By Bhaswati Bhattacharya
MPH MD (Family Medicine) PhD (Ayurveda-BHU)
On March 27, a survey in India asked physicians whether they would take Ayurvedic herbal medicines as part of their own prevention routine if placed on the frontlines of the pandemic or where they would meet people who are possibly contagious with COVID-19.
Within 24 hours, 1,500 people completed the survey, 43% confirming they would and 38% stating that they already are taking herbs for prevention. When asked which herbs or formulations, over 50% chose tulsi leaves, guduchi and haldi. Only 8% of responders were over the age of 50. In addition, though 79% were healthcare providers, most were not seeing Covid-19 patients in India at that time.
This means that herbal jadi-buti are not just your grandmother’s potions and archaic home remedies. They are living medicines for today’s times.
On private chat groups, Indian healthcare professionals around the world on the frontlines of the pandemic share their remedies. Those hailing from medical lineages quietly use “family traditional herbs,” just as their ancestors did 100 years ago. With British oppression forbidding Ayurveda from 1830, using the ghastly Macaulay Education Reform Minute, the medicines had been rephrased as cultural kitchen traditions to evade punishment. Medicinal trees on the family property allowed formulations to remain secretly as “culture.”
For all kinds of serious illness, medical families had a senior kaviraj, vaidya, or bhisak. Rasa-aushadhies were integrated treatment components for severe illnesses, under strict supervision by the family vaidya, who understood how to prepare the body, tailor medicine dosages, and ensure no toxicity occurred with gold, silver, copper, abhraka preparations.
Epidemiologists argue that bias invalidates user claims that metallic compounds work. Modern science warns universally about the dangers of heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicines, … never citing hair dyes, mascara, vaccines, metal preservatives in medicines and cosmetics, toiletries, food and lipstick.
Steady sales data of rasa-aushadhies however reveal the quiet adamant medical sect supporting regular, sustained legal use throughout India. Scientists have yet to disprove bhasmas using data. No actual correlations exist between cancers, poisonings or adverse effects due to medicinal use of properly-made bhasmas and rasa-aushadhies. It is all theoretical.
In contrast, the data for deaths due to the poisons in chemotherapy and radiation, cigarettes and gutka, are statistically and causally proven. Proven side effects of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine include very real retinopathy and suppression of the immune system. Private chatgroups of doctors discussing clinical trials reveal instructions to use pharmaceuticals with no evidence of efficacy but plenty of side effects, tempted with desperation “in a time of crisis.” Some are instructed to use their conscience and “try things they could live with,” knowing pharmaceutical trials have failed. Quiet data shared only among New York physicians shows 80% of people placed on ventilators fail. Some arrive late in respiratory distress. Physicians know no other options. Few know the workings of a ventilator.
With the same courage used to give these caustic drugs to patients, physicians can demonstrate their disdain for bias by participating in a simple trial. Curiosity for real solutions would drive the scientific experiment.
A prospective clinical trial using rasa-aushadhies for 200 to 500 healthcare workers would export India’s wisdom to at-risk volunteers wishing to take herbal formulations and metallic medicines under guidance of vaidyas. To ground against other factors known as confounders, participants would be age-matched with controls of similar health, BMI (body mass index) and co-morbidities, who would not get the ayurvedic medicines but would continue on their usual routines. The exact protocol would be kept hidden for the first 40 days to ensure no crossover of use.
Likely, the nurses and doctors who volunteer to participate would have family members and close friends in Ayurveda, so that their trust in the medicines outweighs anecdotes that purified metallic medicines preparations create heavy-metal poisoning. Physicians open-minded to the modern use of Ayurvedic herbs would receive personalized medicine and guidance on formulations suiting their body.
With constant high exposure to infectious, contagious respiratory illness, statistical significance could be established quickly in a valuable population forced on frontlines often without PPE, that would benefit the most from these ancient medicines. A 60-day study of willing participants would give the world solid data on the effectiveness of rasa-aushadhies. It would parallel the use of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in Hubei province for resolving respiratory illness.
Setting up such a clinical study could be quick and organized, as study participants could enroll in moments. A set protocol is already available by organized vaidyas who are already using bhasmas in their patients, families, and themselves. Hospital healthcare workers would benefit greatly if the medicines truly work. They could also be discontinued easily if needed. Done properly, the results would herald a return to non-monopolized medicine.
Why conduct these studies in allopaths not vaidyas? Vaidyas would be considered biased toward a placebo effect. Since most are also already experienced with taking metallic medicines, the effects may not be as pronounced.
Using this important gap in time, when no medicines are proven effective for Covid-19, a study is underway at NUNM (National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon, which has an MoU with the Indian Ministry of AYUSH. It is monitoring the use of natural medicines for Covid. The international registry study hopes to collect data on the use of non-pharmaceutical medicines by today’s generation of healthcare workers. Globally, providers are quietly but confidently using remedies learned in their local culture, for prevention or treatment of mild symptoms.
The same day the Indian survey on self-care using herbs disseminated its data, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the oligarchy of Ayurveda and AYUSH personnel, asking them to produce clinical scientific evidence for traditional medicines. Meanwhile, he suggested they make hand sanitizer and educate people via teleconference about social distancing.
On April 1, the Ministry of AYUSH, which had been prohibited to allow non-allopaths from participating as healthcare providers in the Covid epidemic, reversed this decision and made AYUSH providers an exempt population from the lockdown. Effectively, this allows ayurvedic physicians to treat patients, but still requires all physicians to report ALL Covid cases. On April 1, educational posters were published by AYUSH offering herbal remedies for prevention. On April 2, an interdisciplinary task force using familiar rosters was created.
As of April 7, 2020, India sadly reported 124 deaths due to Covid and 4700+ confirmed cases, in a country of 1.3 billion citizens and a handful of often-traveling foreigners. Sales data for ayurvedic medicines in India during first quarter 2020 will be released soon.
Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya is Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, and 2018-2022 Fulbright Specialist in Public Health-Integrative Medicine.