The president of Madagascar, the island off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, has been touting a homemade plant-based drink as a "miracle cure" for COVID-19, the deadly disease that has scientists everywhere scrambling to find a cure.
Now it seems that Haiti, which is seeing a worrying rise in its novel coronavirus infections, may be looking to join the list of nations placing orders for the purported cure despite misgivings by the World Health Organization and no clinical evidence that the herbal concoction works.
Haiti President Jovenel Moise and Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina both discussed the drink during a video conference on Tuesday. The drink is derived from the artemisia plant, which has long been used in the treatment of malaria, and other indigenous herbs.
Moise announced the meeting in a Monday night tweet and later shared a video clip of the encounter on his Twitter feed. He said that each government's scientific groups established to provide advice on the COVID-19 response will soon meet.
Madagascar, which reported its first death from the coronavirus on Sunday, has reported 322 COVID-19 cases.
Rajoelina began making international headlines last month after he launched the concoction, drinking from a branded bottle filled with an orange liquid. At the time, he said the drink had cured two people.
In the clip shared Tuesday by Moise of their meeting, Rajoelina said the plant has proven its efficiency for many years including back in 2003 with SARS.
"Back then, we were able in fact to heal a large part of the patients through artemisia extracts that's why our researchers have pushed the research through medicinal plants," Rajoelina said.
Moise called the meeting "fruitful."
The organic drink is not the only malaria drug being touted as a cure for the disease caused by coronavirus. Hydroxychloroquine also has been promoted by President Donald Trump as an unproven treatment for the coronavirus. On Monday Trump said he has been taking hydroxychloroquine daily for over a week to prevent infection from the coronavirus.
Trump said he asked his doctor at the White House about taking the drug. "I asked him, 'What do you think?' He said, 'Well, if you'd like it.' I said, 'Yeah, I'd like it. I'd like to take it.'"
The Pan American Health Organization, which is the Americas office for the World Health Organization, continues to warn against the use of hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, as well as the Madagascar drink.
"Any drug or herbal therapy must follow strict protocol, no matter in which country they are conducted, and subjected to tests and clinical trials for quality, efficacy and patient safety," Ashley Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the Pan American Health Organization, said. "We encourage all innovators to work through their national regulatory authorities to ensure proper support and ethical approval of these initiatives."
Baldwin also added that while some western, traditional or home remedies may provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of COVID-19, "there is no evidence that current medicine can prevent or cure the disease. WHO does not recommend self-medication with any medicines, including antibiotics, as a prevention or cure for COVID-19."
The use of herbal medicine is common in Haiti, where the knowledge of plants is passed down through the generations, and Haitians are known to use the hibiscus flower and the cerasee plant, scientifically known as Momordica charantia, to fight fevers and colds.
But in a country where many do not believe in science and do not believe that the highly contagious coronavirus is real or that they should take measures to protect themselves, Moise risks adding further to the confusion.
"In fact we use traditional medicine in Haiti; sometimes they work, sometimes they don't work," said Reginald Boulos, a physician who has been critical of the government's public health response to the pandemic. "On the basis of that I wouldn't see an issue with inquiring about an organic medicine or a medicine coming from a plant."
But Boulos said he found the president's video conference to be "show business" and believes the government has mismanaged the response to the rapidly spreading disease.
Haiti, which announced 21 deaths on Tuesday, has registered 596 COVID-19 cases. But the country's cases are considered by most critics to be an under-count due to Haiti's lack of testing and the fact that only the ministry of health is allowed to test individuals.
"This president had three months to prepare the country for what's happening today and nothing happened. We had confinement, we never got the masks ... and if you look at the map on where the cases are coming from, you can see that they are only testing Port-au-Prince," Boulos said.
"I think we've probably reached the point of no return, which means there is very little today that the government can do given that the population has come to believe this is not a real threat."