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South African scientists hope to make COVID-19 breakthrough in Medicinal Plant Research

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By Ashok Ramsarup :: Several South African scientists have joined forces in the hope of identifying bioactive compounds from local plants in the treatment against the deadly SARS-Cov-2. The scientists are from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) situated in the port city of Durban.

The first phase of the research project entitled, ‘Identification of potential SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors from South African medicinal plant extracts using molecular modeling approaches’ featured in the South African Journal of Botany.

According to the report, SARS-CoV-2 had triggered a recent pandemic of respiratory disease now called COVID-19 with no specific anti-viral drug or vaccine for the treatment of this pandemic. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the deadly corona-virus claimed a dozen more lives and more than 1 555 new infections. The latest figures pushed up South Africa’s Covid-19 death toll to almost 15 953 related deaths and infections surpassed 771 211.

Professor Mahmoud Soliman, Dr Depika Dwarka, Professor Himansu Baijnath, Professor Jason Mellem, and Mr Clement Agoni. (From L to R)

The report said most treatment strategies focused on symptomatic and supportive therapy. It said several drug discovery efforts were currently ongoing for potential treatment agents, with medicinal plants gradually gaining prominence.

About 80% of the South African population was still using traditional medicines to meet their primary needs. For the study, the plant species chosen were selected based on their use in traditional medicine for fighting the common cold, flu, respiratory infections, and malaria, among other ailments and diseases.

UKZN’s Professor Mahmoud Soliman who is the Dean and Head of the School of Health Sciences and head of the Molecular Bio-Computation and Drug Design Laboratory said: “During the first stage of the research, we found 29 compounds that are present in South African indigenous plants that are being used for traditional medicinal purposes.

“The process that entailed molecular modeling identified Arabic acid, L-canavanine, uzarin, and hypoxoside to be ‘favorable for the treatment of the virus’,” Professor Soliman stated. He is working closely with his doctoral student and laboratory assistant, Mr Clement Agoni on the project.
A leader of the project, UKZN alumnus Dr. Depika Dwarka of DUT’s Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology, expressed optimism that the study was the first to scientifically examine local indigenous plants for treatment against the coronavirus.

Dr Dwarka cited that the next stage of the research was underway. “We are focusing on the In vitro antiviral activity of the compounds identified as potential inhibitors.

“If the study secures promising results, further research will be conducted using animal modules. Consequently, these compounds will serve as a starting point for the discovery of a novel SARS-CoV-2 therapeutic,” added Dr Dwarka.

Among the research team are DUT’s Professor Jason Mellem and UKZN’s Professor Himansu Baijnath, who is an honorary research professor and past curator of the Ward Herbarium at the School of Life Sciences on the Westville campus.

Ashok Ramsarup is award-winning senior journalist of South Africa 🇿🇦

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