Jan 15, 2021

Despite the massive global effort, no cure or vaccine has been found for the novel coronavirus. Instead, the dialogue surrounding the pandemic has turned into a pitched battle, essentially pitting Bible believers against those who claim that science, or their version of science, contains all the answers and the Bible is bereft of wisdom or truth. So it is a powerful testimony to the timeless wisdom of the Bible when a story in the Bible includes a detail that not only bears a moral message but also contains a clue to a possible treatment for a modern malady, a natural antimalarial like hydroxychloroquine that is being tested as a treatment for coronavirus.


In the Book of Exodus (15:22-26), the Bible describes how, directly after crossing through the miraculously divided Reed Sea, the Children of Israel were distressed at being without water for three days in the desert of Shur. They came to a place called Marah (bitter), presumably a spring or well, but could not drink the water as it was bitter. After praying to God, Moses was shown a piece of wood which he threw into the water, thereby sweetening the water.

And the people grumbled against Moshe, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. Exodus (15:24-25)

Jewish sources note that the “wood” was a plant that was bitter by nature, thus emphasizing the miraculous transformation. Rather than turning more bitter with the addition of the bitter plant, the waters became sweet. Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of midrashic (homiletic) literature, suggested that the wood might have been an olive branch, a willow branch, a pomegranate branch, or an oleander branch, all known for their extreme bitterness. Oleander would have been a shocking additive since the desert variety is poisonous to animals.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich, a prominent 16th century Torah scholar and Kabbalist who lived in Safed, suggested a different species of tree: Artemisia Judaica, known in the Bible as לענה (la’anah), which means “curse” in Hebrew. Many know the plant by its more common name: wormwood. 

Rabbi Alshich wrote that the incident was a parable that would teach the Jews an important lesson about the Torah they were about to receive at Mount Sinai. Just as adding bitter to bitter creating sweetwater was counterintuitive, many of the Torah laws were counterintuitive but would sweeten their lives nonetheless. 

It is interesting to note that a derivative of wormwood, Artemisinin, has been proven to be a superior antimalarial than quinine or its modern version, chloroquine, especially in poor countries where modern antimalarial drugs are often unavailable.

It is significant that the verse directly after the bitter waters incident describes Torah observance as preventing diseases.

He said, “If you will heed Hashem your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I Hashem am your healer.” Exodus 15:26


Another quinine derivative used in the treatment of Malaria has become both a hope and a source of debate during the recent pandemic: hydroxychloroquine. And like hydroxychloroquine, the ‘wood’ that Moses threw into the bitter waters is now being tested as a possible treatment for COVID-19. 

The Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in  Potsdam, Germany have been conducting tests to determine whether Artemisia annua plant extract and its artemisinin derivatives could eventually be used to fight the novel coronavirus.

Extracts were used from specially bred Artemisia annua plants developed and grown by ArtemiLife Inc, a company based in Kentucky, US. 

The study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, carried out in vitro tests using monkey lung cells. It treated the cells with the different formulations and then infected them with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 to determine the anti-viral activity. 

The two extracts resulted in less of the virus forming, with the ethanol and coffee found to be the most active. Pure artemisinin on its own did not provide much antiviral activity. 

“There is an effect, it is repeatable between laboratories,” said Klaus Osterrieder, who conducted the viral tests at the Free University of Berlin. The research was verified by a second laboratory in Denmark who carried out their own tests to ensure consistency of the results. 

Researchers found that the leaves of Artemisia extract showed anti-viral activity after being extracted with pure ethanol or distilled water. The anti-viral activity increased considerably when the ethanol extract was combined with coffee.

“I was surprised that Artemisia extracts worked much better as a derivative, and that adding coffee increased the anti-viral activity,” Klaus Osterrieder, professor of virology at the Free University, the German website, DW.com. There have been no clinical trials of the remedy.

The first phase of the trial will last a month, involving six patients being treated for 14 days, according to Jill Kolesar, an expert in pharmacy at the University of Kentucky.

Research has also been conducted into artemisia’s use in combatting HIV and its effectiveness against SARS, another type of coronavirus. 

The World Health Organization warns on its website that there is “no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be prevented or treated with products made from Artemisia-based plant material.”

Nonetheless, the WHO encourages testing of Artemisia as a possible treatment for COVID-19, especially in areas, like Africa, where modern medical alternatives may be less available.

“WHO recognizes that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an important role in providing care to populations. Medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 and should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects. Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world. Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical.”