There is urgent need to focus on alternative, easily available sources; natural products consumed as spices and food can be a better choice
The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 continues to upend lives across the world, but its severity seems to be much less in India, where the recovery rate seems to be better than that of other countries.
Studies on clinical COVID-19 patients have stressed on the importance of rapid T-cell response to keep the disease at bay. Reduced T-cell activity in the peripheral blood is linked to increased progression of diseased condition, while a good response helps in speedy recovery from the virus.
T-cells, the soldiers that fight the invading viruses, cannot get biologically active unless presented to the pathogen along with the Human Leukocyte Antigen genes (comprises the major histocompatibility complex).
Thus, polymorphism within this gene complex can be attained during the lifetime of an individual while being exposed to an array of different pathogen loads.
Thus, Indians usually possess a high diversity of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, a group of related proteins responsible for regulating the immune system, and their novel alleles due to the high microbial load encountered and which results in viral fitness.
Second, most Indians have broad-based immunity due to extensive vaccination against the prevalent tropical diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, etc. India is supremely diverse in terms of geography, climate, ethnicity and food habits as well.
Perhaps, there is a hope to control the pandemic with our high genetic diversity, broad-based immunity and most importantly, food habits. Combating SARS-CoV-2 by the development of a vaccine poses additional burden, especially for a poor country like India that has a huge population of over 1,300 million people.
Immuno-compromised people with poor nutritional status or pre-existing non-communicable diseases, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are more prone to COVID-19. Mortality is often reasoned due to extreme systemic inflammation and release of cytokine storm.
Thus, identification of low-cost anti-inflammatory agents should be fast-tracked to dampen the cytokine storm.
Food and spices
There is also an urgent need to focus on alternative sources that are easily available. Natural products that are consumed daily as spices and food, therefore, can be a better choice.
Indians have used a variety of herbs and spices in their daily diet that are now proclaimed to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties.
The popular practice of consuming a glass of hot milk with turmeric or a cup of spiced-tea with ginger and black pepper has long been proclaimed to be effective against the seasonal influenza virus, which, in certain ways is similar to the deadly coronavirus.
Both these viruses have similar presentations and are transmitted by contact, droplets or fomites. Although influenza virus is known to have shorter median incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) and a shorter serial interval (the time between successive cases), COVID-19 seems to be deadlier.
The revered ancient sage, Suśruta, in his classic work on Ayurveda (Suśrutasaṃhitā sūtrasthāna XXXVIII), had pronounced that Trikaṭú — dry ginger, black pepper and long pepper — work as a potent drug in respiratory function by helping us get rid of excess mucous from the body.
The popular belief is that Trikaṭú spices along with turmeric powder boosts immunity against influenza virus.
Several immune-modulating compounds are being tested against COVID-19. One is hydroxychloroquine, which interferes with the terminal glycosylation of the ACE2 cell receptor, a major pathway in COVID-19 cell entry.
How Trikaṭú helps fight COVID-19
How curcumin helps
On the other hand, curcumin presents both direct and indirect antiviral activity against the HIV by inhibiting virus replication or blocking inflammatory pathways operating in the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
Using the best rationale to look for evidence about the therapeutic effects of turmeric in COVID-19, we can do an exercise on Hill’s causality criteria.
Countries which are known to consume turmeric on regular basis show similar pattern based on the incidence map and high strength of association.
There is a near symmetry between laboratory reports and the epidemiological outcomes given that curcumin in turmeric apparently down regulates ACE2 gene receptor expression.
It might well be speculated that curcumin can be of help against COVID-19 by down-regulating ACE gene expression. Nevertheless, we cannot make any claims on the specificity or biological gradient, that is, the dose-response relationship.
The yellow pigment of turmeric has the curcuminoid curcumin as the principal bioactive element that possess multi-faceted health benefits. Recently, this spice gained popularity as an anti-viral agent against several newly emerging viruses like Zika virus (ZIKV) and chikungunya virus (CHIKV).
In the past, this molecule was shown to be effective against herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), hepatitis viruses (HBV), human papilloma virus (HPV) and even human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
The mode of action of curcumin is noted to inhibit the viruses not only at the entry point by blocking ligand-receptor binding, but by blocking replication and gene expression. Although curcumin possesses antioxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, it is highly insoluble and poorly absorbed by the body.
A combination therapy with Trikaṭú, therefore, enhances its medicinal value. Piperine in pepper slows the breakdown of curcumin in the liver, thus helping its absorption through the intestine and increases its level in bloodstream.
It is noteworthy to point out that four out of the six studies showing bioactivity of curcumin have employed piperine to overcome bioavailability challenges. Similarly, ginger has the natural active component gingerol, which belongs to the same family of compounds as curcumin of turmeric.
Due to their similarity in chemical structure, both mediate protection against inflammation and oxidative damage, and are thus synergistic to each other and act as potent anti-inflammatory agents.
Tough times present tough problems that demand exigent policies. Health authorities worldwide are struggling to decide the best way to prevent people from getting the infection and the attitudes to preserve lives.
At this point in time, adding ginger to our tea or turmeric to our meal won’t do any harm.
Soma M Ghorai is associate professor, Department of Zoology, Hindu College, Delhi University
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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