My herbalist dies as Ugandans celebrate Ruto, Covidex drug

Yoweri Museveni and William Ruto

President Yoweri Museveni and Deputy President William Ruto at the laying of a foundation stone for the construction of a vaccine manufacturing facility at Matuga in Wakiso district, Uganda. 

Photo credit: PPU

What you need to know:

  • Covidex was developed by a team of researchers at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).
  • Prof Patrick Ogwang, a seasoned pharmacist and indefatigable researcher with a Makerere PhD specialisation in herbal preventive and curative measures, led the Mbarara team.

Hajjat Aisha Nakasujja, one of the country’s best-known herbalists, succumbed to Covid-19 on Friday last week, June 2, just as Ugandans were celebrating a major “breakthrough” in the fight against the pandemic.

Their National Drugs Authority (NDA) had, three days earlier, officially allowed the use of “Covidex”, a local herbal preparation, in the treatment and management of viral infections, including Covid-19. Tragic irony is this clash of bad and good news.

Hajjat Aisha was a celebrity, and not only because she counselled and treated famous people, like me. She was arguably the leading icon of the increasingly respectable practice and industry of herbal medicine in the country. A highly educated, impressively articulate and strikingly confident modern woman, Aisha was a complete antithesis of the stereotypical dowdy mitishamba mama.

An astute strategist and entrepreneur, our Hajjat processed, packaged and marketed her products, admittedly gleaned from indigenous pharmacopeia, through state-of-the-art techniques. Her Aloesha brand, comprising cosmetic, nutritional and medicinal products, is well-known all over Uganda and in many other countries.

Aisha was also a familiar face and voice on many media channels, endearing herself to a large audience with her generous sharing ­­of her vast herbal treatment knowledge and experience. Inna lillahi! 

Hajjat Aisha’s departure, however, was soon followed by the arrival of Codex. This herbal formula has been doing the rounds on the quiet, like a few other such products, but with no official stamp from the NDA. So, there was jubilation over the news of its recognition, as the country is in a strict lockdown as it battles a new and frightening wave of the pandemic.

Indeed, one of the reasons for the Waganda’s joy at the NDA’s nod is the speed and virulence with which Covid-19 is hitting them. The health services are stretched to the limit, with personnel, space and supplies in critically short supply. Any intervention in such a dire situation is warmly welcome.

Team of researchers

Covidex, however, is specially so because it is, as far as I know, the first indigenous formula to be recognised by the NDA since the coronavirus pandemic struck. There were many conditions and qualifications to the authorisation, including the provisos that Covidex was not to be marketed as a cure for Covid-19 and that it was being used on a trial basis, pending due evaluation of its clinical efficacy.

The point for many Ugandans, however, is that recourse to our own resources is the way for Africa to go in the face of relative global indifference to our plight in such situations as the current pandemic.

Covidex was developed by a team of researchers at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST). Prof Patrick Ogwang, a seasoned pharmacist and indefatigable researcher with a Makerere PhD specialisation in herbal preventive and curative measures, led the Mbarara team.

Ogwang has become a national hero. He is practically on every news outlet around and his Covidex production facility has been given state security protection. Ogwang, whose name means “wild cat” in our version of Luo/Lwoo, is not a personal acquaintance of mine.

But he comes across as a serious, humble and clear-minded scholar, deeply committed to his calling. He readily admits that he is only one among many scholars, at MUST and other East African universities, doing valuable and practical research, awaiting and requiring recognition and encouragement. One of the patients Ogwang has successfully treated with Covidex was himself.

Anyway, these recent developments set me reflecting on quite a few points, some of which I have mentioned in our past conversations. The reaction of sections of the Uganda public to the clearing of Covidex in the management of Covid-19 astounded and disappointed me.

Available stocks

Before the National Drugs Authority announcement, a small bottle of Covidex had been retailing at about the equivalent of 350 Kenya shillings. Following the authorisation, the price shot up to at least five times and later even ten times that.

There were even rumours that most of the available stocks of the drug had been either hoarded or exported to neighbouring countries. These developments point to at least two strange tendencies. The first is the Ugandans’ naïve assumption that Codex is a “silver bullet” that will inevitably save them from the pandemic. Maybe the shocking demise of Hajjat Aisha will have a sobering effect on those with exaggerated and unrealistic expectations

Secondly, the hoarding and other underhand practices around the drug underline, once again, the point we shared recently, that there are some characters hell-bent on “making a quick buck” out of the tragic scourge.

But as for Covidex going out to other East African countries where it is needed, I think the problem lies in our failure so far to actualise the expectations of our Community. It is a shame that, over 20 years since the reinstatement of our “unity”, we are still quibbling about which side of the border our sugarcane, eggs or Covidex should move and under what conditions.

This, indeed, lies behind Kenya Deputy President Dr William Ruto’s appeal to President Museveni, an original reviver of the Community, to do his best to ensure its efficacy in our times. Dr Ruto, as you know, was in Uganda to officiate at the launch of the Willam Ruto Institute of African and Leadership Studies at Makerere. He was also guest of honour at the laying of the foundation stone for a biological drugs and mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility just outside Kampala.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Prof Ogwang’s Covidex, the late Aisha’s work and the upcoming drugs factory all point out to what we have been advocating all along, that we should seek our solutions, including health solutions, from our own people and our own resources. Those who depend on their “brothers” (others) resources die in penury, as the Waswahili say.

Many more successes will follow Covidex if we keep supporting our experts and urging them to work together in viable frameworks, like East African research institutes.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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