The bad science and poor ethics of Patanjali’s Coronil research

Ramdev along with the union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan and Nitin Gadkari during the release of research papers on Patanjali Coronil medicine for Covid-19 in February. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times

On 19 February, Patanjali Ayurved, the packaged consumer goods company founded by self-styled yoga guru Baba Ramdev, announced the publication of a research paper on its COVID-19 medicine called Coronil. Doctors across India strongly protested both the manner in which the announcement was made—Harsh Vardhan, the union health minister, presided over it—and the company’s claim that the research showed Coronil was effective against COVID-19. Three days after the event, the Indian Medical Association issued a press release that said Patanjali’s claims amounted to “blatant deceiving of the people of the country.” A month later, the Pune Mirror reported, a law student in Pune filed a criminal case against Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna, the chairman of Patanjali Ayurved and an author of the Coronil study, on grounds of cheating, criminal conspiracy, and a malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. 

On 4 February, the journal Phytomedicine published  a paper describing a randomised control trial testing the efficacy of Patanjali’s Coronil kit. The study was authored by employees of Patanjali and doctors from the National Institute of Medical Sciences, a private medical college in Rajasthan. The kits consist of Coronil tablets made from ayurvedic herbs ashwagandhagiloy and tulsi. It also includes Patanjali’s swasari vati, which a mixture of more than a dozen medicinal herbs that is supposed to treat colds and coughs, and anu taila, which is another mixture of herbs pressed into an oil which the Patanjali website claims has “multifarious benefits.” The study’s purpose was to evaluate “the impact of traditional Indian Ayurvedic treatment regime on asymptomatic patients with COVID-19 infection.” 

The team conducted a double-blind randomised control trial. This means that volunteers were randomly assigned to either the treatment arm (in which they received medicines from the Coronil kit) or the placebo arm. Neither the research team nor volunteers themselves knew which arm they were in. The study’s endpoints were to test viral loads through RTPCR on days one, three and seven. The trial also tested levels of two types of proteins secreted by the immune system called cytokines—interleukin-6 or IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha or TNF-α—in the patients’ blood. In severe COVID-19 infections, sensitive immune systems have been found to respond in the form of cytokine storms that can produce severe, even fatal effects. Patanjali’s study also measured the levels of high sensitivity C-reactive protein or hs-CRP, which is produced by the liver when there is inflammation in the body.

According to the results, by day seven of the trial, hundred percent of the people in the treatment arm recovered compared to 60 percent in the placebo arm. Recovery was not measured by an eradication of symptoms alone but by virological clearance, which is when patients were clear of all virus as confirmed by RTPCR tests.