Alternative treatments for coronavirus: can traditional Chinese medicine and herbs help?
Certain herbs and ancient practices could help protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus or relieve its symptoms, according to the Chinese government and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. But these claims come with little scientific evidence, leaving many to wonder if they work.
Some of the supplements and herbs listed in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine Suggestions for use to treat and / or prevent coronavirus include:
- Astragalus radix (Huangqi),
- Radix glycyrrhizae (Gancao),
- Radix saposhnikoviae (Fangfeng),
- Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae (Baizhu),
- Lonicerae Japonicae Flos (Jinyinhua) and
- Fructus forsythia (Lianqiao)
China’s Xinhua News Agency published an article about Qingfei Paidu soup, for example, made with ephedra and licorice root, among other ingredients. A TCM hospital director told reporters the brew was effective in treating symptoms in hundreds of COVID-19 patients, but those claims have not been verified by researchers or reporters outside of China.
Some doctors say that certain alternative complementary treatments like those in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are unlikely to do any harm, as long as you continue to follow evidence-based treatment protocols for your condition and tell your doctor doctor whatever you take. If Chinese herbal remedies ease your symptoms and you don’t mind spending the money, some TCM treatments may be harmless.
But the US National Institutes of Health warns that not only are the claimed treatment benefits inconclusive, some herbal products and TCM supplements can also be adulterated with pesticides, industrial chemicals, prescription pharmaceuticals or herbs and other mislabelled substances.
“Studies of Chinese herbal products used in traditional Chinese medicine for a range of medical conditions have had mixed results,” says the NIH on its page on Traditional Chinese Medicine. “Because many studies have been of poor quality, no firm conclusions can be drawn as to their effectiveness.”
In addition, public health experts have warned for years that Chinese government propaganda to promote traditional Chinese medicine could worsen epidemics. These declarations are becoming more urgent in light of the spread of COVID-19 on several continents.
Does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Work?
While some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practices have shown some benefit in relieving symptoms for a variety of conditions, most of the evidence for the effectiveness of the popular practice is inconclusive, according to the NIH. Even studies that show real benefits describe marginal improvements – shorter cough, less runny nose. And these improvements cannot be fully attributed to TCM practices; most studies show only a positive correlation.
TCM, in general, is certainly important in relieving symptoms in patients who experience the positive effects of Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and other practices. However, when it comes to attacking the organism that causes the disease, no evidence exists that a combination of herbs will cure COVID-19, or even alleviate the symptoms.
An article submitted to Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine this year was speculative about TCM’s ability to prevent or treat COVID-19. The paper was based on other TCM studies of the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak and studies of its effectiveness against H1N1 influenza.
A different analysis – which does not use as many Chinese government data sources – of 90 different studies on the SARS outbreak showed some marginal symptom relief for SARS patients who used TCM as a supplement to evidence-based protocols. However, these results were not conclusive.
“The positive effects of using … herbal medicine included better fever control, faster clearing of lung infections, less steroid consumption, and other symptom relief,” the document states in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine. “In a few reports, evidence for immunology (stimulation) was also found. More caution is required regarding the claim regarding the efficacy of herbal medicine for the treatment or prevention of a viral infection affecting the respiratory tract. “
Promote traditional Chinese medicine for political reasons?
Reports on the effectiveness of TCM against COVID-19 from news agencies linked to the Chinese government are suspect. Statistics show up in reports without context or methodology, and these news agencies tend to follow the government-controlled narrative.
Indeed, in February of this year, the US State Department cracked down on Xinhua – a Chinese information, media and technology giant – and other Chinese information operations in the United States because they are functionally foreign missions of the Chinese government, according to Politics.
In addition, Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier in his regime launched a nationalist propaganda campaign touting the benefits of TCM, a campaign that continues. This public relations push by the Chinese Communist Party has left global public health experts wringing their hands even before COVID-19 was discovered. Health policy makers feared that politically backed bogus and ineffective treatments could worsen an event exactly like the current coronavirus outbreak, as shown in The Economist and Foreign police.
According to Xinhua, Xi spoke in October at a conference on traditional Chinese medicine, reiterating the importance of TCM for Chinese national identity.
“The country should keep good elements in TCM and innovate them,” Xi said, according to Xinhua. “Traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people.”
This is particularly revealing, says a critical editorial in The Economist, that even the Communist Party in its TCM boosterism does not advise citizens to abandon their modern and scientific treatments.
Foreign police also had concerns about the Communist Party’s propaganda on TCM. A prominent microbiologist expressed these concerns in an editorial in 2018.
“Real Chinese doctors already face hostility and public suspicion, especially about vaccines; by strengthening pseudoscience, the government is only undermining its efforts to persuade the public to trust the state’s own health programs, ”writes Alex Berezow, Ph.D., senior biomedical scientist at the American Council on Science and Health.