Global Voices

A king’s belief in herbal remedies to cure COVID-19 butts up against science in Nigeria

This Nigerian king believes that natural herbs can cure COVID-19. But making unverified claims via Twitter to thousands of followers can be misleading — and dangerous — to the public.

Ọọ̀ni Adéyẹyẹ̀ Ẹniìtàn Ògúnwùsì, Ọ̀jájá II released a video promoting traditional herbal remedies to cure the coronavirus via Twitter on March 30, 2020.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is shaking up the world like a massive earthquake.

According to John Hopkins University, the coronavirus has infected over 900,000 people worldwide; Nigeria currently has 174 cases as of April 1, 2020.

As researchers and scientists work assiduously to produce a vaccine that can serve as a panacea to the pandemic, traditional herbalists have also come forward with solutions.

In Nigeria, the Àdìmúlà Ifẹ̀, the king of the Yorùbá people, Ọọ̀ni Adéyẹyẹ̀ Ẹniìtàn Ògúnwùsì, Ọ̀jájá II, believes that natural herbs can cure COVID-19.

In partnership with YemKem International, an alternative medicine company, the Ọọ̀ni (king) is working to create an herbal therapy to be mass-produced and packaged for sale.

The concoction is based on a mix of bitter leaves, neem leaves and seeds, sulfur, black pepper and cloves that are traditionally used in Yorùbáland as powerful antioxidants to flush the system of harmful viruses.

The Ọọ̀ni, who doubles as the co-chairman of the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria (NCTRN), took to Twitter in a series of tweets to announce his discovery, making claims that his unique herbal mix had been tested on himself and others with the coronavirus. In the March 30 tweets, the Ọọ̀ni calls on researchers to use natural herbs to produce a vaccine.

The tweets contain two videos with detailed instructions on herbal home remedies, including the use of onions to extract viral infections and the use of incense to expel “negative energy.”

Traditional beliefs versus scientific process

Traditional herbal medicine plays a major role in Yorùbá culture.

Every June — the beginning of a new calendar year in Yorùbáland — adherents of the god of wisdom (Ifá) in the Yorùbá cosmology gather for this festival on Òkè Ìtasẹ̀ where Ifá speak and forecast the future.

On June 6, 2019, at the World Ifá Festival, Òtúrá Méjì of the Ifá forecasted the “impending rage of an invisible pandemic war.” This prediction is now believed to be COVID-19.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has supported traditional medicine as a part of primary health care and released a bulletin on the ethical analysis of herbal medicine for global health.

However, WHO has also made it clear that there is no known cure or vaccine for COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

Making claims about herbal remedies that haven’t been verified through careful scientific vetting can be misleading to the public.

Dr. Olúwatómidé Adéoyè, a drug development scientist based in Lisbon, Portugal, refutes the king’s natural herbal remedy cure for the coronavirus.

In an email to Global Voices, Dr. Adéoyè wrote:

There is no way that [the Ọọ̀ni] could know for certain that his ‘medicine’ (concoction) can cure the coronavirus. The proper protocol to test such medicine will be to (i) isolate the virus and test the medicine in ‘petri dishes,’ if effective, (ii) test in animals (models) and eventually in (iii) Humans (safety and efficacy).

The pharmacologist asserts:

Even if we assume they jumped straight to human trials, there is no evidence that Ọọ̀ni has test kits with which he diagnosed people for COVID-19 in order to evaluate the clinical efficacy of the purported medicine.

In the email, Dr. Adéoyè also debunks several myths about traditional remedies promoted by the king in his videos.

For example, the king claims that onions kill negative energy and harbors positive energy. Sliced onions placed under the feet can neutralize and suppress the virus and strengthen the immune system.

Dr. Adéoyè says that academic papers that support these onion claims “are often scientifically poor” in terms of experimental designs, controls and data robustness. And that “more than 90 percent of such claims fail the efficacy-safety tests in human trials”:

Even if we assume that onions are effective viral neutralizers — if they can’t get into the body or get into the lungs (in the right dose/concentration), there's no way for them to act and be effective.

Dr. Adéoyè also dismissed the king’s claim that burning incense is effective.

Considering the breathing difficulties observed in COVID-19 patients, it will be an extremely stupid thing to reduce the air quality (oxygen) of someone whose lungs are under-performing.

While burning incense is a big part of popular culture in Nigeria, the incense itself “is not an effective disinfectant,” Dr. Adéoyè told Global Voices.

On the public health implications of the king’s claim, Dr. Adéoyè pointed out that those who market “their own snake oil as corona medicine … will only lead to more death.”

Dr. Adéoyè also warned that herbal concoctions “run the risk of acute and chronic toxicities.”

Originally published in Global Voices.

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