The potential of a Cameroonian Functional Food, ‘Achu Soup’(Star Yellow) in managing the spread of Covid-19
As the world continues looking for ways of stopping the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 and containing the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that we all make this process easier for scientists by respecting the prescribed sanitation and social distancing prescriptions aimed at limiting transmission via nasal and respiratory secretions of infected persons. As researchers better understand aspects of the virus, there is now evidence of the occurrence and shedding of active COVID-19 virus in the stools of infected persons. The presence of live virus in stools indicates its presence in the human gastrointestinal tract, where there are trillions of other microorganisms (mainly bacteria of different species) comprising the human micro biome. The bacteria that make up the human micro biome are much larger than the SARS-CoV-2 and could serve as hosts to the virus, thereby helping its replication. Previous research work reported influenza virus’ (a relative of SARS-CoV-2) infection of the Streptococcus pneumonia (bacteria that causes respiratory tract infections) making respiratory tract infections worse. It is therefore possible that the human micro biome could serve as a good host of SARS-CoV-2. Eliminating the coronavirus from the gastrointestinal tract or stopping its replication will therefore provide an effective means of stopping the shedding of the active virus via feces, cutting out that potential route of transmission.
Presently there is no well-studied treatment, and an acceptable vaccine is not likely to be available in the short term. We have to bear in mind that this is a new virus, one that the human immune system had not been exposed to prior to the last few months of 2019. On the contrary, our micro biome has been with us from birth and is constantly changing based on the foods we are exposed to. This therefore means that the dietary habits of a people determine the bacteria that they host, as well as the functioning of their immune system and ability to manage certain infections. At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, maybe it is more important than ever before to pay more attention to what goes into our gastrointestinal tract, with the knowledge that our foods should be our most important medication.
Considering the variety and richness of the Cameroonian cuisine, it is likely that the micro biome of Cameroonians is just as rich and varied. Ascertaining the protective role of this micro biome, thus constitutes a major focus of our research work at the J & A Oben Foundation. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the J & A Oben Foundation has worked in collaboration with other researchers (Jude Bigoga, Guy Takuissu, Ismael Teta and Rose Leke) to investigate the potential of a fortified ‘Yellow Soup’ called ‘STAR YELLOW” to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 via feces. Star Yellow differs from the well-known Yellow Soup widely consumed and sold in restaurants by the addition of ground melon seed (egusi) and garlic, known for their high zinc content and antibacterial activity respectively. The high zinc content inhibits viral replication. As well as garlic’s antibacterial, antioxidant and anticoagulant activity, it’s high inulin content provides fuel for the growth of ‘good bacteria’ in the micro biome. As well as the presence of all the functional ingredients in Star Yellow, what makes it stand out is its chemistry, which though basic, could be important in the management of the spread of COVID-19. The initial steps in the preparation of Star Yellow involve the mixing of palm oil (a lipid) and limestone or sodium bicarbonate (a base) in the presence of water. This process in simple chemistry terms is referred to as ‘saponification’. SARS-CoV-2 is spherical and consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), lipids and proteins (spikes protruding from their surface giving the appearance of a crown). There are no strong bonds holding these units together, which means that even mild chemicals like Star Yellow will split them apart. Basically the Star Yellow will dissolve the fat membrane of the virus and the virus falls apart. If this process occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 is exposed to zinc from the diet that stops its replication, making the virus inactive.
If ongoing work by our research group turns out to be conclusive, Star Yellow could be useful in ridding the gastrointestinal tract of active viruses just as other products of saponification work on the skin. This could limit the spread of COVID-19 through feces in areas with poor hygienic conditions. The above reminds me of a conversation I had with the Late Professor Victor Anoma Ngu during which he said, “good science doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated science, but a good researcher should be able to find simple solutions to complex problems”. In the meantime, Cameroonians should protect themselves by washing their hands regularly, wearing protective masks, practicing social distancing and eating a balanced diet that will strengthen their immune system and provide a healthy micro biome.
*Professor Julius Oben is also Co-founder of the J&A Oben Foundation, Lead Researcher at its Nutrition and Dietetics Research Centre (CANDIREC), Supervisor of its Wellness and Nutrition Centre and Proprietor of its Professional School of Dietetics and Functional Foods (CEFOPDIET)