A Billion-Dollar Herbal Company Launched a 'COVID-19 Cure' in India. It Hasn't Gone Well.

The company's founder, Baba Ramdev, claims the product enjoys a success rate of 100 percent. Two state bans and a criminal complaint suggests otherwise.
June 29, 2020, 1:40am
baba ramdev covid-19 herbal medicine
In 2015 (the year of this photo), Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev faced controversy over a herbal drug that was seen as treatment for women who want to conceive sons. He later clarified that the tablets helped with infertility and not sex selection. Today, he faces controversy for claiming a COVID-19 cure. Photo courtesy of AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE India

Two state bans, a criminal complaint, and a whole lot of intense scrutiny over its scientific legitimacy. This is what an Indian herbal medicine company called Patanjali Ayurved has attracted after launching a “COVID-19 cure” on June 23.

Patanjali Ayurved is a company specialising in herbal and mineral supplements founded by an Indian yoga guru named Baba Ramdev, who is known for his significant political influence. But money and influence hasn't been enough to legitimise the company's so-called "cure".

It all began at a press conference in the north Indian temple town of Haridwar. There, Ramdev introduced a product they're calling Coronil, which comes in a kit containing pills and nasal drops of herbal oil. Patanjali announced the product would sell for INR 545 (US$7.21) and claimed that when using it “100 percent of COVID-19 patients recovered in seven days”. The company’s co-founder Acharya Balkrishna also chimed in to describe it as the “first evidence-based ayurvedic medicine for corona". [sic]

Only hours after the company's press conference, Coronil began trending on social media. While many people seemed to be celebrating the arrival of a "cure," the dominant response was one of cynicism.

Not long after, the Indian government’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) demanded the company stop publicising their claims. 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 then ordered an investigation into Coronil.

The company's co-founder and public face, Baba Ramdev, is known across India for his Hindu nationalism, political ambition, and close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with the country's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, it's there's some criticism of the way that Modi's rise to prominence has very neatly coincided with the soaring revenues of Ramdev's business, founded in 2006.

In only 10 years, Patanjali Ayurved went from peddling herbs from a pharmacy in Haridwar, to shifting huge numbers of herbal and mineral supplements in stores across the country. By 2016-2017, Patanjali Ayurved had surpassed the revenues of such market leaders such as Nestle, Colgate and Godrej.

In 2018, Ramdev claimed that by 2025, Patanjali will be the “largest fast-moving consumer goods brand in the world”.

Baba Ramdev with Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 elections. Ramdev was seen as a long-time supporter of PM Modi. Photo courtesy of AFP

Over this period, the company's rise to prominence has been indisputably aided by the government. For example, in 2017, a Delhi court banned a book that had detailed allegations of corruption by Ramdev. The yoga guru called the book “irresponsible, false, malicious content.”

Coronil is not even Patanjali Ayurved's first attempt to market a product as a "cure". Ramdev has previously put his name to medicines that can claim to reverse cancer and even homosexuality, which he describes as a mental disorder.

Despite these outrageous claims, Government officials have long maintained a deferential attitude towards Ramdev, who openly supported PM Modi during the 2014 elections.

But apparently this time the company has gone too far. After launching Coronil, government officials and ministries immediately distanced themselves from Ramdev, while the State Licensing Authority (SLA) of Uttarakhand said they only licenced the company to sell an immunity-booster and a treatment for cough and fever, but never for COVID-19.

In the ensuring pile-on, the Indian states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra have banned the sale of Coronil, while a criminal complaint has been lodged in the state of Bihar against Ramdev and his co-founder Acharya Balkrishna.

The company said it had previously conducted a clinical trial on 120 asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic and moderately symptomatic people, half of which were given Coronil, and the other half a placebo. In the document submitted to the Indian government, the symptomatic patients who were administered Coronil had became asymptomatic by the 14th day.

Dr Ganpat Devpura, the principal investigator of the clinical trials for Coronil has retaliated by saying that the trials were 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 on Coronil were either not conducted on humans, or were unsubmitted for peer-review.

In response, Acharya Balkrishna sent a report of “randomised placebo controlled clinical trials” to the AYUSH ministry to prove the legitimacy of their product. The company still insists that 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 traditional knowledge about such herbs as ashwagandha, giloy and tulsi.

"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 his business partner Acharya Balkrishna have previously claimed that neither of them draw a salary from Patanjali. Despite this claim, Balkrishna recently featured on the 13th spot in Hurun Global Rich List of 2019 despite “losing wealth by 45 percent”—apparently due to the fall of Patanjali Ayurved’s revenue and profits in the year proceeding COVID-19. According to Forbes, his real time net worth is around $1.2 billion. But while Ramdev claimed to not have any stake in the company, Balkrishna owns 98.5 percent.

In 2011, Balkrishna’s passport was seized by the Central Bureau of Investigation after he was accused of forging documents during the passport application process. 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 has previously been scrutinised by the income tax department, when a special audit was ordered 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.

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