BANGKOK -- A medicinal herb in Thailand that has been used since antiquity to relieve cold symptoms is now being promoted by the government as a way to relieve symptoms in mild cases of COVID-19.
Demand is so high for fah talai jone, also known as green chiretta, that the asking price multiplied by a factor of 10 this year. The military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha sees the crop as a means to curb discontent in farming communities.
People have turned to the plant for centuries to treat the symptoms of respiratory tract infections and alleviate painful coughs. But experts warn that its effectiveness in treating coronavirus infections may be overstated.
The frenzy for the fah talai jone traces back to a prison study. Due to a shortage of Avigan, the flu medication used to treat coronavirus patients, prison officials began experimenting with the herb on inmates with mild cases of COVID.
Thailand's Ministry of Justice reported that most of the inmates given fah talai jone saw an improvement in symptoms, driving demand for the herb as a cheap therapeutic substitute.
Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital, a state-run producer of herbal medicines, said its supplies of fah talai jone are not enough to meet the overwhelming demand. In August, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin ordered prisons around the country to cultivate the plant.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives came out with a scheme to plant fah talai jone in a 1,600-hectare plot of land in the Eastern Economic Corridor, a special economic zone east of Bangkok.
The market value for fah talai jone has risen to 500 baht (around $15) per kilogram from 50 baht in a span of roughly six months from the end of 2020, according to a research team at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.
The Ministry of Commerce said it will not move to control prices, citing the potential loss of incentive among farmers to grow the crop, which would put patients at a disadvantage.
The government looks to ameliorate the grievances among farmers by lifting their incomes. Rural areas represent the political base for the opposition Pheu Thai Party, a home for loyalists to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup.
The Pheu Thai Party has recently joined forces with the anti-government protest movement led by college students, whose demands include the resignation of Prayut. In response, the government is looking to win broader support from the rural citizenry, who represent about 40% of Thailand's population.
Flagging shipments of rice, a crop for which Thailand used to be the world's top exporter, have also contributed to the government's push for new money-makers.
"Thai herbs could become a new cash crop," said Thamanat Prompow, deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives. The Prayuth government has decriminalized medical marijuana and kratom as well, with an eye on possible commercial opportunities.
But critics say there is a lack of scientific evidence indicating that fah talai jone is effective against COVID-19, especially since it is usually given to patients with mild symptoms.
There needs to be more research and comparisons against control groups that never received the herb, a researcher at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok told the BBC.