As China appears to emerge from the worst of its coronavirus outbreak, government officials are encouraging the use of traditional medicine for treatment and prevention — a practice experts warned could give the public a false sense of security amid the pandemic.
China’s National Health Commission reported last month that of the more than 80,000 people infected with COVID-19 since the outbreak began in December, 90 percent took some form of traditional Chinese medicine to treat their symptoms.
According to Yu Yanhong, secretary of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, speaking at a March 23 press conference in Wuhan, traditional remedies have alleviated symptoms, reduced the severity of the virus, improved recovery rates and reduced mortality rate.
But herbal remedies — which China is exporting as part of its efforts to combat the coronavirus around the world — pose both direct and indirect risks to patients, Dr. Edzard Ernst, a professor emeritus of complementary medicine at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter, said in an email.
"TCM mixtures can be toxic, contaminated or adulterated with prescription drugs; they can also interact with prescription drugs," Ernst said. It can also give patients a false sense of security, leading them to neglect proven medications or therapies.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been around for more than 3,000 years and includes a variety of diagnostic approaches, such as the physical examination of a patient’s pulse and tongue, and a range of treatments, including ingesting herbs such as ginseng, and acupuncture.
It accounts for up to half of all medicines consumed in China, according to the World Health Organization. More than 7,000 herbal drugs available through pharmacies are regulated by the National Medical Products Administration.
"It is a legal health system in China which is parallel with Western medicine, and of course, there is also integration between traditional medicine and Western medicine," Dr. Jianping Liu, professor of clinical epidemiology at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, told NBC News.
"It's a holistic approach."
The main herbal formulas recommended for treatment of COVID-19 are jinhua qinggan capsules, lianhua qingwen capsules and shufeng jiedu capsules, according to Liu.
These remedies consist of a combination of dozens of herbs and a clear breakdown isn’t widely available, Liu said.
The lack of detail about the remedies contributes to doubts over their efficacy, Dan Larhammar, a molecular cell biologist and president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said in a phone interview.
“We need to know which specific product is claimed to work and what is the evidence,” he said, before going on to cite the importance of understanding different variations of penicillin.
Recent reports in the Japanese journal BioScience Trends and the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine support the various COVID-19 traditional treatments, but Larhammar said these studies and others like them lack scientific rigor — not having adequate sample sizes, using vague terms and nonpharmacological concepts or testing too many combinations of herbs to parse out their specific effects.
“They are like parodies. Nobody can take this seriously,” he said in an email.
Yet, traditional Chinese medicine is being championed not only in China, but also overseas.
Since the rate of cases and deaths in Hubei province began to plateau, the Chinese government has offered aid to other countries overwhelmed by the spread — help that according to the state media ranges from test kits to traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and products.
The country sent 100,000 boxes of a remedy called lianhuaqingwen to Italy this month, according to the Chinese broadcaster CGTN. A 12-member team of physicians also sent to support the outbreak in Milan included two traditional Chinese medicine specialists, the Global Times state newspaper reported.
In the United Kingdom, growing numbers of patients of traditional Chinese medicine have been asking for remedies to prevent and treat COVID-19 since the outbreak began in December, said Qikan Yin, general manager of the Institute of Chinese Medicine in London.
Although closed due to the ongoing U.K. lockdown, Yin said practitioners were still doing remote consultations and prescribing appropriate remedies to patients, including one London-based couple in their 50s who were confirmed to have the virus.
Addressing doubts surrounding the treatments, Yin said, “The argument is always there, not only for this disease.
“Clinical trials are very difficult to show the actual benefit of traditional herbs, not just Chinese but also traditional Western herbs,” he said.
“It would be fine if the method reduced the symptoms a little bit, and more the better, of course, but if that makes the person take more risks, then we are in deep trouble,” Larhammar of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
People with the virus may prematurely resume interacting with others thinking they’re no longer infectious by taking traditional Chinese medicine, he explained. Others may take it thinking it prevents them from getting the disease, putting themselves and others at risk.
Until there is more evidence to suggest any effectiveness of such traditional Chinese medicine, it should be treated as a “nonissue,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the SOAS University of London, said.
“It’s causing distraction from questions that could be embarrassing for the Chinese government,” he explained of the political posturing.
China’s alleged mishandling of the first few cases of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus should be the focus of attention, he said, whether that involves asking whether China could have shared its data earlier, and the quantity and quality of supplies it's now exporting to other countries hit by the disease.
Instead, against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s comments referring to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” the Chinese Communist Party can champion traditional medicine while dismissing its critics as being racist and play favorably to people’s emotions, Tsang said.
“You love the party because the party is the one that defends your traditional medicine, your national honor, your heritage,” he said.