Baa, Baa black sheep,
Do you have a cure?
Yes, sir, yes, sir
Three herbs pure…
One for the night,
And one for the day,
And one for the idiots
Who believe everything I say.
Baba Ramdev’s attempt to peddle a cure for COVID-19 could have been a worthy subject of a nursery rhyme if not for the sheer scale of its opportunism and the purported cure’s potential for harming millions of lives.
Selling a medical “cure” that’s not been rigorously tested for efficacy and safety is tantamount to fraud and malpractice that can endanger lives. It is a deplorable attempt at profiteering and propaganda in the middle of a pandemic. In most countries such acts are punishable under the extant laws and can lead to both financial penalties and incarceration.
On the face of it, Baba’s panacea appears to be another comical episode in Patanjali’s history of dubious claims. In the past, Ramdev’s FMCG-cum-pharma-cum-yoga enterprise has claimed cures for almost every ailment under the sun, including HIV, without bothering to proffer evidence. But, this time he seems to have gone too far even by Patanjali standards.
Launching the “cure” at a televised event earlier this week, Ramdev said his concoction will make every patient corona negative in seven days. His associate Balkrishna claimed it is the first and foremost evidence-based ayurvedic medicine against the coronavirus contagion. Coronil has been manufactured by Haridwar’s Divya Pharmacy and Patanjali Ayurved Limited, based on a joint research by the Patanjali Research Institute in Haridwar and the National Institute of Medical Science, Jaipur, Balkrishna claimed in a post.
But, the research seems to have been conducted in secret. The Rajasthan government has flatly denied any knowledge of the trial claimed to have been conducted in a private varsity in Jaipur. Similarly, the Uttarakhand government has said it did not grant permission for testing Ramdev’s corona kit on patients.
Moreover, as the Indian Express reported on June 25, the trial quoted by Patanjali was bit of a farce: “Most significantly, when mildly symptomatic patients developed fever during the trials, they were administered allopathic medicines. As it is, the trials were conducted only on asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients. Severely symptomatic patients and those with acute respiratory distress syndrome were excluded for enrolment.”
Thankfully, the government has intervened quickly to ensure that the claimed cure—Coronil—remains just a subject of memes till clinching evidence of its efficacy is submitted, examined, reviewed and the medicine is put through rigorous medical trials and checks.
When he appeared on TV screens across India to announce the cure, it seemed Ramdev was launching a toothpaste—a product that you buy off the shelf. He didn’t seem to know that every drug needs to be first trialled on a large group of patients, not just once but several times, across age groups, across demographic divides. Then, the results need to be published in a scientific or medical journal where they can be peer-reviewed. Only after this long, tedious, gruelling process is a drug considered for regulatory approval. But, Ramdev jumped all these mandatory steps to peddle a cure for a pandemic.
Since Baba is an expert in selling everything that has a viable market—from nationalism to desi ghee—it would have been a surprise if he had let the pandemic go by without seeing in it an opportunity to expand his market and influence. But, it would have been alright if Ramdev had claimed his concoction only strengthens the immune system but isn’t a guaranteed cure. In a country where many are likely to believe his claim that eggs are hen’s poop, or hair can be regrown by rubbing fingernails, or there are traces of gold in cow urine, there could have been a huge demand for Ramdev’s new pills.
In theory, anybody can cure coronavirus patients. This is because the disease caused by the virus is self-limiting in 95 per cent of the cases and requires aggressive intervention in just a small number of cases. So, according to the theory of probability, even if you were to sell a placebo as a cure, most patients would recover without any complication. Many quacks and fly-by-night pharmacists are taking advantage of this pattern and peddling a variety of cures. From saline gau mutra (cow urine) gargles to periodic sips of vodka, there is already a lot in the corona market. An immune-enhancer by Patanjali would have just added to this menu. But, to claim without proper scientific and medical evidence that the Patanjali kit is a guaranteed cure is a dangerous experiment on humanity.
Given his history of touting cures for a variety of ailments, political clout and following, it is quite likely Ramdev would have gotten away with this misadventure. In some other age not so long ago, soon after the announcement, the bhakt brigade would have called it a major victory for Vedic Indian knowledge and deified him with the hashtag #BabaisBhagwan. TV channels would have been playing on the loop interviews with the beatific Baba smiling from beard to beard, interrupted only by Patanjali ads.
But, since the entire world is closely following the pandemic and keeping track of developments in the medical world, all this would have provided nothing except comic relief to the world outside. India would have become a butt of global jokes if Baba were allowed to sell his (Ram)devisir as a guaranteed cure for COVID-19. So, we should be grateful to the pandemic for not letting the world laugh at Baba’s great Indian dope trick.
There is, of course, the possibility of Baba’s medicine actually being what it is—a cure—even if it is what Lauren Holly told Jim Carrey when asked what were his chances of ending up with a girl like her: one in a million. But even for that we need clinical trials and scientific data. Maybe, to begin with, Baba and his associate Balkrishna can personally volunteer for preliminary trials conducted under the lens of a qualified medical team. Whatever be the outcome of the trial, we’d at least have another rhyme for the ages:
Does it work?
Are you positive?
Ha ha ha…