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COVID-19: Bad Science is common and no ‘middle-path’ for traditional medicine: Dr. Soham D Bhaduri

M3 India Newsdesk Jul 05, 2020

Recently, India's most famous yoga guru launched an alternative medicine drug for coronavirus, claiming huge success during clinical trials. In this critique, Dr. Soham D Bhaduri throws light on the controversy it sparked and the subsequent actions taken.

For our comprehensive coverage and latest updates on COVID-19 click here.

The Yoga Guru’s bold proclamation on June 23 that his company found an Ayurvedic remedy for COVID-19 engendered an intense row, leading to a criminal complaint. The claims rested on shaky ground and apparently constituted an attempt to pass off quasi-science under the veil of a clinical trial. While acknowledging that it has set a terrible precedent, however, we should also be clear that it is not the only blow that our scientific spirit has taken during the current pandemic.

The AYUSH ministry and Maharashtra’s hon’ble home minister were swift to repudiate the miracle cure, which is a commendable and highly warranted move. Popularising and sale of spurious cures, even when not officially backed by the government, can have menacing implications in times of a pandemic. However, the fact that a similarly unproven homeopathic medication (namely Arsenicum Album 30) was not only recommended but also envisaged for widespread dissemination undermines our righteous posture.

In May, when Maharashtra still vacillated on the issue of Arsenicum Album 30, the medicine was distributed in containment zones of a couple of wards in Mumbai as an ‘immunity booster’. Many practitioners of the homeopathic fraternity have themselves been critical of the move. And Maharashtra is but one of many others who have recommended the drug, including Karnataka, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

One can argue that the former makes for a serious case since a ‘cure’ has been claimed - unlike in the case of Arsenicum Album 30, which has been proposed as a prophylactic ‘immunity booster’. However, the latter is not enough justification to dispense with the need of minimum evidence while widely recommending a pharmacological substance - especially when the recommending authority is none other than the state itself.

Such labels as ‘immunity booster’ create the mistaken impression that they can be freely administered with little or no adverse effects. And this is while their lack of demonstrated efficacy tends to be insufficiently highlighted, giving people a false sense of security from infection. There are already such anecdotes from Mumbai. While cracking down on spurious claims is critical, the government also has an important messaging function to perform by upholding the scientific spirit in its own dealings and recommendations. We have been deficient in the latter.

In India, the enthusiasm towards promoting Ayurveda and other ISM (Indian Systems of Medicine) has manifested largely through such quasi-essential items like immunity boosters and herbal supplements. The mandate of delving scientifically into these traditional treasure-troves, so that they could stand to make substantive contributions to the scientific medical repertoire, has undergone dilution.

It has almost been subconsciously accepted that traditional systems can yield little beyond herbal remedies of dubious efficacy. On the one hand, this has allowed creating such vague labels as ‘immunity boosters which enable passing off herbal cures with little scientific inquiry - which in turn facilitates a highly lucrative market for herbal commodities. On the other hand, it has resulted in mindless consmeticisation of traditional medicine and wrecked the possibility of redeeming traditional systems through science.

Arsenicum Album 30

A look at the timeline of Arsenicum Album 30 during this pandemic clearly brings out this askew attitude. The first recommendations from the Council for Research in Homeopathy (CCRH) regarding prophylactic use of Arsenicum Album 30 in COVID-19 came in January - and in early March, the Ministry of AYUSH recommended it under ‘preventive and prophylactic simple remedies’. However, it took three more months until June 10 for a trial to test its effectiveness to be announced by the AYUSH ministry.

While state neglect has contributed to impeding a possible scientific reassertion of traditional systems, fiascoes by some proponents further queer the pitch for traditional medicine. The Ayurvedic camp can be divided into two broad contingents:

  • Purists, who advocate pure practice of Ayurveda without intrusion by modern medicine
  • Modernists, who advocate aligning Ayurveda along modern medical principles

The large majority of today’s practitioners realise the importance of adopting at-least some modern principles in order to thrive, which paves the way for some scientific approach in Ayurveda. However, a lingering doubt that many traditional principles may fail to stand scientific scrutiny prevents wholehearted adoption of the scientific approach. A frequent result of this is an infirm ‘middle path’ whereby scientific validation is sought without the necessary concomitant of enough scientific rigour.

Ayurvedic proponents must come to terms with the fact that unlike in a lot of other circumstances, the middle path here is an untenable choice. And in a high-risk/high-reward situation such as the current pandemic, this choice can be greatly damaging to the credibility of Ayurveda and their proponents. While an Ayurvedic cure for COVID-19 will be unequivocally appreciated, a sham cure which fails to deliver will only end up undermining Ayurveda.

What is expected of Ayurvedic proponents is to step up where the government has failed to deliver: in fervently exploring its vast expanses for evidence-backed, substantive contributions to the medical repertoire. The necessary (and possibly unpleasant) concomitant of this would be to wholly respect the scientific process.

In addition, it is incumbent on them to raise cudgels against practices like mindless cosmeticisation of Ayurvedic ingredients, and to work to address the unique issues related to AYUSH research - areas where their participation has been inadequate. An unscientific approach can only complement government neglect in leading traditional medicine down a ruinous path.


Disclaimer- The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of M3 India.

Dr. Soham D. Bhaduri is a Mumbai-based physician, healthcare commentator, and Executive Editor of The Indian Practitioner, a medical journal. He can be reached at soham.bhaduri@gmail.com

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