While Anandaiah’s ‘herbal remedies’ were touted to ‘cure’ critical COVID-19 patients, AYUSH officials have cautioned that they are not authorised to treat COVID-19.

Unscientific support for brinjal COVID cure causes rush for ayurvedic remedies in AP
news Coronavirus Wednesday, May 26, 2021 - 19:34

The controversial Krishnapatnam brinjal-based ‘herbal cure’ for COVID-19 in Andhra Pradesh has been halted, with authorities awaiting results from tests to determine its efficacy and possible ill-effects. But the widespread attention garnered by the herbal remedies prepared by Bonigi Anandaiah have now resulted in increased inquiries over ayurvedic medicines and other options offered by the AYUSH department (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa and Homoeopathy), according to state AYUSH officials. Speaking to TNM, Eluru Regional Deputy Director for AYUSH Dr Ramana says that inquiries for ayurvedic treatments have seen a spike over the past week, ever since news around Anandaiah’s ‘cure’ went viral. “Inquiries have gone up drastically, asking if Anandaiah’s medicine is available, when it will be distributed, whether there are any other ayurvedic medicines available,” he says. 

This, even as a former school headmaster who vouched for the brinjal, honey and tailed pepper based eye drops in a viral video is currently in an ICU with low oxygen saturation and chemical conjunctivitis — the former believed to be a result of not continuing scientific treatment and depending on herbal medicines for COVID treatment, and the latter possibly from the use of the untested eye drops. 

While Bonigi Anandaiah is a country medicine practitioner and his preparations were initially publicised as ‘natu mandhu’ (country medicine or traditional healing methods), they have since been ‘conflated with ayurvedic treatment’, say AYUSH practitioners. Meanwhile, with widespread belief in the ‘COVID cure’ claims and possible placebo effect witnessed by the users of these untested concoctions, the AYUSH Ministry’s Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Studies has now delivered resources to conducting trials on the preparations. Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Ayurveda experts have also been studying the preparations, and TTD has said that it has the capacity to prepare the ‘remedies’ for distribution on a large scale, “once the Ministry of AYUSH gives its nod.”

Even as the tests continue, the belief that ingredients like honey, pepper and brinjal can somehow cure COVID-19 — strengthened by the seriousness with which authorities in both the state and the Union government are treating this ‘remedy’ — has led to people flocking for ayurvedic cures, paying no heed to scientific advice on preventing COVID-19. While in Krishnapatnam, people flocked to collect the herbal ‘remedy’ without following any physical distancing norms, and many not even wearing a mask, people in other parts of the state, too, are buying various ayurvedic preparations in the belief that they will help with COVID-19. 

Dr Ramana says that private medical shops selling ayurvedic preparations have been running out of stock. AYUSH remedies sent by the Union government earlier in April (touted to be immune boosters and antiviral drugs) were distributed by state officials in tribal areas, and to vulnerable groups including elderly citizens and low-income families, he says. However, these remedies were distributed only as a ‘preventive measure’. “Right now, we don’t have the approval to treat COVID-19 patients,” Dr Ramana says.  

Anandaiah’s ‘cure’, on the other hand, has been distributed with claims that it can also ‘cure’ COVID-19 patients. The eyedrops, which Anandaiah said he makes from honey, tailed pepper, and brinjal pulp, have been administered to critical COVID-19 patients with claims that they can help bring up falling blood oxygen levels. According to P Vinod Babu, an AYUSH medical officer who oversees the Government Ayurvedic Dispensary at Dammayapalem in Muthukuru mandal of Nellore district (where  Krishnapatnam is located) there has also been a rise in demand in the region for the raw ingredients used by Anandaiah, by those trying to tap into the demand and make a quick buck, by attempting to make copies of his concoctions. Anandaiah had been distributing his preparations free of cost. 

Since April 27, the state AYUSH department has been running district-level ‘Corona Control Cells’, with AYUSH medical officers available round the clock to handle walk-in and phone call inquiries. Kurnool district sub-controlling officer for ayurveda Dr Dwaram Prabhakar Reddy also recently told the media that demands for herbal treatments are on the rise, and phone calls from people seeking advice on COVID-19 treatment and preventive measures have exponentially increased in the past few days. Kurnool district AYUSH nodal officer for COVID-19 Dr T Chandra Shekar Reddy said that these cells, however, do not ‘treat’ COVID-19 patients as they are not authorised to do so. “We are providing a couple of ayurvedic medicines supplied by the Union government, and homeopathic drug arsenic album 30 as a preventive step,” he says. 

Read:  AYUSH Ministry to use RSS-allied orgs for distribution of Ayurvedic COVID-19 meds

Vinod Babu, who is also one of the AYUSH medical officers working with the Nellore district AYUSH corona control cell, says that the Anandaiah episode has led to more  people perceiving alternatives to modern medicine as an option to treat COVID-19. However, the viral videos do not capture what happens to the patients later, whether their condition continues to be critical, whether they were also taking modern medicine, he notes. He cautions that drugs and remedies endorsed by AYUSH cannot be taken in isolation, and should only be used in conjunction with modern medicine, especially for moderate to severe COVID-19 patients. “Most people seeking Anandaiah’s treatment had tested positive for coronavirus. But taking such alternative treatment alone, without modern medicine, isn’t a good idea,” he says. 

Read: Andhra man from viral video vouching for brinjal-based 'COVID cure' eye drops now in ICU

In a recent interview with TNM, rationalist Narendra Nayak had noted that the AYUSH Ministry was seeking out opportunities to push their agenda amid the pandemic, while condemning the promotion of pseudo-scientific and unscientific treatments under AYUSH. Andhra Pradesh AYUSH Commissioner Ramulu N has said that Anandaiah’s ingredients were accepted in ayurveda, but there were some “hurdles” in classifying it as an ayurvedic medicine. “There's no possibility of categorising it as an ayurvedic medicine. But then it can't be called a country remedy either,” he had said, adding that the AYUSH Ministry’s report will be out in a week. 

Meanwhile, Principal Secretary (Health) Anil Kumar Singhal said on May 24 that while it is yet to be decided if the preparations can be classified as ayurvedic, no permissions are required for 'natu mandu' or country medicine. Countering this claim, Narendra Nayak says that the concoctions should be contested under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act for the claims of aiding respiration and boosting immunity, and said that the government needs to firmly come down on such practices.

Read: Why the push for AYUSH is harmful: Narendra Nayak interview

The YSRCP government has not taken a clear stand condemning the herbal ‘treatment’. Anandaiah’s concoctions have received support from YSRCP MLA from Sarvepalli constituency (where Krishnapatnam is situated) Kakani Govardhan Reddy, as well as former Sarvepalli MLA from TDP and former state Minister Somireddy Chandra Mohan Reddy. CPI leader K Narayana has also spoken in favour of the treatment saying it was “unlikely to have side effects”, while urging the state government to speed up the tests. TTD has also endorsed the ‘treatment’, and claimed that it has no side effects. Principal Secretary (Health) and former TTD Executive Officer Anil Kumar Singhal has also said that there were no negative effects. However, several COVID-19 patients who have taken the herbal treatment continue to remain critical, with some of them contracting chemical conjunctivitis after being administered Anandaiah’s eye drops. A doctor familiar with these patients’ condition said that the patients will have to be monitored to understand any long-term effects.