Kenya Medical Research Center/file
Kenya Medical Research Center/file

By Reporter

Kenya has identified some traditional and herbal medicines likely to treat Covid-19.

The front-runner is a herbal product developed by the Kenya Medical Research Institute to treat herpes simplex, a common viral disease that causes sores on the mouth and genitals.

The Ministry of Health says Zedupex was developed by Kenyan scientists from medicinal trees more than five years ago.

“Kemri has commenced exploring the efficacy of its in-house product (Zedupex) and other natural products against Covid-19,” Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said in his response to questioning by MPs.

Zedupex was developed by three scientists at the institute’s Natural Products Research and Drug Development Research Programme.

It was patented in 2016 and registered as a herbal product by the PPB the same year. 

It is available in powder form packed in 250-gramme containers.

The prescription for herpes simplex is a teaspoonful of Zedupex powder in a cup of boiled water.

“It is one of the herbal products with antiviral properties we are testing for efficacy. But it is definitely safe and that’s the most important,” Dr Festus Tolo, one of the researchers behind the drug, told the Star. 

The trials are being done at Kemri’s city laboratory. The drug, which is a Kemri intellectual property, has not been administered on any coronavirus patient.

Tolo said it is too early to speak about the drug’s efficacy against Covid-19.

Both herbal and traditional medicines of plant origin have, according to Tolo, provided templates for synthetic drugs and will play a role in the search for Covid-19 treatment. 

“For instance, the oldest malaria treatment, quinine, was developed from a tree extract before it was synthesised,” he said.

Kenya is not the only country exploring the treatment of the disease with herbal products.

Chinese scientists are investigating the Japanese knotweed, scientifically known as polygonum cuspidatum.

The Chinese use the weed to treat various conditions including pneumonia. It is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Tolo cautioned Kenyans against rushing to unproven herbal products for treatment. 

Last week, Kaya elders in Kilifi invited Kemri scientists to study medicinal plants they claimed could cure Covid-19.

Lawyer Joseph Mwarandu, who is the secretary of Malindi District Cultural Association, claimed a respiratory disease that broke out at the Coast in 1950s was treated with extracts of trees in Kaya forests. 

The Star could not authenticate the claims or the 1950s outbreak.

Mwarandu named the trees as Mkadama and Muhirihiri. Neem tree leaves are also boiled to treat the conditions.

The lawyer said the disease was called kivuti, which in some Bantu languages, refers to herpes simplex.

Its symptoms include coughing, sneezing, body pains, fever and difficulty in breathing.

”The symptoms of coronavirus are similar to those of kivuti. Personally I saw my mother affected by the virus when I was young and she was treated using traditional herbs. She never went to hospital,” he said.

Kemri’s Zedupex is being tested as an alternative therapy. 

Kenya will also test four standard drugs in hospitals, in a trial approved by the World Health Organisation. 

The International Standard Randomised Controlled Trial, the WHO-backed registry for clinical trials, says the standard drugs are Remdesivir, Chloroquine or Hydroxychloroquine, Lopinavir plus Ritonavir, and Interferon-beta.

Some are given as daily pills and others as daily injections.

The latest update from other trial sites across the world shows Hydroxychloroquine has largely failed while Remdesivir has promising results.

The Kenyan trial is open to consenting adults above 18 years sick with Covid-19.

“Patients invited to join the study will be those who are admitted to a collaborating hospital,” WHO said.

Each patient will only receive one of the treatments. The patients will be followed up for the entire length of their hospital stay.

“Death from any cause will be recorded and this will be the main result used to determine whether a drug is effective. Length of hospital stay and time to first receiving ventilation (or intensive care) will also be recorded and used to determine the drug’s effectiveness,” WHO said.

It said all of the drugs tested in the study have been shown to be reasonably safe and other than Remdesivir, the study drugs are used routinely to treat other conditions.

All participants will receive the usual care for people with Covid-19 in each location as well as the study drug.

WHO said unexpected serious side effects may occur as with any clinical trial of medicines.

“It is also possible that treatment with one or more of the test drugs worsens Covid-19 and increases the risk of severe illness or death,” WHO said.

The study is being run from WHO’s headquarters in Switzerland and will end in 2021.

There is no specific sample size, but it is anticipated that at least several thousand patients will be recruited in all the participating countries.

The countries are Kenya, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Malaysia, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,  Spain, Switzerland and Thailand.