How Dr Lamwaka’s gamble on asthma cure solved Covid-19 puzzle

Saturday August 07 2021
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Dr Alice Lamwaka, the developer of Covilyce-1 drug, displays a bottle of Covilyce-1 powder during the interview at her office at Gulu University’s Faculty of Medicine in Gulu City last month. PHOTO/ TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY.

By Tobbias Jolly Owiny

Covilyce-1 is an accidental herbal treatment for Covid-19. The experimental treatment was not planned for Covid, but to treat asthma and bronchitis, two common respiratory tract infections.

“We started developing this particular drug that eventually turned out to be Covilyce-1 for the two non-communicable diseases, namely asthma and bronchitis,” Dr Alice Lamwaka says in an interview. 

Dr Lamwaka, who is the principal researcher and investigator of the drug, says she started developing the formula for Covilyce-1 some two years ago. 

But by January, she and team had come out with a concoction administered to Covid patients through trained herbalists.

Nevertheless, it was not until May when Covilyce-1, a product from the same team, showed up on the market.
Soon, reports emerged in the media, indicating a group of scientists from Gulu University had made Covilyce-1, an experimental herbal treatment for Covid-19. This innovation followed close on the heels of Covidex, another alternative herbal treatment for Covid, developed by Prof Patrick Ogwang of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).

With growing media interest and the innovators cast in the limelight, Dr Lamwaka announced the drug was capable of clearing the coronavirus disease in less than 72 hours. This, like Covidex, quickly had Dr Lamwaka and team summoned for a conference with President Museveni, National Drug Authority (NDA), and scientific players. 

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The President gave the nod to Dr Lamwaka of Gulu University’s Faculty of Pharm Bio-technology and Traditional Medicine Centre (Pharm-Biotrac) to produce the drug for emergency use.

Covilyce-1 comes in four formulas, namely Linctus, which is made from four plants; Covilyce-1 powder, a combination of eight plants; Covilyce-1 suppository, which is made from three plants, and Covilyce-1 nasal drops, made from six herbs.

Patients with comorbidities such as hypertension, asthma, ulcers and diabetes, use a combination of Covilyce-1 powder, Linctus and Nasal drops that reportedly clears the infection in just about 12 hours. 

Unconscious patients, who cannot swallow, are on oxygen or have difficulty in breathing, use the Covilyce-1 suppository, which is administered via the rectum.

Owing to the high demand for Covid-19 treatment, Dr Lamwaka says the faculty embarked on phytochemical analysis of some of the herbs that have for long been used for treating viruses or diseases within the community during epidemics.

A phytochemical analysis is a test that is purposed to find out what active ingredients or chemicals are present in a herb, and what diseases those ingredients are capable of treating, managing or curing.

“Because the herbs in the concoction contain elements that can clear someone’s respiratory system and relieve them of the pain, I decided to recommend it to some patients (with Covid-19) at the start of this year and the results were stunning,” Dr Lamwaka says.

“While developing the drug, there came Covid-19 and during the second wave, when I sampled it primarily to help in the blocked respiratory tract, the patients reacted so positively to it that many more started giving feedback that they were better or healed,” she explains.

While the feedback motivated her to sample a few more patients, news about the concoction kept spreading via social media until Dr Lamwaka was compelled to speak about the drug in the media.

“We never came out to declare that we found a cure or drug for Covid-19 because Covilyce-1 is still being developed, but it is the patients who recovered using the treatment who are busy spreading the news about it,” she says.

Dr Lamwaka says when they get to the pre-trial period and conduct observatory analysis, they intend to investigate and identify the specific elements in the herb that are strong enough to kill the Covid-19 virus and heal a patient of the disease so that they can capitalise on developing it.

“We are still researching the drug and until we do the clinical trials to ascertain its content and efficacy, we cannot come out to sell it in the open market or claim it works or not, although I am giving it to clients in the meantime because we should not lose lives,” Dr Lamwaka says.

Dr Lamwaka says she started developing in January, the four different concoctions, which she started administering to Covid-19 patients in the community.

Dr Lamwka, back and forth with NDA
For every patient who buys Covilyce-1, Dr Lamwaka makes sure she takes their records for regular follow-ups against side effects. Fortunately, she says, no one has reported any serious side effects, although mild effects like loss of sleep, high appetite or high libido have been registered.

 “That means we still need to research further and isolate the components that cause such reactions,” she says. 
 A fortnight ago, NDA issued a set of conditions that Gulu University’s Faculty of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Studies (Pharm-Biotech) has to fulfill before offloading Covilyce-1 on the market.

The university was directed to formalise the process by writing to NDA, disclosing the formulation of the drug, and listing the botanical names of all the plants in the drug, among others. But Dr Lamwaka reject the conditions on grounds that it would jeopardise their efforts.

“We told the team we cannot name the plants because Covilyce-1 is still a lab-based product, which is not officially on the market” Dr Lamwaka said.

“It is too early to show them the formula because we are still going researching on the herbs. We are, indeed, giving the patients the herbs, but we are only helping because we are facing a pandemic,” Dr Lamwaka says.

“We withheld the botanical names of plants used in formulating Covilyce-1, but we accepted to only name the active ingredients and what parts of the plants have been used to develop Covilyce-1,” she adds.

“We are not going to show them the plants yet, because we have not yet registered the herb or completed the legal procedures of getting the trademark or intellectual property rights,” she says.

But Dr Lamwaka says they are set to serve NDA with all the additives put in the herbal medicine, including a leaflet of instructions for use and the storage guidelines.

“The instruction leaflet will, however, not show the side effects of the herbs because they have not yet done a clinical trial. But the reports we got from patients showed there was no major side effect reported, and ours [Covilyce-1] is stored in a cool dry place,” she said.

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Some of the Covilyce-1 formulas. PHOTO/ TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY.

Dr Lamwaka reveals during the interview that the drug contains several chemical compounds, including immune-regulators, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial. 

“In the many reports that we are investigating, many patients have claimed Covilyce-1 is healing them of peptic ulcers, gives pain relief, and normalises sugar levels. It also appears to treat arthritis, fever, as well as malaria,” she says.

“We shall be identifying these compounds one by one, such that we may have several Covilyce-1 subsets from one up to perhaps 20. We want to go into clinical trials and in the end, we hope to come out with so many Covilyce sets for many conditions, not only Covid-19,” she says.

 Dr Lamwaka says herbal medicines, once standardised, can never kill anyone since they have been used since time immemorial.

“We are discovering that Covilyce-1 is a bar of gold now and the beauty is that it is going to help us in fighting antimicrobial resistance, which is a serious concern all over the world as we have proven. The mode of action is that it likely works synergistically with conventional medicines and its action is quicker.”

“We manually grind our medicines and we also manually prepare from the lab using a mortar and pestle, so this is a very old-fashioned way of doing things. We cannot make even 100 bottles in a day,” she says.

“We know that chlorophyll is a very strong antioxidant, they also have macromolecule C, which is very good for lacing infections, causing it to collapse. Once it has collapsed, it means it can no longer continue multiplying in the person.”

Cartels pushing to hijack Covilyce-1 
Meanwhile, Dr Lamwaka says she is worried about her security and that of the university’s laboratory where the drug is being developed due to increasing threats to her life. She calls for the intervention of security organs to ensure her safety and that of the university laboratory where they are currently developing the Covilyce-1 drug.

“People are claiming the drug is very effective and cures the viral disease (Covid-19) and now the cartels and dealers are demanding that I bring it out. But I cannot give out supplies of this drug because the product is still under development,” she says.

Dr Lamwaka says people who want to trade in the drug are trying everything in every way to lay their hands on the medicine.

“They want the orders and supplies badly and are forcing me to bring it out. They have become a huge threat, they have even tried to break into our centre to look for where we have stored these drugs,” she says.

She says the cartels are likely to break into the laboratories where the drug is being made.
“We have several satellite campuses and they still don’t know exactly at what location we are developing or storing the drug.”

She gives an example of someone who sent her a text message demanding to meet her to strike a deal on supplying the drug irrespective of whether it has been cleared by the National Drug Authority or not.

“Imagine someone texted me saying ‘I want to be the distributor, give it to me and I want to be the sole distributor, where are you, I want to find you and talk business with you!’ Such people may kill me. Even when I insisted that the product is still in the lab under development, he said ‘no, give me no matter how crude it is, I need it and I need it badly’”.

Dr Lamwaka says she became more fearful for her life.
This newspaper reported late last month that following the threats, Dr Lamwaka appealed to Gulu University management to boost her personal security and that of the university lab.

We could not independently verify the threat allegations with Gulu University, but police said their counter-terrorism directorate handles safety concerns of high-profile individuals such as the academic.

Meeting President Museveni

Nearly a fortnight ago, while meeting a team of scientists from Gulu University at State House, Entebbe, President Museveni asked Dr Lamwaka and the university to progress with the development of Covilyce-1.
At the meeting, the President also directed the Finance ministry to give Dr Lamwaka and her team Shs3.7 billion for the project.

The money is meant to conduct clinical trials, set up a drug processing plant and install the necessary equipment for the factory. Dr Lamwaka is also supposed to begin testing the drug at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital.

Health minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, who attended the meeting, told President Museveni they will ensure Dr Lamwaka and team are  given the space to do the test.

Dr Lamwaka’s long walk to creating Covilyce-1

More than 25 years ago, Dr Lamwaka, while still a young medical practitioner, started building her niche in herbal medicine by offering herbs as alternative treatment to patients diagnosed with non-communicable diseases (NCD).
She knew NCDs could not easily be managed using conventional therapy.

She thus started off with diabetes and hypertension patients.

But when Ebola struck Gulu District in early 2000, Dr Lamwaka says her turning point set in. 
She says there was very limited information on the Internet then about Ebola, but as an authority on infection control at Gulu hospital at the time, they needed to quickly derive ways of managing the epidemic that was quickly claiming lives.

“We studied and investigated Ebola and I designed a method of managing and treating patients using colour coding and to my surprise, I realised it is a simple method that has been applied the world over in the past 20 years,” she said.

 As a pharmacogenomics, Dr Lamwaka says she consulted elders on what herbs are applied during epidemics and when and how they are applied. Pharmacogenomics is the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. 

“Using that oral knowledge, we controlled Ebola so quickly after we formulated our Jik out of local waragi for health workers to sanitise since there were no personal protective equipment (PPEs) then,” she says.

“That was when I realised that traditionalism in medical care works when I formulated oral rehydration solution (ORS) locally, which saved many patients and I have since never retreated.” 

But the team’s success in building a Covid-19 drug stems back to 2017 when Gulu University introduced the Traditional Medicines Unit at the Faculty of Bio-Technology and Pharmaceutical Studies (Pharm-Biotech) to train herbalists.

To date, more than 300 have been awarded certificates to administer alternative medicine (herbal remedies), to the communities in the region.

During the course, which takes five weeks, the trainees cover modules such as Basic Sciences; Applied Medicine; Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine; and Quality Assurance and Quality Control.

The training aims to enable the herbalists know the best methods to extract the herbs and the standard dose to give.
Once the traditional healers and those with deep knowledge in tradition, and who have been prescribing herbs for decades, joined the course, Dr Lamwaka saw an opportunity of creating a data bank on herbal medicines.

It is from the data bank that Dr Lamwaka and other scientists at the university have been researching to develop drugs that can treat diseases.

Because the herbalists have been able to develop herbs that can manage chronic ailments such as ulcer, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes and sickle cell, especially when patients no longer respond to conventional medicine, Dr Lamwaka says they were optimistic to develop one the moment Covid-19 struck.

Faces behind Covilyce-1 drug

Dr Alice Lamwaka
She is the principal investigator in the development of Covilyce-1 and also the current head of the university’s Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Traditional Medicine Centre (Pharm-Biotrac).
She has been a lecturer and researcher at the university since 2012.

Between 2010 and 2016, she pursued a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Pharmaceutical Sciences (Pharmacogenomics) from Gulu University.

Dr Lamwaka holds a Bachelor in Pharmaceutical Studies and a Master in Clinical Pharmacy, both qualifications from Makerere University between 2006 and 2007.

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Some of her notable publications include The Visibility of Non-Communicable Diseases in Northern Uganda (2015), and Type-2 Diabetes Among People with Post-traumatic Stress Disorders (2015), among others.
She is currently working with a large team of 34 people to develop the Covilyce-1 drug.

Among them are Moses Agwaya (pharmacologist), Dr Richard Komakech (plant researcher), Dr Francis Omujal (chemist), Dr Innocent Acaye (chemist), and Prof Catherine Odora (indigenous knowledge expert). 

Others are Dr Richard Echodu (director of research laboratory), Dr Constantine Loum (nutritionist), Dr Opika Opoka (botany taxonomy).

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