Artemisia shows ‘promise’ against Covid-19 in lab tests, say researchers

A young artemisia plant on display at Agroscope, the Swiss Federal Competence Centre for Agricultural Research, in Conthey, 21 April 2020.
A young artemisia plant on display at Agroscope, the Swiss Federal Competence Centre for Agricultural Research, in Conthey, 21 April 2020. © AFP - Fabrice Coffrini

Scientists in Germany released data on Wednesday from laboratory tests showing that extracts of the artemisia plant are active against the virus causing Covid-19. The research is separate from claims by Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina about the Covid-Organics herbal tea, but perhaps provides more of a scientific basis for clinical trials and research. 


“The results are very promising,” said Peter Seeberger, managing director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, adding that future clinical trials are what really counts. 

Madagascar’s President Rajoelina has repeatedly praised a herbal concoction of the Artemisia annua plant, promoting it to other leaders as a Malagasy “cure” for Covid-19, despite reservations by the World Health Organisation about the effectiveness of the Covid-Organics drink and lack of data. 

Delving deeper into artemisia 

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam worked with the department of virology at the Free University of Berlin to further investigate artemisia. 

Extracts were used from specially bred Artemisia annua plants developed and grown by ArtemiLife Inc, a company based in Kentucky, US. The business is already selling ArtemiTea and ArtemiCoffee online, which contains the plant. 

Two extracts of artemisia were developed by the researchers, one using distilled water and another ethanol. These were compared against a third, the ethanol extract mixed with coffee, and artemisinin, a derivative compound of the artemisia plant already used as part of combined treatments for malaria. 

The study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, carried out in vitro tests using monkey lung cells. It treated the cells with the different formulations and then infected them with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 to determine the anti-viral activity. 

The two extracts resulted in less of the virus forming, with the ethanol and coffee found to be the most active. Pure artemisinin on its own did not provide much antiviral activity. 

“There is an effect, it is repeatable between laboratories,” said Klaus Osterrieder, who conducted the viral tests at the Free University of Berlin. The research was verified by a second laboratory in Denmark who carried out their own tests to ensure consistency of the results. 

Future clinical trials 

Research on the artemisia extracts is expected to feed into an ongoing clinical trial at the University of Kentucky. It is hoped ArtemiTea, ArtemiCoffee and a tablet form will be incorporated into ongoing trials with patients suffering from Covid-19 by the summer of 2020. 

The first phase of the trial will last a month, involving six patients being treated for 14 days, according to Jill Kolesar, an expert in pharmacy at the University of Kentucky. The US university has an existing relationship with ArtemiLife Inc. 

Kerry Gilmore, an organic chemist at the Max Planck Institute, said there are at least 10 active compounds within the artemisia extracts. Further research will help determine whether individual compounds or a combination of them are responsible for the activity against Covid-19. 

The addition of coffee to the artemisia extract could have a type of protective effect on other compounds, reducing their degradation. “Certain compounds within coffee have been shown to have anti-viral activities,” Gilmore added. 

This research is the latest contribution to several efforts to use the Artemisia annua plant for treatment of Covid-19. South African scientist Frank van der Kooy at North-West University has launched an effort to conduct clinical trials on artemisia, teaming up with Jerome Munyangi, a Congolese doctor from the faculty of medicine at the University of Kolweri-Lualaba. 

But it is Madagascar’s President Rajoelina who had grabbed the spotlight for his promotion of the Malagasy herbal tea, despite questions surrounding the scientific basis for his claims and the actual ingredients of the drink itself besides artemisia. 

“We have tried very hard to obtain this drink that’s apparently taken by many people, unfortunately we’ve not been able to obtain samples of that drink,” said Peter Seeberger of the Max Planck Institute, adding that they would like to test it, as part of their research. 

Artemisia has been long-known to have uses for the treatment of malaria and drugs have been developed using artemisinin, a derivative of one of the plant’s compounds. 

Research has also been conducted into artemisia’s use in combatting HIV and its effectiveness against SARS, another type of coronavirus. 

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