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Push for Cannabis Bio-Medical Innovations as Covid-19 Spreads in Africa

CANNABIS CULTURE – Gogo Maseko, head of South Africa’s Traditional Herbalists Organization and a member of South Africa’s Science Ministry Indigenous Bio-Innovation Consortium, is angry and pleads, “Give us the right to tinker with cannabis and explore medical solutions for side-effects of a range of illnesses; flu, diabetes or Covid-19.”

After a slow start, Covid-19 is now infecting people rampantly and rapidly across Africa. While 500-thousand have been sickened so far across the continent, South Africa has now emerged as a global hot stop of the pandemic with a record day infection surges of 10-thousand on 7 July. It is in South Africa that medical cannabis is actively touted as worthy a clinical exploration to relieve symptoms of the illness because right now there is no credible vaccine put out yet by global phamaeuticals or endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet, South Africa is the third-most biodiverse country in the world, says Dr. Nzimbande, South Africa´s minister of science and innovation. There is no reason why the cannabis plant cannot be put under clinical trials to help with a range of respiratory infections, he says.

“I am angry, frustrated that medical herbalists who have used cannabis for up to years in South Africa and the African continent are still excluded from the Covid-19 consultation processes,” fumes Maseko. 

“The constitutional court of South Africa gave us a major victory when it permitted the private consumption of cannabis in September 2018. However, our country drug policy still suppresses the formulation of medicines from cannabis. Covid-19 must sober us.” 

Herbalists in South Africa and the continent have for decades used cannabis to smother symptoms and after effects of blood pressure, anxiety or skin pimples claims Maseko but in her country – “the medicines and related substances laws exclusively safeguards mainstream pharmacists and pharmaceuticals, the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and punishes tradition medical cannabis innovators. Covid-19 should make us think and research what can cannabis potentially help with, if any?”

As Covid-19 numbers climb in South Africa, the Traditional Herbalists Organization is allying with the Presidential Task Team on African Traditional Medicine in South Africa and five universities to formulate traditional cannabis as a possible relief for some of the viral side effects. “We want WHO standard-level clinical trials to see if this works,” Maseko says.

Maseko says she and her fellow herbalists’ pleas might have finally found an ear.

South Africa announced this July that it is looking at African indigenous medicines like cannabis and others to push back against the effects of Covid-19 illnesses. “South Africa will explore the use of ´African plant medicines´ as immune-modulators and anti-coronavirus therapeutics,” announced this July Dr. Blade Nzimande the minister of science and innovation in South Africa.

South Africa biomedical scientists are already at work, researching the well documented evidence that plants like cannabis and Artemisia affra – also known as Umhlonyana, wilde-als or wild/African wormwood can greatly heal the side effects of respiratory infections arising from illnesses such as Covid, says Dr. Nzimbande. 

“As a science and innovation government ministry, we have put a package of $1 million for projects to support indigenous herbal plants as possible Covid-19 interventions, especially clinical trials, biomedical processing.”

As Covid-19 takes root, a first ever division to fast track the clinical trials, commercial application and registration of traditional herbal plants like cannabis as possible pain relief medicines has been established as a matter of urgency at the South African Health Products Authority. “We put designed the Natural Indigenous Products Fund under what we call the Bio products Advancement Network South Africa. And cannabis is a medical plant on top of our list. We plan to establish a bio-innovation institute which will be Africa’s first plant-based pharmaceutical industry lobby”. 

But Maseko is not entirely impressed that it has taken a pandemic for authorities to open their eyes to the possible clinical benefits of cannabis. “We are South Africa´s medical herbalists but we got zero power to tinker with cannabis as we like,” she says. “We are so rich in biodiversity but traditional African clinical probes of cannabis or any other plant receive laughable drops of research money compared to Western pharmaueticals operating in South Africa.”

South Africa is not the only country making moves to accelerate cannabis as a possible medicinal plant to decrease the symptoms of cannabis. Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of mainland of Africa has made actual moves says Dr. Nzimande. “We are monitoring Madagascar’s launch of Artemisia and cannabis, Covid-organics for relief of pains effects. We should follow WHO standards for all clinical medicines trials and approvals and we are open to see if an independent evaluation can point to results.”

South Africa is head of the continent diplomatic body, the African Union, in 2020 and is keen to leverage the use and commercial application of tradition medical plants like cannabis as bio-medicine products,” Dr. Nzimande says. 

As Covid-19 put pressure on drug stocks in South Africa, it seems there is a deepening embrace of cannabis as a future medical pain relief even on a legal level. In June, South Africa’s health minister published a notice in the government gazette announcing the removal of cannabis plant from the country´s “Medicines Act” restrictions. The proposed law means cannabis is now to be treated as a raw clinical commodity with a series of industrial, medical applications if it contains low THC levels.

“This is a signal that the government knows there is a global medical race from rivals like China to put cannabis to lab tests and someday develop future clinical drug capsules be they for ulcers or covid,” says Erick Wesbal an independent economist in the commercial capital, Johannesburg. “We don’t want to watch from sidelines is the feeling here.”

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