KAMPALA, Uganda 

Uganda on Tuesday approved a local herbal medicine as a supporting treatment for viral infections including COVID-19. 

The director of National Drug Authority (NDA) in the country said that after various assessments and inspections of the factory manufacturing the product, Covidex, the government approved its use to support treatment of viral infections.

Formulated from herbs traditionally used to alleviate the symptoms of several diseases, the drug was developed by a team of scientists in the southwestern town of Mbarara led by pharmacologist Patrick Ogwang, had generated debate over its efficacy in treating COVID-19.

The NDA had earlier asked the manufacturer of the drug, then costing 3,000 Ugandan shillings per 20 milliliter bottle, to halt sales citing safety concerns, as the medicine had not yet been approved. Just hours after being cleared for use by the authority, the price skyrocketed as pharmacies across the country started selling it at 50,000 shillings ($14) apiece and higher as demand soars.

Many Ugandans have been using “steam,” inhaling vapor rising from a boiling concoction of herbs including leaves of oranges, guava, mangos and eucalyptus as virus cases surge in Uganda, making scarce hospital beds even more costly.

Hospitals in different parts of the country report difficulties in procuring oxygen supplies, as many run out of space for COVID-19 patients. Intensive care units are in high demand, with some hospital bills shared by the families of patients amounting to as much as $15,000, a small fortune in a country where annual per capita income is less than $800.

The head of the NDA has said the medicine does not cure COVID-19 but could supplement medicines issued by medical professionals. “After engagements, the innovators have removed unsubstantiated claims that the product treats and prevents COVID-19 and revised it to supportive treatment in management of viral infections,” he said.

The drug authority says it will continue to monitor the safety of Covidex through its post-market surveillance activities. Uganda has confirmed 79,434 cases of the coronavirus, along with 989 deaths related to teh disease.

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