As the Coronavirus pandemic accelerates throughout the world at alarming rates, the President of Türkmenistan has announced to his people that the Coronavirus can be combatted by burning herbs and eating a traditional noodle dish known as Unaşwith a heavy-handed serving of spicy hot peppers. Until only recently, the president vehemently denied the presence of Coronavirus within Türkmenistan in spite of the country’s proximity to heavily infected countries such as China and Iran (Erkin Türkmenistan). One plant in particular which is favored amongst traditional Tebip healers has also caught the president’s attention: Peganum.
Peganum (known as Гармала in Russian and Üzärlik in Turkmen) is a white-flowered plant that blooms in sandy, barren lands. In spite of its organic properties, it offers no known protection against the virus whatsoever. The latter is more commonly known by its scientific name, Peganum harmala. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, it is known to have “pharmacological and therapeutic effects,” however the active alkaloids, especially harmine and harmaline which make the plant so medicinally effective, have yet to be tested with respect to Coronavirus, primarily because advanced molecular biology research has long been underway.
“Clearly, the seriousness of these infections and the lack of effective, licensed treatments for CoV infections underpin the need for a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of coronaviral molecular biology, with a specific focus on both their structural proteins as well as their accessory proteins. Live, attenuated vaccines and fusion inhibitors have proven promising, but both also require an intimate knowledge of CoV molecular biology” (Virology Journal).
The President’s mistake is necessarily that he advocated the use of traditional medicines to the people who may or may not have access to other forms of medicine in their region, but rather that he mislead them into thinking that this is a ‘cure’ rather than a general health support against chronic ailments. Such advice is preventative, not protective.
At the moment, scientists have yet to find a cure, and the best practice available is the Leicester Method, more commonly known as “quarantine” (Medical History, Cambridge). With this in mind, there is substantive evidence that the president’s plant does offer medicinal benefits. The medicinal use of Peganum harmala has been documented in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Türkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and India for its properties, however, the different regions utilize different portions of the plant. While it is traditionally used throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, some regions use the seeds and the root, others utilize the whole plant, and countries (such as Türkmenistan) burn it within homes so that the smoke purifies the air. Although such measures have not been shown to correlate in any way with viral mitigation, management, and treatment, it is possible that it may fortify an individual’s personal health, which could offer preventative benefits-- just not those that can combat the rampant spread of COVID-19.