A claim appeared on Twitter on April 30, 2020, alleging that Catholic monks had developed herbal medicine for COVID-19 cure in Nigeria.
The post emanated from a Twitter user @xabelpro1, who claimed to be a political and public analyst.
According to the tweet, the monks had developed a drug known as ‘CVD PLUS’ for the treatment of COVID-19. The poster of the tweet said that the virus would end up being a blessing in disguise for Nigeria.
The following day, May 1, another Twitter user @EduWaltzChuks corroborated the claim, saying that the drug was produced by Pax Herbal Clinic.
“While we are celebrating Madagascar, a Nigerian-based herbal company Pax Herbal Clinic and Research lab released a statement of their major breakthrough on the treatment of COVID-19. The FG should give them the attention.”
The Twitter user’s reference to Madagascar stemmed from a similar herbal medicine produced by the country within this period.
The Twitter user also referred to a press statement released the previous day by Pax Herbal, which claimed that the drug’s “constituents are antiviral and immunomodulatory agents which help to stimulate antibodies.”
The press statement expressed gratitude to Head of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research Professor Tunde Salako and the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) Professor Catherine Adeyeye “for the interest, support and encouragement in the course of the research.”
In Nigeria, NAFDAC is the public institution responsible for approval of drugs, including any potential COVID-19 medicine.
Since the announcement, the Pax Herbal medicine has become a subject of discussion among Nigerian Twitter users. One Twitter user@Ekwulu has been at the forefront of promoting the medicine and has made a case for its approval for the treatment of COVID-19 patients in the country.
Citing the press statement, @Ekwulu claimed that the drug was produced in collaboration with professors from the University of Lagos and the Univesity of Benin – two federally-owned higher institutions located in the southern part of Nigeria – and Irrua Specialist Hospital situated in Edo State, South-South of Nigeria.
Who is spreading the information?
In spite of these names mentioned earlier in this report, there is another name identified by an OSINT tool as a super spreader of the information.
The OSINT is a system of collecting information from publicly available or published sources, according to CSO Online, which deals with digital- and technology-related issues.
The reporter used one of the OSINT tools known as Hoaxy, which observes how unverified stories spread on public social media, to identify the Twitter handle spreading the information.
“Hoaxy pulls in data from social media and lets you visualize that data to see how claims and fact checks of those claims move around,” said Contributing Editor at Centre for Health Journalism in California William Heisel.
The reporter keyed in phrases such as “Pax Herbal,” “CVD Plus” and “COVID-19 Cure” into the Hoaxy search button to enable it to process and produce a map of information spread on the herbal medicine.
The search produced a map showing that 30 of the re-tweets or likes related to the issue emanated from accounts suspected to be bots – a computer programme used to automate certain tasks. Bots can automatically send or re-tweet posts without human interference.
A Twitter account @zerohedge, as can be seen on the map, was responsible for spreading most of the information relating to the drug, according to Hoaxy map. The Twitter user has one million followers and follows 802 handles, which indicate that the person behind the handle is influential. The handle operates an online news platform www.zerohedge.com, but most of the account’s posts are stories related to the United States.
The Twitter user’s country of residence is not stated on the handle, but the handle comments mainly on issues concerning the US. The user follows some Nigerian and African handles such as @Dr RafiqRaji, @Countof Ikoyi, @aotej, @segalink, @alexisak and @raziakhan. One common feature of these Twitter handles is that they post business and financial stories and commentaries on Twitter regularly.
There are two possible interpretations to the Hoaxy map. Either @zerohedge tweeted a message on the herbal medicine to followers or the handle authored one.
The reporter used Yandex, which verifies sources of pictures and photos, to analyse the image used by @zerohedge. The reporter, after a search, found that it was an image of one Tyler Durden, a fictional character in Fight Club, a 1999 American film. It was discovered that many online users and blogs have copied this same image for various reasons ranging from story illustrations to explainers.
Is CVD Plus produced by Pax Herbal approved for COVID-19 treatment in Nigeria?
Pax Herbal medicine was initially named ‘CVD Plus,’ but the brand name was changed to ‘Cugzin’ about two months later, findings have shown.
As pointed out earlier, NAFDAC is responsible for approving any potential medicine for COVID-19 treatment. According to NAFDAC, none of Pax Herbal’s products, including CVD Plus, was approved for the treatment of COVID-19.
“The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) wish to inform the public that PAX CVD PLUS has not been registered nor listed for treatment of COVD-19, neither have we registered nor listed any other remedy for COVID-19,” NAFDAC said.
The food and drugs regulator said at no time did its Director-General Mojisola Adeyeye or anyone in the organisation appoint any expert or staff to work with Pax Herbal on any project.
“The company wrote a letter to NAFDAC informing the Agency about their development of an antiviral plant based drug with potential to treat COVID-19 and an invitation to join their research team.
“The Agency politely declined since as a regulator of clinical trials, participation would be a conflict of interest. However, we encouraged them to carry out clinical trials which should be under strict supervision of the Agency to establish efficacy of their product. However, the clinical trial has not taken place.”
NAFDAC said it was unfortunate that the company had made claims that were not backed by facts.
Has NAFDAC approved any herbal medicine for COVID-19 treatment?
The NAFDAC said many herbal medicines companies had applied for approval of their products for the treatment of COVID-19.
The government agency further said that they had been issued with compliance directives to provide additional information and/ or evidence of Good Manufacturing Practice or environment fit for production of medicines.
However, the government institution has not approved any medicine, herbal or otherwise, for COVID-19 treatment in Nigeria.
The government regulator did not respond to questions bordering on potential approval of herbal medicines asked by this reporter.
How effective are herbal medicines for COVID-19 treatment?
Some experts say that herbal medicines might be effective for COVID-19 treatment.
Profesor of Virology at Lagos State University Bola Oyefolu belongs to this school of thought.
“There are so many herbal remedies in Nigeria that have not been tapped. Until we come together as researchers in this country – biochemists, microbiologists, zoologists and all others – to see how these things work, we are just starting,” Oyefolu said.
“Long before now, our local people used different medications, combinations of different herbs to cure any kind of disease,” Oyefolu further said.
However, he cautioned that some of the medicines had not been tried in the laboratory, pointing out that he might not be able to talk on the medicines authoritatively because he had not done laboratory research on them.
“But I can tell you that when people are claiming some things and they are seeing the results, of course they will continue to use it.”
A Nigerian Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Jos Innocent Ogbonna claimed that he had produced more potent herbal treatment than the Madagascan medicine.
“The artemisia annua in Madagascar has an artemisinin content of 1.1 per cent, ours has 4.8 per cent. You can see the difference,” he had told VOA.
However, at the moment, there is no evidence that herbal medicines cure COVID-19.
In April 2020, Madagascar, an island country in the Indian Ocean, boasted that it had produced a herbal tonic for the treatment of COVID-19.
Many African nations believed the island country because it had low COVID-19 cases then. As of May 2020, it had only 193 COVID-19 cases with no death.
However, the drug’s efficacy was exposed in July 2020 when COVID-19 cases in the country soared to over 10,000 with nearly 100 deaths, according to John Hopkins University tallies.
“We are strengthening our ability to fight against the virus by equipping health centers and hospitals with suitable equipment,” President Andry Rajoelina said in late July 2020 when hospitals were receiving high number of COVID-19 patients in Madagascar.
The Nigerian government, which had earlier imported the tonic, later refused to approve it for COVID-19 treatment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in May 2020 that it welcomed innovations around the world, including repurposing drugs, traditional medicines and developing new therapies in the search for potential treatments for COVID-19.
“Medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 and should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects.
“Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world. Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical,” the WHO said.
However, the WHO is yet to approve any herbal medicine for the treatment of the virus.
The Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine Scholar, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Yichang Yang said clinical trials were needed before the approval of any herbal medicine.
“More evidence is required through controlled clinical trials to support the efficacy of these herbal drugs,” Yang said.
“Many traditional medicine practitioners believe that herbal remedies cannot be tested because they are tailored to each individual’s syndromes. This argument is simply not convincing.
“Because the patent herbal drugs are produced in advance of any treatment and their composition is fixed, clinical endpoints including mortality, time to clinical improvement, and number of days in an intensive care unit can be used to evaluate the efficacy of the herbal drugs for COVID-19.
“Standardised trials might have methodological challenges, consuming time and effort, but that should not be the reason for lowering safety and efficacy standards. Thousands of years of usage and faith cannot be taken as evidence for efficacy of traditional herbs.”
Vaccine still most effective COVID-19 treatment
Experts say vaccines are still the most potent treatment for the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health agency of the United States, said that vaccines were still the best treatment for COVID-19.
The body said COVID-19 vaccines were developed using science that had been around for decades.
“COVID-19 vaccines are not experimental. They went through all the required stages of clinical trials. Extensive testing and monitoring have shown that these vaccines are safe and effective.”
A study carried out by David Henry, Mark Jones, Paulina Stehlik and Paul Glasziou in May 2021 found that though COVID-19 vaccines had adverse effects on some of those who had taken them, they were still effective in the management of patients.
“Most importantly the currently available COVID-19 vaccines appear to be effective in preventing severe complications and deaths from COVID-19 in adults of all ages,” the study concluded.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.