KAMPALA, UGANDA — For Abdul Karim Musasizi, a traditional herbalist, news of Uganda developing a COVID-19 treatment based on a local herb isn’t just about possibly saving lives. It’s about vindication.
“I am happy to know that government has finally listened to what we have always been saying — that traditional herbs can really work and do work,” says Musasizi, secretary general of the National Council of Traditional Healers and Herbalists Associations.
Supporters of the government-run drug trial, which began in January, call it a potential watershed moment for this East African country as it seeks to shed what President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni calls an unhealthy reliance on Western medicine and vaccines.
In a speech announcing the trial, Museveni called Uganda’s medical research “a liberation struggle of a new type — [an] intellectual liberation struggle [to get out of] slavery and dependency.”
“I don’t know what is the problem with Africans, how they can sit here like maggots — and they are dying and they are waiting for Europeans to save them,” he said. “I really feel infuriated when I see Africans sitting here waiting to die if the Europeans don’t find a solution.”
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Others, including medical professionals, mock the trial as a waste of taxpayer money. The trial, known as UBV-01N, is Museveni’s latest move to distance Uganda from Europe and the United States. As numerous nations and analysts scorned the violence-marred lead-up to January’s presidential vote — which resulted in his winning a sixth term — he assailed the main opposition candidate as “an agent of foreign interests.”
Some historians and teachers in Uganda, which won independence from Britain in 1962, have pushed for the country to rename roads and other public spaces that honor colonial leaders.
The trial could reshape how the world sees Uganda — and how Uganda sees itself, says Gerald Ahabwe, secretary general of the Uganda Sociological and Anthropological Association.
A triumphant trial would be “a huge boost to the country’s research and development infrastructure, and a huge statement for the country’s political economy,” Ahabwe says. It signals the growing acceptance of traditional medicine in Uganda, he adds, although “the sector is poorly regulated and infiltrated by many quacks.”
On June 18, the president declared a 42-day national lockdown to arrest a dramatic, variant-driven rise in Uganda’s coronavirus cases. Among other measures, the lockdown suspends most public and private transport; shuts schools and places of worship; and bans most public gatherings.
By the end of June, Uganda had confirmed 78,394 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 903 deaths. Two weeks later, that number had shot up to more than 88,000 cases and over 2,000 deaths.
Secrecy veils many of the trial’s details. Dr. Monica Musenero, senior presidential adviser on epidemics, declined to share the government’s metrics for the trial’s success as well as its cost. She also won’t identify the herb being used or how it, in her words, “cures” COVID-19.
Musenero does say that the government-run Natural Chemotherapeutics Research Institute developed the treatment and that 60 people are participating in the trial. That’s less than half of the original target of 124.
Some potential participants declined to stay beyond the standard 14 days for COVID-19 patients at the Mulago National Specialised Hospital, where the trial is being held, Musenero says. Others had underlying medical conditions.
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Originally scheduled for 30 days, the trial may now run for six months or longer because of the lack of patients.
Research on the trial started in April 2020, when government health officials went to communities whose residents said they had come up with herbal treatments to combat COVID-19, Musenero says. Officials tested 16 herbs and then chose one for the trial.
“We picked one product which had things we thought were credible in science,” Musenero says. “We had to purify, and scientifically formulate it, removed anything which could be poisonous and toxic. We looked at doses, like which dose will likely kill the virus in human beings, but not harming the person.”
Namusisi Rachel, an independent website developer, says while it’s important that Uganda develops its own drugs, the country must first win the trust of its population.
“Many of us don’t believe in government-led initiatives because we have seen money injected into some of these initiatives, and they never come to pass or stay on the market,” Namusisi says. “So the COVID cure drug might never graduate from the trial phase, and if it does, production might fail after a few months.”
Kisitu Keith, a physician at a health center in Kyebando, a community in Kampala, the capital, predicts that the project will fail. He scoffs at the notion that the herb treatment will kill the coronavirus.
“The failure is first noticed in trying to develop a cure and not a vaccine or a treatment to manage” the coronavirus, he says. “Yet it’s known in science that viruses have no cure since they are not living entities but can rather replicate within the host.”
Musenero disagrees. She says Uganda’s proposed “cure” can actually kill the coronavirus and notes that this wouldn’t be unprecedented. For example, she says, people with hepatitis C can take a medication that rids the body of the virus that causes it.
The World Health Organization knows of Uganda’s clinical trial and has advised Musenero and other government health officials, says Dr. Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, country representative for WHO in Uganda.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
A 2012 report by the Uganda Ministry of Health estimated that about 60% of Ugandans depend on traditional medicine.
Ugandans use herbs and plants to treat conditions from flu and malaria to infertility and gynecological issues. These treatments are sold in shops, clinics, on the streets, in markets and even in traditional healers’ homes.
Tumuhaise Rose, a snack maker in Kasubi, a Kampala suburb, has used traditional medicine to treat gynecological problems. Chronic itching vexed her for eight months, she says, “until a friend recommended traditional medicine, which healed me in just two weeks. I have gained respect and trust for traditional medicine, and I hope the COVID cure trial becomes successful.”
Bwogi Livingstone, a traditional healer for more than a decade, says the trial’s results are less important than the government’s support of herbal and plant treatments.
“The trial is significant to me in one way,” he says. “Ugandans are embracing local knowledge which is relevant to people to find solutions.”