Interviewed for Desert Island Discs by Simon Kasyate on Sunday, Prof PATRICK ENGEU OGWANG talks about his wonder drug, Covidex, and how President Museveni followed its successes keenly before approval by NDA last month. Excerpts:
Kasyate: You are the man on whom many hopes lie. Where are we with this Covidex. What is Covidex?
Well, Covidex is a gift from God. Because first, it is made from nature. Interestingly, those two main plants can only be found in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. One of them is called Z. Gilleti and the other one is Warburgia Ugandensis; it even has the name Uganda on it.
In Ateso, we call one eusuk. In Runyankore, it’s called omutatembwa. In Luganda, it’s called entale-ddungu, something like that. The other one, in our place we call it abaji. In Ankole, it’s called omwiha. In Luganda, it’s Mukuzannume, something like that.
These are the two plants that I actually developed. I had deeply studied them for over 17 years.
What made you pick interest in these particular plants, only to show up 17 years later as wonder formulas?
I studied pharmacy for my bachelor’s degree and when studying pharmacy, there is a subject called pharmacognosy; it’s the study of drugs from natural sources. All drugs that we have now, had their origin in nature. Whether ARVs, whether antimalarials, whatever drugs you may talk about, it has a link to nature.
I used to be good at pharmacognosy and my lecturers Dr Onegi and the late Dr Kavuma liked me for that. Growing up, my single mother always had all those herbs above the fireplace. With some soot, the medicine would remain safe and fresh. Whenever I used to have a sickness, whether measles, which is caused by a virus, malaria, or stomach problems, she would go to the fireplace.
She would scrub the herb, boil water, put it in a cup, give you to drink morning and evening; two days, you were back to school. I remember we never used to go to clinics and hospitals frequently. The only time I would go to hospital was due to anaemia. Other diseases – malaria, cough, diarrhoea, mummy would treat us from home.
Were you ever vaccinated against the so-called six killer diseases?
Definitely, because it was mandatory. But I was around five or six years, they were vaccinating, I tried to run away from vaccination [laughs]. The whole village chased me to have vaccination [laughs]. Vaccination is good because it protects us from many diseases.
But, what particular thing triggered you to have interest in those plants, out of many other plants?
The problem with studies at school was that we were learning European medicines, European plants. When you come out of pharmacy school, you cannot apply [them]. But when I was doing my master’s, I joined the Natural Chemotherapeutical Research Institute in Wandegeya led by Dr [Grace] Nambatya.
I went to her and told her, ‘I like research in natural medicines, can I get opportunity to work here? I just want to volunteer’. She said, ‘it’s okay. We shall soon be recruiting people; President Museveni has given orders for us to recruit scientists’.
When they advertised, I applied. And I [ joined] on merit. There, I began interactions with Ugandan herbalists. I interacted with so many Ugandan plants, and I remembered this eusuk and others we were using when we were young. So, working in that place gave me the applicability of the class knowledge into Ugandan practical situations.
Now, one of my half-brothers has a sickle cell child. The child used to do badly when he was young. So, I said, why can’t I look for something to help this boy? I began researching on eusuk. I read a paper by Nigerians about a similar plant they were using to treat sickle cells. I started studying this eusuk and I published a paper on it.
Then I made a formula for this young man. It doesn’t cure, but this boy is now coming to 30 years, without any other intervention. I called that medicine Jena SM because my mother was called Jena; I call most of my medicines Jena. The boy stopped getting painful crises. He is not cured, but he is alive and coping. From there, many people got to know of this medicine. Many children, actually very many in Uganda are living because of these hands of mine.
How then did it metamorphose into treating Covid?
You know, plants have several compounds in them; one plant can have over 200 compounds. What’s most important is how you extract them, organize them to handle a particular disease.
Knowing that this plant has antiviral properties, which in the villages are used against measles and certain coughs, and since Covid is a virus, I thought the two could be linked. One of my friends, an American professor I had invited to come to Mbarara University [of Science and Technology – MUST] to help us develop a certain programme.
He had to leave everything and come live at MUST, to begin a new programme in clinical pharmacy. He came without pay. One time, as he came to the burial of my uncle, he had contact with someone with Covid, and caught it. [This was] during the first wave.
He was badly off; he was admitted at hospital. He was put on oxygen. It was a personal guilt for me; I asked myself, if this American dies here, he has come on his own, he has no family here, how am I going to handle it? It was a real pain on my heart. Every time I went to see him in hospital, I knelt and prayed for this man.
But one day God put it in my heart, that ‘that formula there, which you are using for wounds in the mouth, dental pain, could help this man’; because, Covid stays in your nose, and in your throat; that’s where it multiplies itself initially before it goes to the lungs. If you can handle it from the nose and throat, you have weakened it.
[I told my friend] ‘You use it in addition to your usual medicines; drop it in your mouth, three times a day’. I gave it to him like on Monday and went to Kampala. Wednesday, he calls me and tells me, “I am much better, and I think I will be discharged on Friday”. I was surprised. On Friday he called and said, “I have been discharged”.
I went on Saturday, and found he had paid his bills. His lung was deteriorating; but now [it was okay]. His colleague they shared a car with also had Covid, but he was not in hospital. He called me: ‘Professor, I hear you have something... Can
I come you give me too?’
He came and I gave him two bottles. The professor had used only one bottle. Three to five bottles are enough for anyone to recover. So, the man takes it, quickly recovers and tests negative.
That was last December. Now Covid had gone down, and I had forgotten the formula. This year in March, a friend called Petronilla, stays in Entebbe; I normally give her my medicines for different diseases.
She was like, “Professor, don’t you have something for Covid? My friend is badly off and he is on oxygen. The father is just crying.”
I told her, “There is a formula I am developing, but I have not finished it or labeled it. Just go to my lab in Entebbe, the boys there will mix for you. But I had forgotten the exact formula”. I told the boys, “pick this and this, mix and give her six bottles”. There was not even a label. I told her, “You really know me, you trust me; you just go with it to the patient.”
Two days later, she called and told me the patient was already off oxygen. Three days more, she told me, the patient has been discharged!
So, I assembled my team at Mbarara. When Covid began, government called on scientists to come forward and be supported. I was one of those who came out, but I was ignored at the beginning. People were given money, [but] I wasn’t. But then minister of Science and Technology Dr Elioda [Tumwesigye], knowing me very well, called me and said, “I know you are working, could you help us with this problem? We haven’t gotten money, but we have some small money for you.”
My colleagues urged me to apply. So, I assembled a team and we wrote a small proposal to validate three formulas we wanted to test. Elioda gave us money around April this year. We began working around beginning of June this year. I assembled my team: Oloro Joseph, a student of pharmacology; Ajayi Clement from Nigeria; Angupale Jimmy from Arua, and Kaawa Ivan doing a master’s under me.
I told them, “You people, we don’t have time. We have treated three people with this thing and it has worked. Covid has started [again], we need to generate new data afresh”.
In two weeks, we had all the necessary data. I pushed the students to work day and night. But they are smart students...!
Within that time, my cousin in Namugongo, called Andrew Ebyau sent me a message, “Professor, we are dying: me, my wife and daughter. We are all down with Covid.” I was very busy in the lab.
The wife also called me, “Doctor, we are going to die! I am on oxygen, I can’t even talk.” I almost cried. So, I told [another cousin], “Go to Entebbe, there are some samples there we are testing in the lab. Take for Andrew 15 bottles!”
The following day, Andrew sent me a message saying, “Professor, I am out of danger, I think.” Just after 24 hours! I called the wife, Sarah, after two days. I was shocked! The lady was thanking God and thanking me [laughs].
I said, “Lord, now there are six people we have treated!” [I told my team,] to move quickly, look for this compound, run this toxicity study, run this phytochemical analysis. I formed three teams; and these people worked.
So, I sent NDA [National Drug Authority] an email that we are working on something quickly; as soon as I finish collecting data, I will send you information. So that you can have me notified and registered. Then on Thursday or Friday the other week, there is a free-knowledge educational forum for Itesot.
They posted saying, “Professor tell us what you are researching on and anything on Covid.”
I just posted a WhatsApp message saying, I have been developing drugs for ABCD, and I work on Covidex for corona. Then they began circulating it. Oh my goodness, that one brought hell for us. It just went viral, and then one of the people posted the bottle. Ooh, it became a problem for me.
People began calling me: “I’m dying of Covid!” But we have not submitted to NDA yet. But people are dying. I organized my team and said, “What do we do?” I had opened a line in Kampala, but demand was going to overwhelm Kampala. I said let us open another production line at the university; I will show you how to produce it so that we can have two production lines. But it was not accepted.
So, I [decided to] go sort the line in Kampala; I could not [watch] Ugandans die like this. I drove to Kampala and told my people, “Let’s just switch on production!”
That same day I got a call from NDA: “Professor, we want to meet you on Monday [laughs].”
I said, now, I know NDA; they are going to close me down immediately. They are going to close my factory because they are not aware about this product, and yet everybody is talking about it, that it is helping people. I was crying, not because my factory is going to be closed but because people are going to die yet I could have saved them.
That very Friday, a friend of mine whose child was down also took it and the child got better within a few days. Even the person in ICU in Nsambya I had sent it to was improving. So, I called a friend, saying, “On Monday, Covidex will be no more. NDA is going to close us!”
She said, “No, no, no! This cannot happen!” I was crying. An old man like me crying tears! She said, “Let me see what I can do.”
In two hours, the president of Uganda was calling me.
The president of Uganda?
Yes! I just picked, and a voice said, “We are from the switchboard of the president; Mzee wants to talk to you.” Haa! I said, God, you are good! So, he talks to me; a very intelligent man. He asked me so many questions. It was my first time to talk to him!
Well, when I was in S5 in St Mary’s College Kisubi, his son Kainerugaba Muhoozi was in that school; we were in the same house, Mugwanya House. He was in S6, I was in S5, and we were in the same long room. I took like two weeks without knowing I was sleeping in the same room with a president’s son.
I’m just a funny person who gets lost in my own thing. I have that problem; I just focus on one thing and I don’t know what is taking place in the environment.
So, you don’t know what people are saying about Covidex?
I don’t know [laughs]! I only [read] a few messages. Anyway, one day the president came for the PTA day. I had designed a very good experiment, in Physics, of generating electricity from oranges [laughs]. So, I was selected to demonstrate to the president. When he came, I put my two oranges there, and electrodes and then the voltmeter to measure the voltage. That’s how I met him that time. But now, I am no longer in physics.
Let’s go back to the president’s call...
When the president called me, I stopped crying. He asked me, are you Dr Ogwang? And I said yes. Where are you from... all those things. Then he was like, “I am told you say you make medicine for Covid?” Then I am like, “Yes, Mr President.” “How do you know that it works?”
I gave him the history: how we used this plant when we were young, for treating measles and coughs.
He gave you that much time?
He listened to me; he is a very patient man, very kind really. At his age, he follows things to dots. I told him how I was using it when I was young, how I have been studying it for 17 years in the lab, its safety, how we can use it for malaria and other diseases, and how I had made the formula for some disease.
I said, “Last year when Covid came and some friends fell sick, I gave them and they recovered. This year in May, a friend called me and said his friend was badly off, I gave him and he had recovered. Even three or four days ago, my cousin and his wife who were down totally, they also recovered.”
He said, “OK, give me their numbers.” I gave him the numbers, and he called them himself, to establish the truth.
He said, “I will call you tomorrow at 10 o’clock”; at 10 o’clock, he called. He asked me more questions; the science of the medicine, how does it work, what are the plants in it. Then he asked me, what support do you need?
I told him, “Mr President, I want security, especially for the factory and my family.” I told him I was fearing NDA [laughs]. And then, I want capacity, to be expanding. We want to expand production because this thing is working, it is helping people but the factory is small.
He said, “I am going to link you to (deputy IGP) Gen Lokech for the security and [State house comptroller] Madam [Lucy] Nakyobe to handle your finances. See you tomorrow! Bye bye!”
He kept on calling me every day; he would call me to follow up the matter. Then I recalled I was going to meet these [NDA] people. So, I said let me go and take a Covid test. I went with my wife in the morning and we did the test. I got the results the following day.
But by evening, I was getting weak, a lot of saliva in my mouth, no smell for food. I was taking some of my medicine for prevention, but some days I would forget. So, I am like, this might be real Covid. I said let me start on my own strict dose that same Monday I was supposed to meet NDA people.
My wife was like, “Professor, you must take modern medicine.” I was like, “I am not going to take modern medicine. I will only take Covidex; let it cure me and I will see if it works.”
When results came on Tuesday, they confirmed that I had Covid. So, I put myself on a dose of Covidex and Vitamin C and antibiotics; that is all I used. Then Nakyobe called me on Tuesday and I said, “I cannot meet you because I am unwell also; this virus has attacked me.”
She said, “Professor, use your medicine and first cure yourself.” I said, “Yes I am using my medicine; let it first cure me then I can come and meet you.”
When the president called me, I was open to him. He asked, “Are you using your medicine?” I said, “Yes. And I am using Vitamin C.”
“You are not using a modern formula?” I am like, “No.”
It did not put me down; I just stayed at home for 10 days. For the first two days, my oxygen levels were around 94 and 95. I felt a little bit of increased heart rate, and no appetite, a lot of mucus in the mouth. Within two days, my mucus disappeared, my airways were open, fever did not come, and cough did not come.
No cough at all; the medicine was working perfectly. No Zinc, no Hedex, no all those things. I was just taking my Covidex, Vitamin C, fruit juice with ginger and so on, and another formula to boost my immunity. By day four, my appetite came back, I began eating, and energy began coming back.
By day five, I began exercises at home, walking around. Day six, I was playing football. Day seven, I could jog around. I tested on day ten, and I was negative.
So, the president called me. He kept on following me every day. When he called, he asked, “Did you test?”
I said, “Yes, and I am negative.” He was so happy, so happy! “You used our medicine?” he calls it ‘medicine from Kumam’ [laughs].
And I was like, “Yes!” I never used Azithromycin and all those other drugs they recommend. “So, it means all the drugs you have used, we can make them locally here?” The president was so happy! I also felt very happy in my heart; at least it had treated me, myself!
You see, when you fight a disease, it also fights you. The first Chinese doctor who warned the world about Covid-19, Li Wen Liang - it killed him. It had come out to kill me, but Covidex knocked it out [laughs]! I am 48 years now. So, I am also in the risk bracket. And I am not vaccinated completely; I have had only one shot.
So, eventually the president said this can work?
He did not say that, but he confirmed when I took it myself. He said, “No, quickly go and link up with Nakyobe. She can help you to expand. Up to now I am still waiting, anyway. But we have tried to expand production. Then I met NDA, one of them was so tough on me, but they all know me because I was the president of pharmacists in the country for the last four years, and while I was there, I actually initiated the project of sanitizers by PSU [Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda], to fight Covid.
Even in Mbarara, we had started on that because I want to completely defeat this disease. Sanitizers had become so expensive; so, we set up a production line at Mbarara University to supply the west at low cost, and PSU to supply Kampala and other regions. And we managed to completely bring down the price of sanitizers.
So, [NDA] said, “The only mistake you have made is not to bring your documents to us.” I said, “I know the law. But I was running against time.” I told them I am a professional, but this is like a time of life and death. It would have taken about three months to review.
But somehow, when I posted on WhatsApp, it became viral, people began demanding. Then they asked me for some data, and I submitted it to them, 10 more files. My team had generated a lot of data from Mbarara University. In 21 days, I gave them all data they required, more than they actually required for approval.
The following day, they sat and approved it. They even went and inspected the factory. They inspected it again the second time; they were very strict this time because [laughs] they wanted to be sure. They checked all the files, and gave us a go-ahead. So, that’s the story of Covidex.
A very interesting story, Patrick. But it’s a story that comes from a point of empathy on your part, a story of understanding the need to save lives before we go to the legalese and the red tape.
Yes, I had to take a risk of going to prison, being defrocked, but save people. And one thing I did, I said I want this thing as cheap as possible. I really feel terrible for our country. There are people who don’t have to ask for money. In the factory, we began with Shs 3,000 for the 20ml bottle.
We are now at only Shs 5,000, the factory price. I have resisted suggestions to increase the price. But I hear of [retail at] Shs 20,000, even of Shs 100,000. People should sell at Shs 10,000 maximum. Why sell at 100,000? Honestly, that’s greed.
There is another even bigger worry: the counterfeit.
Yes, right now, that’s the biggest challenge. But, we are emphasizing, buy from the pharmacy or an NDA-licensed outlet. We supply pharmacies; pharmacies and licensed offshore places cannot buy medicine hawked by people. Pharmacies have to keep records.
NDA are also moving around everyday picking samples and carrying out surveillance. And they keep informing me. When they find discrepancies, they tell me. They spotted a change in label and asked me. I said, “Yes, we changed it because of regulation aspects. We changed the first label because UNBS advised us to change. Until now, I am very sure there is no fake Covidex. If you go to a pharmacy, you will not get a fake one. Also, I am working with Multiplex; I am going to meet them today to put a QR code, so you can use your phone to scan it and it shows you this is genuine Covidex.
Secondly, we are working with the local government to have a mould of our logo of Jena imprinted on the bottle. For someone to make a fake one, they must first go and make the same mould, which is not an easy task. Otherwise we catch you, we know that you forged.
But also, we must increase production immediately. We started with around like 10,000 units per day, but now we are about 30,000 per day.
What sort of facility do you have in Entebbe? Is it a private facility?
It’s a private facility. You see, I have been with a dream of a drug company for a very long time. So, I have been using my little resources and some of the funding I get from research. Whenever I get money from research, I don’t buy land or build houses; I buy machines.
The good thing is, 90 per cent of the machines I use are made locally by Ugandans. I can take you there one day and you see. I sit down with my engineer, Ambrose; I tell him what I want, and we make our own machines. So, even now with lockdown, we don’t need to import machines.
In Entebbe, are you renting land?
No, I bought a small plot at Akright, here in Kakungulu, and I built it into a factory. It is meant to be like a laboratory for making medicines. The first floor is the factory. The second and third floors are not yet finished. It’s an unfinished place, but I love it because that is where Covidex is coming from [laughs]. A very humble place, but it has good things inside. I have about 50 people working there.
There is another challenge I see: big pharma and the hegemony in the world.
Yeah, you see, this is very big business. And it’s a disease that killed them a lot; you know how Europeans and Americans died. So, who are you to say that you have a cure for it? Of course they are going to come with all their big guns. But
the good thing is, everything we use in Covidex, we get it locally, from A to Z.
Maybe the bottles, which I think are from Kenya. But the medicine itself, everything in it, there is nothing we import. So, they can’t stop us from making it for ourselves.
These plants, are you getting their seedlings so that they can be farmed?
Two of them are grown; I even grow some. The third one, the one we get from the forests, takes years to grow. But it is so abundant in Uganda; it can even supply the entire world for 10 years. Almost all forests in Uganda have it. The president called [Environment minister] Betty Anywar who liaised with her permanent secretary and enabled me to meet the National Forestry Authority boss, Tom [Obong] Okello.
He gave me a letter and I am discussing with him availability of the plant. He said, “Ah, this plant is available in the forests. Whatever amounts you want, we shall work with you to provide for the nation.”
Also, now we are beginning researching on what is called tissue and cell culture, which can be done in a small room like this one to produce those compounds. You get the plant material, the cells, and multiply them in the lab. So, they produce the active compounds in a small space. If it becomes successful, then we shall not have to be going to forests.
Two of the plants, we use leaves. The third one, we remove a part of the bark. You know the bark is like a skin. We just cover the tree, and the bark grows again. So, we don’t cut the tree.
Transcribed by John Musinguzi