Madagascar’s COVID-Organics: Masterstroke or menace?

Africa, (still) the “dark continent” for many in the West; home of the guerrillas, the lions, the chimpanzees, the giraffes and the like, residence for “Third World” and primitive people both in governance and in education. When a claim was made last month of the discovery of a wonder drug, a herbal mixture; “COVID-Organics”, by none other than the President of an island on the tip of the Indian Ocean, in a remote part of East Africa, that it is capable of curing the most dangerous disease afflicting humanity right now, the coronavirus, it was not welcome with wild enthusiasm by people in the Western world, nor anywhere else apart from the political and government circles in many countries in Africa, including its largest market, Nigeria. Africa is seen by the outside world not as producers of anything remotely valuable to humanity, but rather as consumers of other people’s ideas and products. Nonetheless, it occurs to many people as rather odd, that the marketing of such an important discovery would fall on the President of the country rather than the head of its pharmaceutical industry. Andry Rajoelina, the President of the Republic of Madagascar, is a youthful (45 years), exuberant “action man” politician of the Donald Trump variety. He knows the power of the media; he used to be a public relations tycoon before going into politics. He is promoting this unique “African contribution” to medicine quite aggressively to anyone willing to take a punt. Why is the world cold-shouldering him?

Let us clear up a couple of myths to start off. No, Africa is not some jungle where nothing happens. The continent has equal number of scientists, physicians, engineers, inventors comparable to any others in the world. The “Third World” label thrown at the continent so casually by outsiders is borne of ignorance. It is a discredited racial epithet devoid of rational thought. It has no use in contemporary public discourse. That said, Africa’s problem is not for want of capital or human resources; the problem stems from a lack of productive capacity and misplaced priority. There is hardly a major hospital anywhere in the world where Africans are not represented in its upper echelons. They are there in their thousands in the best hospitals around the world as managers, leaders, inventors and innovators. A majority were born and bred in Africa, educated and trained in Africa before embarking on their sojourn for greener pastures. The question is whether Africa can stem the brain drain, by moving from subsistence to knowledge economy. Knowledge economy (not chimney factories) is the foundation of today’s globalisation. Knowledge economy creates business opportunity, which in turn generates financial muscle, which in turn gives a country dominance in the market – through patent and intellectual property laws. Politics is then deployed at the highest level to protect and maintain that dominance against both internal and external competition. My contention here is that even if COVID-Organics were rigorously tested and found to be effective in Africa, far from being seen as a masterstroke, it would still be seen as a menace by the outside world. Here is why.

The pharmaceutical lobby in Western countries is intense because it can take up to 15 years to bring a drug to fruition from conception. Billions of dollars routinely go into research and development. There are more than 1,000 medicines in the pipeline around the world currently.  Global market for the drugs industry is hovering at around USD1.5tn. Health is business; big business. Pharmaceutical industries are not out on a philanthropic mission in their quest for a vaccine or drug; they are out to make money. Western pharmaceutical industries have dominated the market up until now. But, that dominance is being seriously challenged by the emerging economies such as India, Malaysia, Singapore etc. The US share of the market has declined from 41% to under 30% in recent years. Similarly, Europe from 27% to 15%, emerging countries rose from 12% to 30%. As a matter of fact, India is now the third largest producer of drugs in the world, which by the way, they sell cheaper than the Western manufactured ones. Patents on drugs only last for 20 years, after which other countries can make the “generic” versions of them. India does that best. There is money in health, my friends. Money gives you market dominance, market dominance gives you global influence, and global influence gives you leverage in world affairs. That precious global influence is worth protecting if you are a leader in the West. The protection needed is offered by the “scientific community” locked in a web of cosy (and costly) relations with the academia, researchers, manufacturers, insurance companies, and political lobby. On the whole, any drugs outside the conventional Western norm are tested to destruction and almost invariably found wanting. We must understand this!

It is within this context that even Madagascar’s own National Academy of Medicine issued a statement regarding COVID-Organics: “It is a drug whose scientific evidence has not yet been established, moreover, it's risks damaging the health of the population in particular that of children”. The Nigerian pharmaceutical lobby has also been up in arms about the importation of the drug from Madagascar, but not necessarily for the lack of scientific evidence, but for the protection of their own turf. Many similar claims to wonder drugs for the coronavirus have been made from various quarters in Nigeria, which have not received government patronage. Indeed, this column made a clarion call for an African-led initiative in the race for a cure for the coronavirus last month before the Madagascar announcement: “While scientists in the West are hurtling to develop medication for the virus, Africans with their peculiar understanding, knowledge and closeness to mother earth, should also find the antidote from the trees, the leaves and the branches in the forest as their forefathers had done for a thousand years”. A news covered “COVID-19 lockdown Africa”, April 7, 2020). That was written with the awareness of the Eurocentric/North-American bias of the “scientific community” whose approval would be needed to validate any such discovery. It is the same “scientific community” that replicates itself in the 53 African states on the continent. Anxious politicians pushing drug brands across the continent take the matter to a different level. It is the wrong way forward.

Remember, when China’s Huawei came up with the 5G technology that threatens to undermine the US dominance in the field, it promptly declared war on Huawei, labelling the company a threat to national security of all countries outside China. China and the company will prevail regardless, because it has built enough financial muscle of its own to acquire a significant portion of the IT market. In the area of medicine, therefore, and as a minimum, Africans need to build their own “scientific community” not as a cover for malpractice or shoddy medicine, but to promote and stand up for genuine and provable innovation and invention, in the same way as China no longer relies on the so-called “scientific community” to validate Chinese indigenous medicine and its growing influence and acceptance around the world. To get there will be a Herculean task for Africa, I accept. But, not impossible. It needs (dare I say) a united approach to synchronise and harmonise efforts across the countries on the continent. African contribution to medicine needs a community of African physicians, experts and inventors teaming up with a cohort of African political leaders acting in concert, cooperation and coordination to speak with one voice. It sounds rather like a pipe dream, yes, but the greatest inventions in the world started as somebody’s pipe dream, is that not so?

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