Two state bans, a criminal complaint and questions over scientific legitimacy. This is what happened when Patanjali Ayurved, an ayurvedic consumer goods company valued at US$471 million, launched its “COVID-19 cure” on June 23.
Founded by Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru with significant political influence in India, Patanjali Ayurved came under the scanner within hours of launching the “cure.”
At a press conference in the north Indian temple town of Haridwar—also home to the company’s headquarters—Ramdev said that “100 percent patients recovered in seven days” from the medicine. The company’s co-founder Acharya Balkrishna, called it the “first evidence-based ayurvedic medicine for corona (sic).”
Patanjali priced the cure, branded as Coronil and sold as a kit comprising pills, nasal drops and herbal oil, at INR 545 (US$7.21).
The sensational claims spread like wildfire, even on social media, where celebrations, as well as critical memes, started trending. “The whole world has been waiting for someone to develop a medicine for coronavirus,” said Ramdev at the Haridwar launch.
Within a few hours of the announcement though, the Indian government’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) told the company to stop publicising the claims of COVID-19 cure. In a statement, it said that the “facts of the claim and details of the stated scientific study are not known to the Ministry.” It also ordered a probe into the product.
Ramdev is known for his political ambitions, close relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Hindu nationalist leanings. His rise to prominence has coincided with the soaring revenues of his business, founded in 2006.
Patanjali Ayurved went from developing herbal medicines from its pharmacy in Haridwar to launching fast-moving consumer (FMCG) goods in the 2010s. By 2016-2017, Patanjali Ayurved had “disrupted” the FMCG market by surpassing revenues of market leaders like Nestle, Colgate and Godrej.
In 2018, Ramdev claimed that by 2025, Patanjali will be the “largest FMCG brand in the world”.
In 2017, a Delhi court banned a book that detailed, among others, alleged corruption and murder by Ramdev. The yoga guru called the book “irresponsible, false, malicious content.”
This is not the first controversial cure developed by Patanjali Ayurved. Ramdev has gone from advocating yoga to claiming to develop medicines for cancer and homosexuality, which he calls a mental disorder.
Government officials have long maintained a certain deferential attitude towards Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved due to his open support for PM Modi during the 2014 elections.
With Coronil, however, officials and ministries immediately distanced themselves from Ramdev. The State Licensing Authority (SLA) of the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, where Ramdev’s headquarters are located, said they only gave Patanjali approval for products to boost immunity and treat cough and fever, not COVID-19 treatment.
A team of scientists apparently ran simulations and identified compounds that can “fight the virus and stop its spread in the body”. “Then, we conducted a clinical case study on hundreds of positive patients and we have got 100 per cent favourable results,” said Balkrishna at the press conference.
The company said it conducted the study on 120 asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic and moderately symptomatic people, half of which were given Coronil, and the other half, placebo. In the document submitted to the Indian government, the symptomatic patients who were administered Coronil had turned asymptomatic by the 14th day.
Dr Ganpat Devpura, the principal investigator of the clinical trials for Coronil, said that the trials for the products are still incomplete. “It is an interim report. So calling it a cure is simply wrong,” he said. Dr Sumaiya Shaikh, the founding editor of fake news-busting website Alt News Science, found that the studies cited to prove the efficacy of the medicines were either not conducted on humans, or were not peer-reviewed.
In response, Balkrishna sent a report of “randomised placebo controlled clinical trials” to the AYUSH ministry to prove the legitimacy of the product. The company still insists the drug breaks no laws.
The company’s spokesperson Tijarawala SK tweeted on June 25 that the license of the drug was obtained from the SLA of Uttarakhand on the basis of the traditional knowledge of herbs like ashwagandha, giloy and tulsi that make up Coronil.
"Manufacture and sale of medicine is carried out as per the rules laid down by the government and not in accordance with someone's personal belief or ideology," the tweet said.
Both Ramdev and Balkrishna have previously claimed that they do not draw any salaries from Patanjali. Balkrishna, however, featured on the 13th spot in Hurun Global Rich List of 2019 despite “losing wealth by 45 percent” due to the fall of Patanjali Ayurved’s revenue and profits that year. Forbes states his real time net worth to be $1.2 billion. Ramdev claimed to not have any stake in the company; Balkrishna owns 98.5 percent.
In 2011, Balkrishna’s passport was seized after the Central Bureau of Investigation accused him of forging documents while applying for the passport. In 2012, he was booked in a money laundering case, which was eventually dropped in 2014 because the Enforcement Directorate found no evidence.
Patanjali Ayurved itself came under the scanner of the income tax department, when they demanded a special audit due to the “complexity in their accounts.” In March 2020, the company was fined INR 75.08 crore (approx US$ 9,913,850) for not passing on benefits of goods and services tax rate reduction to consumers, and, instead, increasing the price of its washing powder.
Patanjali has been looking to launch its own e-commerce platform, meant to supply only “swadeshi” or homegrown products. Reports say Patanjali is expecting 20 percent of the revenues through its e-commerce website in the next two-three years.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE IN.