New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government is leading a study to determine whether the ayurvedic herb ashwagandha could be an alternative to hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a potential Covid preventive.
The study is being carried out by a group of scientists and researchers from the Ministry of Ayush (ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, unani, siddha and sowa rigpa, and homoeopathy), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the University Grants Commission (UGC), and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“We want to see the effect of ashwagandha in fighting Covid-19. We want to see if it can do what HCQ is supposed to do,” UGC vice-chairman Bhushan Patwardhan, who is a part of the team, told ThePrint.
“Ashwagandha is a herb well known for its medicinal properties and there are studies to show that it can increase immunity.”
Patwardhan said the study will be a randomised trial involving 400 front-line health workers as subjects.
“Half of the healthcare workers will be given ashwagandha and the other half will be given HCQ and we will monitor how they respond to it,” he added.
With no vaccine available for Covid-19 so far, even as the disease continues to infect lakhs, HCQ has been touted as a possible preventive for the healthcare workers tending to patients.
However, the efficacy of the anti-malarial drug remains a matter of research, with several experts in India as well as the US warning citizens against the inordinate use of HCQ.
The ICMR had said in March that the use of the drug with regard to coronavirus is “experimental”. “The medicine should not be taken without supervision of the doctor,” ICMR epidemiology head Dr Raman Gangakhedkar had said at a press meet on 25 March.
The next month, the US regulator Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a similar warning even as President Donald Trump hailed HCQ as a “game-changer” in the fight against Covid-19. “Serious poisoning and death have been reported after mistaken use of a chloroquine product not intended to be taken by humans,” the drug authority had said in its statement.
Ashwagandha, meanwhile, has no known side-effects.
Discussing the new government-backed research, Ayush secretary Rajesh Kotecha quoted a 2010 study by Indian researchers that claimed HCQ and ashwagandha had comparable effects on immunity.
“A very highly reputed journal has published a study comparing the use of HCQ and ashwagandha as an immunomodulator and found that both show the effects,” he said.
Kotecha, however, sought to emphasise that its efficacy is still being studied.
“There is a lot of empirical evidence available about ashwagandha. However, I would like to add a word of caution … it should not be immediately inferred that the herb will work for sure. Just like HCQ, which is being seen as a possible prophylactic (preventive) medicine, we are trying to see if ashwagandha has similar effects,” he said. “But unlike HCQ, here the advantage is that there won’t be any side-effects.”
Kotecha said different studies have been planned to test ashwagandha and other ayurvedic alternatives as Covid-19 preventives.
“We have initiated a robust exercise of creating a clinical protocol. The studies involve a group of scientists and have been vetted by a lot of reviewers, technically helped by ICMR,” he added.
“We are working with a lot of medical colleges to conduct these studies. The (ashwagandha) study will start in the coming week and its duration is 12 weeks. The results will be there in three months,” he added.
Ashwagandha has also been proposed as a possible coronavirus preventive in a study by Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali that has been submitted to the journal Virology for peer review.