Yet, India Today uncritically carried Patanjali managing director Acharya Balkrishna’s claims about the miracle cure.
The coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly in India. As of June 24, the country has recorded 4,25,000 infections and is adding over 10,000 new cases every day. Over 12,000 people have died, many for want of medical attention.
The fear of catching the virus combined with the growing realisation that India’s healthcare system isn’t adequately equipped to handle surging infections has left people looking desperately for a cure. This sense of fear and desperation has opened a door for businesses to make money by peddling miracle cures. Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved Ltd is one such business.
On June 24, Ramdev launched his “cure” for Covid-19 called Coronil. He claimed that 69 percent of the patients the drug was tested on recovered in three days and the rest in seven days.
The AYUSH ministry quickly issued a statement denying any knowledge of the drug and told Ramdev to stop publicising it as a cure for Covid-19. The ministry also directed Patanjali to immediately submit all its research, chemical compounds of the drug, details of its trials, and the necessary permissions.
Although the drug was launched on June 24, Patanjali had been peddling it for a while, with the media lapping up its claims without question.
In the latest Hindi edition of the weekly India Today, there’s an interview with Acharya Balkrishna, the managing director of Patanjali. The interview titled “Drug to Treat Corona is in the Final Phase of Clinical Trials” accompanies a report by Sonali Acharjee and Shubham Shankhdhar.
The preface to the interview claims that Patanjali’s drug has been used to treat thousands of coronavirus patients and is now in the final phase of the clinical trials.
Here's the first question and answer:
In which states are the clinical trials being conducted of this drug?
Patanjali is planning to conduct pan-India clinical trials of its Ayurvedic medicines on Covid-19 patients. Our medicines are being used to treat patients in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujrat, Rajasthan, among others, and thousands of people have already benefited from them. In Meerut, many doctors and other medical staff of two famous hospitals were institutionally quarantined after coming in contact with a corona patient. We gave our Ayurvedic medicines to about seventy of them. We are delighted to inform you that after five to six days of treatment, all of them were found to be negative for coronavirus.
India Today didn’t bother verifying Balkrishna’s stunning claim. Newslaundry did and found that it wasn’t true.
The medical professionals in Meerut that Patanjali’s managing director claimed to have cured were never found infected with coronavirus. How can someone be cured of a disease they were never diagnosed with?
They might have come in contact with an infected person in the course of their duties, but there was no way to know if they had coronavirus without being tested. “Not everyone who comes in contact with a Covid-19 patient tests positive,” said Vijay Kumar, a doctor at AIIMS, Delhi. “A lot of people do not contract the virus after coming in contact with a Covid-19 patient.”
Referring to one of the private hospitals in Meerut mentioned by Ramdev at the Coronil launch, the India Today report claims that “45 personnel of Anand Hospital were suspected of having Covid-19, and were quarantined. After 14 days of Ayurvedic treatment they tested negative for the virus.”
Turns out these medical professionals were only quarantined as a precaution. They were not found positive for coronavirus. They were tested after the quarantine period was over, in keeping with the ICMR’s testing protocol at the time, and found negative.
So, how could Patanjali’s drug be tested on these “patients”, who hadn’t been found infected? We put this question to Dr Sanjay Jain, a senior orthopaedic surgeon at Anand Hospital. He replied diplomatically, “It is irrefutable that our medical personnel came in contact with Covid-19 patients. It is also irrefutable that coming into contact with an infected person doesn’t necessarily infect you. We gave our doctors the medicines from Patanjali. Are those medicines why they tested negative after the quarantine period or their immune system? We can’t comment on that. But yes, Patanjali’s drugs are yet to go through clinical trials.”
The other Meerut hospital Ramdev mentioned is Yug Hospital. Its owner, Dr Alok Aggarwal, told Newslaundry that Patanjali’s representatives have been in contact with several hospitals in the city and elsewhere. “They asked everyone to notify them if we had coronavirus patients. Patanjali would give them free medicines. We had 12 people who had come in contact with a Covid-19 patient. We tested them and six were found positive but asymptomatic. They were treated at the Mulayam Singh Yadav Medical College. We informed Patanjali about the six positive people, and they sent the medicines.”
So, were those six medical staff cured by Patanjali’s drugs? “I have no problem with their claim. All I know is that six of my people recovered, although they were asymptomatic,” Aggarwal said. “Asymptomatic people generally recover quickly and India has a better recovery rate than most other countries. I’m fine with Patanjali taking credit for their recovery, but their medicine was the sole reason for it cannot be claimed in an absolute manner.”
To find out if Balkrishna’s claim had merit, Newslaundry also contacted the chief medical officer of Meerut, Dr Raj Kumar. As per the coronavirus protocol, the chief medical officer has the final say on all matters related to coronavirus in a district.
“It is a false claim,” he said emphatically. “No doctor here has tested positive. There was just one patient in Anand Hospital who tested positive for coronavirus two months ago. Some people were then quarantined, but they returned to work after 14 days. We never told them to consume anything from Patanjali but if they consumed Patanjali drugs by choice then I can’t comment on it.”
He added, “It isn’t ethical to claim that patients tested negative because of your drugs when they were never positive to begin with. People who aren’t taking Patanjali’s drugs are also testing negative after 14 days of quarantine.”
Asked specifically about the coronavirus cases from Yug Hospital, Rajkumar said, “I was managing Mulayam Singh Yadav hospital at the time. If someone was taking Ayurvedic medicines during the treatment there, it may have added to their immunity. But claiming it as a valid treatment is wrong.”
Was he contacted by Patanjali about testing their concoction on patients in Meerut? “Neither has anyone contacted me nor is there any order for using Patanjali medicines in the district,” Rajkumar replied.
Newslaundry contacted the office of Meerut’s district magistrate for comment on Patanjali’s claims, only to be told that he was busy inspecting hospitals treating Covid patients.
King George Medical University, Lucknow, is Uttar Pradesh’s biggest hospital. When Newslaundry asked its chancellor, Dr MLB Bhatt, about Patanjali’s claims, he replied, “I read something about it in newspapers today, but I have no information about this. To make such a claim would be hyperbole. We are using Ayurvedic medicines as ‘add-on treatment’. It means we add some drugs to support the prescribed treatment.”
He added, “We can use Ayurvedic medicines to strengthen the immune system. When immunity increases, the body has more capacity to fight off the infection, which is the philosophy behind Ayurveda. The AYUSH ministry is encouraging research in giloy, gooseberry, and chyawanprash. The ministry has said there’s no medicine available in AYUSH yet to treat the corona infection, and everyone must remember that.”
As Bhatt pointed out, the AYUSH ministry has clarified that there’s no Ayurvedic drug to cure coronavirus infection. At best Ayurvedic concoctions can be used to boost immunity.
Balkrishna, however, asserted in the India Today interview that Patanjali’s drugs weren’t merely immunity boosters or immunomodulators. He claimed that they could stop coronavirus from infecting healthy cells.
Asked about this, Bhatt said, “If they are making such a claim, only they would have the information on which it is based.”
Newslaundry reached out to Patanjali’s spokesperson SK Tijarawala to ask about Balkrishna’s claims and what the doctors we spoke with had to say about them. He asked that we email him the questions, promising to answer them. He hasn’t responded to the emailed questions yet. This report will be updated if a response is received.
A version of this report was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.
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