In the fight against this pandemic caused by the coronavirus COVID-19, research and testing continues at a frantic pace in order to find effective treatments. Around the world, different research institutions and companies have been working to discover new drugs and create new therapies.
And this is the case of the drugs used in the last decades to fight malaria; according to a recent publication in the magazine ChemRxiv (Liu & Li, April 2020) the coronavirus COVID-19 probably has a mechanism of infection similar to the plasmodium of malaria. In other words, our famous virus could act on the lungs and cause pneumonia not in a direct, but indirect way. And it is that, according to the authors, it seems that this virus, like the malaria parasite, directly infects red blood cells (erythrocytes), attacking the 1-Beta chain of hemoglobin and dissociating iron, and porphyrin, from which it probably gets energy to replicate the virus. Furthermore, said attack on hemoglobin, responsible for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood; it makes it transport and exchange less and less. This causes the cells of the lungs, where this oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange occurs, to undergo an extreme reaction of poisoning and inflammation; which results in the typical images of lungs with crystallized carbon dioxide so characteristic of many seriously ill patients infected with COVID-19.
The artemisinin molecule, produced in the Artemisia annua plant, is currently recommended by the WHO to combat malaria in ACT (Artemisinin Combination Therapy) format. In addition, in recent years the enormous potential of this molecule, and derivatives, to combat other diseases, such as cancer, autoimmune, inflammatory or parasitic diseases, has been discovered. In addition to the excellent safety index of this plant and its minimal side effects, all these elements make Artemisia annua and its main molecule artemisinin, optimal potential candidates to combat or at least increase recovery rates from this disease.
Different scientific articles published in the last decade have shown the great potential of the molecule. In fact, it has been shown both in vitro and in vivo (Zhang & Gerhard, 2009; Klonis et al., 2011) that the potent activity of artemisinin is dependent on the digestion of hemoglobin. In fact, the heme group (formed by iron and porphyrin) when released by the breakdown of hemoglobin, by a parasite or virus, is the most relevant physiological mediator of artemisinin cytotoxic activity not only against malaria but also against cancer. .
Finally, it has also been seen that Artemisia annua, the molecule artemisinin and its derivatives, exert effects as a stimulator of the immune and anti-inflammatory system (Luo, et al., 2019; Sun, et al., 2019; Zhang, et al., 2019 ). Furthermore, its antiviral properties have been described for various types of viruses (Hahn et al., 2018; D'Alessandro et al., 2020; Ou et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020) including other types of coronaviruses such as MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV (Nature Plants, March 2020).
The World Health Organization (WHO), in a recent statement on May 4, did not reject the use of this medicinal plant as a prevention and cure treatment for COVID-19, but did ask that clinical trials be carried out beforehand to prove its effectiveness. The WHO added that "medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua are being considered as possible treatments against COVID-19 and their efficacy and side effects should be examined." In fact, the WHO supports scientifically proven traditional medicine and promotes activity in research centers to select natural medicinal products.
In recent weeks the prestigious German research center Max-Planck has started clinical trials to see the potential of both the Artemisia annua plant and the artemisinin molecule against COVID-19. In addition, the Californian pharmaceutical company Mateon Therapeutics announced in April that in its in vitro antiviral detection program they had selected the molecule artemisinin, as one of the two most powerful candidates to inhibit the multiplication capacity of the COVID-19 virus. The intense speed race to find possible treatments to combat this pandemic has sparked a renewed interest in medicinal plants that have been used and studied for decades, such as Artemisia annua; But establishing its efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is crucial.