South Africa is trialling cannabis against Covid-19 – but don't try it at home, warn specialists

Business Insider SA
medicinal cannabis
Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash
  • Cannabis and African wormwood (Artemisia afra) are among the six herbs that the government is trialling against Covid-19; some of the medicines were already being evaluated against HIV.
  • About R15 million has been diverted from existing indigenous knowledge projects to fund the research.
  • Officials will not disclose the other medicines for fear that people will overharvest them in the wild, use them unsafely at home, or “steal” the knowledge.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa. 

Marijuana is one of the herbs that South Africa is trialling against Covid-19. There are currently no medicines or vaccines against the deadly disease, which is caused by the novel coronavirus.

The South African government, in partnership with universities and traditional healers, is evaluating whether six herbs used in African traditional medicines could be effective in fighting the disease which has killed almost 6,000 people in the country and more than 623,000 worldwide. 

African traditional medicines are a fundamental part of South Africa’s healthcare system, with many people using both medicines from traditional healers and drugs prescribed by medical doctors. One study estimates that about three-quarters of the country’s black population uses African traditional medicines. 

“This is a new disease for the healers as well,” says Dr Hlupheka Chabalala, who heads up the indigenous knowledge-based technology innovation in the department of science and innovation. The African Medicines Covid-19 Research Team began by evaluating 20 different herbs, but have whittled that down to six, he says. 

These include cannabis and African wormwood, also known as Artemisia afra. A. afra is the chief ingredient of the unproven Malagasy Covid-19 “cure”. Science minister Blade Nzimande said in May that South Africa would assist Madagascar’s government in evaluating their tonic “cure”. 

Earlier this month, Nzimande said that the country would divert R15 million from its existing indigenous knowledge systems programmes to fund traditional medicine evaluation for Covid-19. 

The research team is also looking at South Africa’s existing projects that evaluate antivirals, such as those being tested against HIV, and immune modulators, which boost the immune system. 

However, Chabalala will not disclose the other herbs under scrutiny. “The minute we say we’re working on it, everyone will hit the forest to unsustainably harvest them,” he says. “People will start harvesting them and preparing them [in the incorrect way]. People will start researching them without benefit sharing and thinking of the wisdom keepers.” 

Also, “if we put them into the public domain, then there won’t be anything novel” and it will be difficult to patent them, he says. 

He does caution people against using cannabis and A. afra to treat Covid-19 at home. “People are talking about cannabis as a panacea … but it is not like you use it alone. Artemisia too,” he warns. “No healer has said that [these plants in isolation] treat Covid-19.”

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