Launch of the Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for COVID-19

Submitted by on Wed, 29/07/2020 - 00:39

Director of Social Affairs of the African Union Commission, Mrs Mariama Cisse,

Director of Africa CDC, my dear friend, Dr John Nkengasong,

Our Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan,

Professor Muyembe,

Dear colleagues and friends, members of the Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for COVID-19,

Partners and colleagues, a very good morning to all of you!

It is my great pleasure to speak with you at this important event, the launching of the Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for COVID-19.

I would like to thank sincerely and congratulate the members of the Committee on your nomination and really appreciate your contribution to enhancing capacities and scientific approaches towards wider use of effective traditional medicines.

We believe that you are a strongly constituted group with all the skills and experience that will help us to validate and benefit from African traditional medicine if we find that the tested medicines are efficacious and safe.

For over 20 years at WHO we have advocated the importance of African traditional medicine and worked towards strengthening recognition and integration of traditional medicine in health systems.

Over the years, progress has been made: 40 African countries now have traditional medicine policies, an increase from eight in the year 2000. Thirty-nine countries now have a dedicated traditional medicine office and regulatory frameworks to establish professional regulatory bodies for traditional medicine practitioners.

There are 34 research institutions dedicated to traditional medicine in the African Region, and WHO has supported research leading to domestic market authorization of 89 traditional medicine products across 14 countries. Over 40 of these country-specific medicines are now on national essential medicines lists for therapies ranging from HIV-related infections to diabetes, sickle-cell disease and hypertension.

I have to say if we are speaking of progress and inspiration by the problem we are facing now, to accelerate and do better, I have always been struck as I travel around the Region by the ease with which you find a shop or place marketing Chinese traditional medicine on the continent. It’s our dream to see the production and widespread use of effective and safe traditional medicine to the same extent. This was part of the ambition of the work that we have been doing in WHO, that not only would we build the policy framework for the collaboration between western and traditional medicines, but we that we would also find African traditional medicines being used openly, on the market, internationally – that remains for me a personal ambition.

Now, as we face a pandemic that is ravaging the globe, we urgently need approaches that can scale-up solutions across borders, and to do this, the results of studies need to be replicable, including in terms of dosing.

In the context of COVID-19, African traditional medicine has become quite an emotionally charged issue and taken the spotlight with passionate debate and discussion. This pressure is helping to hopefully make more progress in really looking at the potential of African traditional medicine, which, despite the progress made, remains so under-exploited.

Historically whenever there is a new disease, we tend to have traditional medicine and western medicine coming forward to offer solutions. We have seen this with Ebola, HIV and other diseases. The example of artemisinin from Chinese traditional medicine shows how traditional medicine brought about a solution to a dilemma in western medicine, of chloroquine- and quinine-resistant malaria.

With the challenge of COVID-19, the time has come for all stakeholders to bring ideas and best practices from traditional and western medicine together and make the most of what both branches of medicine have to offer.

We are starting with COVID-organics developed in Madagascar, and there is interest in looking at other medicines from other African countries. With the rich and unique flora and fauna on the continent, there are many trees and plants that have historically been used as part of various remedies, and we can now check the potency using international standards with your advice.

This work is incredibly important, as the pace of research and development for COVID-19, is unprecedented. We are six months into this pandemic and there are already several clinical trials of western and traditional medicines ongoing, including in the African Region. Globally, there are more than 140 candidate vaccines and almost 2000 studies listed on WHO's International Clinical Trials Registry Platform.

This Expert Advisory Committee will play a key role in assuring good management of clinical trials, including adherence with international standards.

This Committee builds on strong collaboration between WHO and the African Union in improving access to needed medicines and medical products, including through the treaty for the African Medicines Agency. Together with the Office of the Commissioner of Social Affairs of the African Union Commission, we have advanced traditional medicine through support to Member States for implementation of plans of action on the First and Second Decades of African Traditional Medicine. Within the framework of the African Medicines Regulatory Harmonization Initiative coordinated by AUDA-NEPAD, we have supported countries to strengthen regulatory and ethics reviews of clinical trials for vaccines of high public health impact.

Interest and innovation in traditional medicine as a potential source of remedies for COVID-19 is growing. Finding a safe and efficacious medicine could save lives, reduce the severity of disease, and improve well-being as well as contributing to marketing of such a product.

In May 2020, we brought together more than 100 experts from 27 countries in a virtual consultation on the contribution of traditional medicine to the COVID-19 response. African scientists recommended that collaborative approaches and support to researchers be strengthened to improve clinical and pre-clinical research in line with international standards.

After this consultation, WHO and Africa CDC, with contributions from EDCTP, the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trial Partnership, developed a master protocol, which provides guidance on conducting clinical trials in compliance with good clinical practice. We are starting to use this protocol to support countries, including working with the Scientific Committee of Madagascar to prepare for the conduct of a phase three clinical trial of COVID-Organics.

The Committee we are launching today is the next step in this fast-tracked process. It will serve as a coordination mechanism, providing independent scientific advice to WHO, to the Africa CDC and to partners, and specialized technical support to Member States on research and development of traditional medicines for COVID-19, including collaboration on clinical trials.

If safe and effective medicines are found, we can then recommend fast-tracking and large-scale production to ensure wide availability on the continent and globally.

In closing, I would like again to congratulate the Committee members and ask that science, protection of public health, independence and transparency guide your deliberations and your work.

I ask all Member States to work together in taking forward the Protocol for clinical trials, to enhance the validation of safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine products for COVID-19, and to improve access to quality-assured medicines in Africa.

Most of all I would like to thank the African Union Commission and through you, the Director of Social Affairs, Madame Cisse, to thank very much my sister, Amira, who couldn’t be with us today. I would like to thank John and the team at the Africa CDC and our colleagues at EDCTP, for strong partnership which we deeply appreciate and value in WHO.

I look forward to continuing collaborative and constructive partnerships going forward to save lives and improve well-being.

And I would like to add my voice to John’s optimistic note on the fact that African countries have worked so hard with strong political leadership in response to this pandemic, we are seeing a very difficult situation one particular country and we in WHO are committed to working with our partners to support all of our Member States.

All of us do indeed need to play a role in ensuring that we explore the rich, natural diversity of the African Region in saving lives and improving well-being and I assure you in WHO AFRO and with our headquarters colleagues, we are fully committed to this.

Thank you very much.