubts –

The counterpart to this enthusiasm is the cool reception that the drink has met in the West.

The substance has proven effectiveness against malaria, but no clinical trials have tested it against COVID-19, either as a cure or as a preventative. 

In recent weeks, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have underscored the need for empirical testing of local formulas to demonstrate they are safe and effective as claimed.

“We would be very proud if a solution in this war against COVID-19 comes from an African country,” said John Nkengasong, head of the Gabon-based Africa CDC. “But we must be methodical before approving such a remedy.”

Some African countries are exercising caution, handing over their stocks of Covid-Organics for expert analysis.

“They will be subjected to the same process as all other products before they are put on the market,” said Boss Mustapha, Nigeria’s point man in the fight against coronavirus. “There will be no exceptions.”

Even in Madagascar, doubts persist. The dean of the medical faculty in the eastern city of Toamasina, Stephane Ralandison, warned against methods that were “not fully scientific” behind the Covid-Organics’ launch.

“I am extremely cautious,” said sociologist Marcel Razafimahatratra, asking why the drink was not used in China, where the pandemic originated and where artemisia has long been used in traditional medicine.

Clearly thrilled by his new continental fame, Rajoelina is an unabashed defender of Covid-Organics, charging that the West scorns the concoction because of its condescending attitude toward traditional African medicine.

“If it was a European country that had actually discovered this remedy, would there be so much doubt? I don’t think so,” he told French media.

For evidence he cites Madagascar’s coronavirus statistics: 405 cases including two deaths and 131 recoveries, according to the official count.

‘Green gold’ –

Rajoelina is touting artemisia as the new “green gold” for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries. 

“Life will change for all Madagascans,” he said, noting that rice fetches $350 (320 euros) a tonne, while artemisia changes hands at nearly 10 times as much at $3,000 a tonne.

A Madagascar-based company, Bionexx, has been producing artemisia since 2005 to fight malaria.

Its CEO Charles Giblain is also convinced of a lucrative future for the crop.

“This plant is a weed that can grow anywhere,” he said. “The only problem is to grow it in conditions that will make it competitive with Chinese rivals.”

Bionexx is working to develop a hybrid to maximise the strength and effectiveness of wild Artemisia annua, with researcher Solofo Rasamiharimanana estimating that the quest could take four years.

But many growers are far from convinced of its market potential.

At the village of Ambohijoky on the outskirts of Antananarivo, farmers tempted by the crop quickly abandoned the effort.

“We dropped it because of the prices,” said one of them, Louis Jean Patrice Rakotoninaina. “We were paid 1,050 ariary (27 cents, 25 euro cents) per kilo of dried artemisia while we expected to get 3,000 ariary.”

Another, Eveline Raharimalala, said anything below 15,000 ariary was not worth growers’ while. She noted that artemisia takes six months to grow — three times longer than other crops.

Bionexx’s Giblain disputes the argument, saying: “If our prices weren’t attractive, we wouldn’t have 16,000 farmers working with us.”

But one of the footsoldiers in this army of producers, Josephe Rakotondramanana, said a more important factor in growing the plant was to have a secure market.

“We don’t grow artemisia for its price (but) because it’s a safe product with less risk of loss and zero need to stock,” said Rakotondramanana, who has worked with Bionexx for five years.

Giblain for his part believes he is looking at Madagascar’s next vanilla — the crop that accounts for 80 percent of world production.

His ambition is to make his business, which currently produces 2,500 tonnes of artemisia per year, one of the world’s top three producers alongside Chinese rivals.

Razafimahatratra, the sociologist, has his doubts.

Rather than banking on a green miracle, he says, the Madagascar government should focus on ensuring food security for the former French colony’s 26 million people, 90 percent of whom live in grinding poverty.

“Instead of importing 300,000 to a million tonnes of rice per year, the country should work to close this gap,” he said.

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Bitter sweets: Madagascar minister fired over candy plan

Minister Rijasoa Andriamanana said last week she was ordering $2.2 million worth of sweets to go with the Covid-Organics concoction, which some experts have warned is useless against COVID-19.

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Madagascar MPs investigated for corruption.
President Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar.

Madagascar’s education minister was sacked Thursday after announcing a plan to buy sweets for students to take the edge off the “bitter taste” of a herbal tea the president says is a coronavirus remedy.

Minister Rijasoa Andriamanana said last week she was ordering $2.2 million worth of sweets to go with the Covid-Organics concoction, which some experts have warned is useless against COVID-19.

She told the press that “a purchase of sweets and lollipops” had been made, with all students in the Indian Ocean island nation to receive three each.

She added that it was for the “bitter taste” of the drink, which President Andry Rajoelina has been promoting for export, saying it is the country’s “green gold” which will “change history”.

The potential benefits of Covid-Organics, have not been validated by any scientific study. 

That such expense was going to sweets in one of the world’s poorest country’s sparked outrage, fanned by the Malagasy press, and the order was cancelled.

The minister defended the plan, but it was not considered by the cabinet, which relieved her of her duties in a dry statement.

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Equatorial Guinea accuses WHO of inflating Covid-19 tally, sacks country representative

“We don’t have a problem with the WHO, we have a problem with the WHO’s representative in Malabo,” Prime Minister Pascual Obama Asue said in remarks broadcast on state television.

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World Health Organization signpost.

Equatorial Guinea has joined its Burundian counterpart in sacking the representative of the World Health Organization, accusing her of “falsifying” the country’s tally of coronavirus cases, a government statement said.

In a document dated May 26, the foreign ministry asked the World Health Organization’s regional office in Africa “to end the duties” of its representative in Equatorial Guinea, Dr. Triphonie Nkurunziza, “and immediately oversee her departure from Malabo.”

Prime Minister Pascual Obama Asue while appearing at the Senate last week had accused Nkurunziza of “falsifying the data of people contaminated” by COVID-19, AN AFP report said.

“We don’t have a problem with the WHO, we have a problem with the WHO’s representative in Malabo,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.

A source at the UN office in Malabo, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the government’s request but declined to go into details.

“The government has asked her to go, we have received a document — she is accused of falsifying COVID-19 figures,” the source said.

However, Dr. Nkurunziza is still in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s island capital, as there are no flights enabling her to leave, the source said.

The authorities say that as of June 1, there were 1,306 recorded cases of coronavirus, 12 of them fatalities, in a population of 1.3 million

Meanwhile, Burundi in mid-May 2020 sacked the World Health Organization’s top official in the country just days before the May 22 presidential election and after the WHO raised concerns about crowded political rallies. 

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Senegalese protesters arrested for kicking against Covid-19 curfew

There were 74 arrests of the protesters– 29 in Touba, 38 in Mbacke, five in Tambacounda and two in Diourbel — Local media reported.

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President Macky Sall of Senegal

The police in Senegal have arrested more than 70 people for protesting against nighttime coronavirus curfew by the authorities in several cities across the West African country.

The protests over the 9pm and 5am curfew started on Tuesday and continued into the night, their severity prompting an appeal for calm by a major Muslim leader.

In Touba, a religious hub 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of the capital Dakar, three police vehicles and an ambulance were set ablaze, a senior official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A coronavirus treatment centre there was attacked and the windows of the offices of electricity provider Senelec were smashed, the source said.

Witnesses added that post office buildings in Touba — the seat of the politically powerful Sufi Muslim order called the Mouride Brotherhood — were attacked, an AFP report said.

In the neighbouring town of Mbacke, protesters damaged the local headquarters of radio station RFM, which is owned by singer and former minister Youssou N’Dour, according to the local journalists’ association 3CM.

The group said in a statement that it “firmly condemns these acts of vandalism” and “calls on the authorities to ensure the safety of the media during this period of riots”.

In a separate statement, the Council of Broadcasters and Press Publishers of Senegal (CDEPS) said “those responsible for this rampage must be tracked down and brought to justice”. 

Protestors also erected barricades and burned tyres in Mbacke, other witnesses said.

The Senegalese media added demonstrations also occurred in Tambacounda, in the east of the country, and Diourbel, in the west.

There were 74 arrests — 29 in Touba, 38 in Mbacke, five in Tambacounda and two in Diourbel — a source close to the case said on Wednesday.

– ‘Go home’ -The caliph, or leader, of the Mouride Brotherhood, Serigne Mountakha Mbacke, made a rare late-night TV appearance to call for an end to the protests in Touba, Senegal’s second-largest city with a population of around a million people.

“Go home. Tomorrow we will look at the source of the problems and how to address them. I don’t think we have ever seen this in Touba,” he said.

The curfew, imposed by President Macky Sall on March 23, bans movement between 9pm and 5am.

It is being implemented in tandem with a ban on travel between Senegal’s regions.

The measures have been extended until the end of June, although Sall eased other restrictions on May 11, allowing places of worship and markets to reopen.

High schools in the West African state had been due to reopen on Tuesday, but this step was delayed at the last minute after 10 teachers in the southern region of Casamance tested positive for COVID-19.

The country has recorded nearly 4,000 cases of coronavirus, 45 of them fatalities.

The figures are low compared to countries in Europe and the United States, although experts caution that, as elsewhere in Africa, Senegal is vulnerable to the pandemic because of its weak health system.

Demands for an easing of restrictions have mounted in the face of the plight of many Senegalese who depend on menial day-by-day jobs.

Around 40 percent of the population live below the threshold of poverty, according to a World Bank benchmark.

The government is expected to announce in the coming days whether it will ease some of the emergency curbs.

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