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Herbal Remedies and the Fight Against COVID-19

Carotenoids in plants are studied for treating COVID-19. ©André Karwath/Wikimedia   CC BY-SA 2.5
Carotenoids in plants are studied for treating COVID-19. ©André Karwath/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5

Vaccines have proven to be a vital weapon against the COVID-19 pandemic, but lack of access to them in developing nations means other solutions are being sought—with herbal medicines being one line of defense that may show promise.

A study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, estimates vaccination programs may have helped save the lives of almost twenty million from COVID-19 between 2020 and 2021. But getting those vaccines to people remains a challenge in some regions.

In March 2022, the United Nations said its research found that of ten billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered worldwide, only 1% had been given out in low-income countries.

Among the issues hampering vaccine efforts are the cost of the vaccines themselves, insufficient healthcare infrastructure—such as a lack of staff to physically administer injections—as well as shortages of things such as refrigeration, with most vaccines having to be preserved at low temperatures. Vaccine hesitancy also continues to loom large, due to fears over side effects and misinformation.

With these challenges in mind, the race is on to find alternative defenses to COVID-19—and one of those potential defenses could be something many developing nations have relied on many times before: herbal medicine.

An Ancient Solution to Poor Health

Herbal medicine has existed for millennia and been used by every culture on Earth. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 80% of the world’s population uses some form of traditional medicine today.

Early aspirin package. ©Nikolay Komarov/Wikimedia   (CC BY SA 4.0)
Early aspirin package. ©Nikolay Komarov/Wikimedia (CC BY SA 4.0)

Many modern pharmaceuticals have their roots in traditional herbal remedies. In fact, 40% of the products we use today are derived from natural ingredients. Aspirin’s development was based around the bark of the willow tree, while the contraceptive pill was derived from the roots of wild yam plants. Some childhood cancer medicines have been based on rosy periwinkle, while the Nobel Prize-winning research on the malaria drug artemisinin started with a review of ancient Chinese medical texts.

Spurred by growth of the self-help and wellness cultures, herbal remedies have gained popularity in the West in recent years—the global market for herbal medicines reached an estimated US$110.2 billion in 2020. Moreover, sales of herbal remedies are projected to hit US$178.4 billion by 2026.

This surge in popularity has been echoed by increased research and development.

In March 2022, the WHO and the Indian Government set up the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine (GCTM). The GCTM, using modern scientific technology and methods, aims to harness the potential of traditional medicines and apply them to medical problems on a global scale.

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19—and the lack of modern treatments for it—energized the search for remedies from ancient methods.

Indian ayurvedic preparations.  CCO 1.0
Indian ayurvedic preparations. CCO 1.0

Last year, as Hong Kong’s COVID-19 outbreak became the deadliest in the world, the Chinese government sent aid that included a million packets of honeysuckle, rhubarb root, sweet wormwood herb and other natural ingredients in accordance with the principles of traditional Chinese medicine.

In India, though, the government’s suggestions that herbal medicine should be used to fight COVID-19 symptoms received some pushback from prominent academics and scientists.

Why Herbal Treatments for COVID-19?

With the creation of vaccines and antiviral treatments that have finally proven effective against COVID-19, why would herbal remedies be needed to fight the virus?

Dr. Pattanathu Rahman.   ©Dr. Rahman
Dr. Pattanathu Rahman. ©Dr. Rahman

Dr. Pattanathu Rahman, a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Natural Products Discovery at Liverpool John Moores University in England and a visiting Professor at SOA University in India, cites a range of factors.

First is availability. Countries such as India, China, and many African nations have often had little choice but to turn to herbal remedies to treat diseases in the past.

Dr. Rahman has visited most of the top research Institutions in India as part of British Council’s delegations and is collaborating with them on UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) on healthcare and the environment.

He said: “Vaccines are available in most of the Western countries, but in many developing countries, they can't afford it; they don't have infrastructure to manufacture. If they want to import, it's too expensive. So, one of the options they have right now is herbal medicine because in some of the tropical countries they have access to these herbs.”

A traditional medicine market in Madagascar. ©Marco Schmidt/Wikimedia (CC BY SA 3.0)
A traditional medicine market in Madagascar. ©Marco Schmidt/Wikimedia (CC BY SA 3.0)

Dr. Rahman is one of many academics around the world currently studying the use of herbal medicines to fight COVID-19. In collaboration with scientists in India, South Africa, and South Korea, his team has published a study which he said shows biochemicals from herbs used in traditional medicine could prove to be effective COVID-19 antivirals.

In an exclusive interview with The Earth & I, he said early indicators from the study had proven promising, with in-vitro lab tests now underway and full results expected in the coming months.

Using computer modeling, Dr. Rahman and colleagues screened 605 herbal biochemicals against the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ proteins.

Using advanced computer modeling of molecular docking and dynamics simulations, Dr. Rahman and his colleagues screened 605 herbal biochemicals known as phytocompounds from thirteen medicinal plants, against the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the now infamous “spike” proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.

The team selected plants with known antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties such as garlic, green chiretta, and celery. They found that five phytocompounds could bind to the COVID-19 spike protein and prevent the virus from entering cells and causing infection, potentially offering new ways to prevent and treat the disease.

A Second Line of Defense?

Efforts to repurpose herbal medicines to fight COVID-19 have led to a surge in related studies around the world, but disagreement remains as to their effectiveness. Some academics have raised concerns that certain herbal treatments could exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms.

A study published in the European Journal of Medical Research looked at recent studies involving traditional herbs, herbal bioactive metabolites, dietary supplements, and functional foods that could help prevent and/or treat COVID-19. Summing up its conclusions, the study stated: “Based on the studies reviewed in this work, it was concluded with no doubt that phytochemical components present in various herbs could have a starring role in the deterrence and cure of coronavirus contagion.”

But a different overview of studies, published by the National Library of Medicine into herbal medicine’s use against COVID-19, found that while there was “considerable evidence” demonstrating the advantages of herbal medicine interventions, the quality of the evidence was “inadequate to provide solid and accurate judgments” about the effectiveness of herbal medicine therapies for COVID-19.

A Viable Long-Term Solution?

One of the issues facing the herbal medicine sector is disinformation.

Some herbal “remedies”—especially those touted mainly on social media—may not have any positive impact on disease or may even be harmful. It is therefore vital to check a herbal medication to see if it has been tested by reputable academic institutions. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) still says there is “no scientific evidence” that any alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19.

Some studies of herbal remedies being carried out around the globe have shown promising results, while others have proven less conclusive. But the prize of having more herbal remedies available that are effective and affordable means scientists around the world will continue their research.

Dr. Rahman believes it won’t just be developing nations that benefit if herbal remedies are proven to be viable. He said they could be particularly valuable while vaccines are being repurposed against new variants.

“Herbal medicine definitely will have a big role to play both in the UK, US and many Western countries, because COVID-19 will not finish tomorrow, or next week, next month, [or]next year,” he said.


*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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