A viral video shared on multiple social media platforms, including WhatsApp groups in Nigeria, claimed that the consumption of raw onions and garlic was capable of treating coronavirus (COVID-19).
Based on the unproven claim, the virus would die once the vegetables – onions and garlic- were consumed as smoothies.
The other interesting part of the claim was the advice to the Nigerian public to slice the onions or garlic and place them at the corners of individuals’ homes.
Interestingly, these were some of the several unproven claims shared a few months after the outbreak of COVID-19 out of desperation for a cure, yet they did not have any scientific backing or validation. Most Nigerians at home and abroad were bombarded with similar claims. Thus, sharing the claims especially on WhatsApp became new normal.
Prominent people such as the traditional ruler Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, further made public statements on herbal alternatives that could supposedly fortify the people against COVID-19.
Apart from the first-class traditional ruler, a former Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) Maurice Iwu, a professor, also announced his herbal discovery against the disease. Besides, one other Ben Amodu, a doctor, claimed his herbs could cure throat cancer. He claimed that his herbal medicine could prevent the coronavirus disease. He is among a list of several others. Some of the claims have been removed by social media firms.
The Federal Government of Nigeria, a few months the outbreak of the virus, considered meeting practitioners of traditional (herbal) medicines, since there was no cure at that period. This was because different local concoctions against COVID-19 were being championed by various individuals and groups.
Director-General of the National Agency for Food, Drugs and Administration (NAFDAC) Mojisola Adeyeye, a professor, finally told the public of plans to consider some of the herbs for studies. That was in May, 2020. By September, the Nigerian government had inaugurated a Ministerial Committee on COVID-19 Herbal Remedies to provide a possible home-grown cure.
Meanwhile, since the disease outbreak in Wuhan, China, almost four milliion persons have died globally due to the pandemic. As of June 24, 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said there were close to 180 million confirmed cases. Yet, the number has continued to rise amidst vaccine hesitancy.
This reporter reached out to NAFDAC to verify if any home-grown solution had eventually been developed and certified as a possible alternative, but no response was provided by the government agency.
The Deputy Director for Media and Public Relations at the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) Ekwui Ubah could also not provide a response. Director-General of the institute Obi Adigwe asked this reporter to send a text message but as of the time of filing this report, no response was provided after repeated calls.
Claim verification through OSINT
The ICIR was able to track how the WhatsApp message went viral on Twitter. Using Tweetdeck, which helps in real-time Twitter tracking, several persons who got a similar message on Twitter attributed the source to WhatsApp.
“Please all fathers and mothers, go get your garlic and onions,” the original claim read in part.
“It is good and it kills the virus. It is good for protection,” the claim source said in a blend of Yoruba, a local language spoken typically by the Yoruba ethnic group, mostly resident in South-West Nigeria.
“Use a knife to cut it and put it in your room. If you have 10 rooms, put them in your 10 rooms. Put it in your living rooms, toilets, kitchen at the corners my brethren.
“Go and get your onions as many as possible. Get it and use it raw any day, anytime and any hour. Blend and use the water for protection,” the claimant stressed as she dramatically appealed to the public with strong self-conviction.”
By March 23, 2020, the claim had found its way to Twitter users in the United Kingdom from Nigeria. Temmyturner @t3mmyturn3rr shared the information, saying her mother put an onion in the corner of every room in the house. She attributed her mother’s action to WhatsApp, emphasising that platform advised the mother to do so.
“This is the peak of the WhatsApp mother’s cult…” The Twitter user tweeted pictures of the sliced onions to validate her statement. The tweet garnered over 227, 000 reactions with several other comments such as “WhatsApp must be stopped.” This came from a verified Twitter user @Cesar Vargas.
MissEllss @elishanicole86 added to the thread that onion was often used during plagues to prevent disease spread. Yaw Sedi @Dat_Hoodguy also shared his experience of how he heard two women say COVID-19 could be “sucked out of the atmosphere when airborne by placing onions in each room of the house.”
Using Hoaxy, an Open Source Investigation Tool (OSINT) , this reporter was able to analyse the flow of misinformation on Twitter regarding the use of garlic and onions for COVID-19 cure.
Based on the findings, the tweet originated from a Twitter user identified as Kim @NanaLuvsShoes. The handle joined the social media platform in January 2010 and has grown followers’ base to about 25,000 while following almost 24, 000 persons.
From the tweets and retweets, the user seemed to be a supporter of former President of the United States Donald Trump. Trump is a Republican, and the former president was among those who shared false information on the pandemic.
American CNBC, in October 2020, reported how Trump initially described COVID-19 spread in the US as fake news that was hyped by media conspiracy.
How WhatsApp is pushing misinformation
Since the virus broke out in Wuhan China, in December 2019, social media, especially WhatsApp, has remained a major conveyance of misinformation. With a button, users of the platform could easily share unverified information considered important. While some of the information is deliberately fabricated for financial gain (disinformation) such as phishing, scams, others are shared ignorantly by users of the social media platform (misinformation).
For instance, at the peak of the disease spread in Nigeria, special messages were sent via the platform to lure the public. Few of those included claims that telecommunication networks were sharing free data as palliatives to support their subscribers.
In related cases, social media users were enticed by supposed grants from prominent Nigerian businessmen and the Federal Government. Still, most of the viral claims were found to be false.
WHO’s position on the consumption of garlic to prevent COVID-19
Among the WHO’s myth busters, the global health organisation disproved the claim. While garlic was described “as healthy food that contains anti-microbial properties,” there is no evidence from the current outbreak that garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.
Director of Department of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness and a doctor at the WHO Sylvie Briand, in a video interview with Vismita Gypta-Smith of the WHO Communications Department, further dispelled the garlic claim among other unproven assertions on the pandemic.
She particularly warned against excess intake of garlic.
“Some studies are studying it (consumption of garlic as COVID-19 cure) but again, we need to really cross-check the different studies before making any recommendation about garlic.”
Medical experts’ opinion
A Public Health Expert Nonso Umeh recognised the efficacy of the vegetables in immune-boosting against ailment such as flu but said they lacked scientific evidence as COVID-19 cure.
Umeh, who works with a partner organisation with Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health – Africa Resource Centre for Excellence in Supply Chain Management -affirmed the vaccines were developed to protect against a specific disease, stressing that conspiracy theories against vaccine dated back to ages.
“It does not cure COVID-19 but only boosts the immune system,” said Umeh. “If people believe that, it means every other similar vegetable such as ginger and ‘ugu’ can cure the disease.”
He expressed hope in change of public attitude once the public began to see benefits of the vaccine. He cited the Oral Polio Vaccine and Yellow Fever Vaccine as notable examples of shots initially rejected but later accepted.
An Assistant Research Professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Centre for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, Jeffrey Langland believed that herbs that appeared to have worked against other infections must undergo testing if they could fight COVID-19. “This one is a little bit more of a dangerous virus,” he told Healthline, a website managed by a group of medical professionals in the United States.
But Professor of Virology Bola Oyefolu, in his opinion, said there were several herbs with potential to cure different ailments, apart from the use of vaccines. He said once people used certain herbs and it worked for them, it should be subjected to further scientific studies.
Though he said it would be too early to make an authoritative conclusion on potency of the fruit plant, he described garlic and onion as anti-microbial.
“I’m a virologist, and you know virology is under microbiology. So, the issue is there are several things you could use against viruses which we call ‘antiviral.’ There are lots of herbs and other things aside from vaccine.
“Long before now, our local people used different medications, combinations of different herbs to cure any kind of disease. Some of them, we may not have tried in the laboratory.”
Besides, he cited a plant known scientifically as Adenopus breviflorus (Christmas Melon), which he realised could be capable of preventing measles among infants. The plant is known as ‘Ogbenwa’ in Igbo, ‘Tagiri’ in Yoruba and ‘Tagiri Shuka’ in Hausa. He decided to share his personal experience to say local herbs were potential cures for certain ailments.
Growing up as a kid, he recalled that his aged father often picked the fruit plants and placed them at corners of the room to prevent measles infection. Having grown to become a virologist, he decided to subject the plants to test and got a substantial outcome through preliminary research.
“One day, I was working on a study on measles disease, and I remembered what the plant my dad normally used to prevent the disease spread. In preliminary research, I took the Itagiri to the laboratory to see if it would help. The majority of these herbs are not proven scientifically as I said but what I have done is what I am sharing.”
Narrating his experience, he said he cut the fruit into two, scooped off the seeds, separated them into three layers. “I matched the seeds, the little thin layer and the outermost layer separately. And tested it against the measles virus, and I found out that the outermost layer with green patches had a very high potency effect against measles virus in the laboratory.”
“I did some other chemical analysis to see further results. So, if I want to name it, I will call it Tagirin, but until then, the preliminary study showed that when placed in a room, the essential oil in the Itagiri caused inhibition of the measles virus to attach into the nostril.
“So because I worked on that, I can only explain the details of that, but for those who use garlic and onions, I can only speculate because I have not worked on it. There is a tendency in it but the potency may be exaggerated.”
However, as he admitted, based on the multiple findings in this report, there is no scientific evidence to validate that garlic and onion could prevent or cure COVID-19.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme in partnership with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), and Africa Uncensored.