Artemisia annua is an annual short-day herb originally native to temperate regions of Asia. Now, it can also be found across North America. Its plain appearance is obscured by its leaves’ sweet and grassy aroma, which are sometimes used to make essential oils. However, it’s the properties rather than the smell of the Artemisia annua’s leaves that are responsible for its rise to prominence.
Artemisinin is the active constituent in the Artemisia annua herb. In China, artemisinin has been used to alleviate fevers for almost two thousand years. Since the 1970s, artemisinin has also been widely used to treat malaria, and various studies have shown evidence to prove that it is far more effective than any other antimalarial drug.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany are collaborating with ArtemiLife Inc., a U.S. based company that cultivates and studies Artemisia annua, to test artemisinin as a possible treatment for the Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Initial research from the early 2000s shows that the alcoholic extract of Artemisia annua was the second most effective herbal medicine used to fight the Sars-CoV in 2005. While Sars-CoV-2 is more pathogenic and transmittable than Sars-CoV, both fall under the same subgenus. Given their similarities, scientists are testing artemisinin and its derivatives against the coronavirus in hopes of finding an effective herbal treatment.
Opponents of using Artemisia annua against COVID-19 worry about resistance. Frequent and unregulated usage of Artemisia has been shown to cause resistance, making the artemisinin lose its effects. According to Kevin Marsh of the University of Oxford, who spent decades studying malaria in Kenya, artemisinin has reduced worldwide deaths of malaria from 1 million to about 400,000 a year. If it is administered to treat COVID-19 before enough research has been done, as is currently occurring in Madagascar, it could create widespread resistance to the most effective antimalarial treatment. This is especially concerning in Africa, where 90% of cases of malaria occur.
Andry Rajoelina, Madagascar’s president, launched Covid-organics, a drink made from Artemisia annua and other herbs. While Rajoelina claims the drink “works really well” as a preventive and curative treatment for COVID-19, the World Health Organization warns that there is no evidence of its efficacy.
By Maria V. Perez