COVID-19 patients turn to traditional remedies
China promotes alternative remedies for COVID-19
By the banks of the Yangtze River, a shiny, modern hospital block towers over Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic.
Inside, patients consult doctors in dozens of examination rooms divided by practice — cardiology, pediatrics.
It looks and feels like a Western medical facility, but treatments for ailments — including COVID-19 — at the Wuhan Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine are very different.
Doctors are doling out procedures — including acupuncture and moxibustion — plus pills and powders, mixed with water, that use ingredients such as bear bile, goat horn, licorice, lily bulb, dried orange peel, sweet wormwood and honeysuckle.
China is promoting traditional medicine in the absence of a vaccine, claiming a combination of alternative and conventional treatments curbed the outbreak there.
These remedies, steeped in ancient Chinese culture, have had “great impact” in battling coronavirus and “prevented serious cases from developing into critical ones and ultimately lowered the death rate,” Liu Qingquan, president of the Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said in a news briefing.
But regardless of whether herbal remedies are used, many virus patients may still recover, as 80 per cent of cases are mild, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If you haven’t done any serious research, it’s very difficult to isolate the effect of traditional Chinese medicine,” he said.
Publications in major journals about coronavirus treatments in China have not detailed the use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), instead focusing on more widely accepted methods, such as respiratory support and drugs to prevent infection complications.
Western doctors have long questioned the safety and efficacy of TCM, which remains untested in clinical trials.
Last year, China’s drug regulator even received more than 207,000 reports of adverse effects from these therapies, including skin problems and damage to digestive and circulatory systems. However, Beijing persists in popularizing the industry, especially alongside its Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.
COVID-19 has presented yet another opportunity for Beijing to spread TCM — a bid to boost soft power — by dispatching specialists in medical teams across Europe to assist with virus response.
“The Chinese government is so keen to promote TCM for COVID-19 because (President) Xi Jinping is a big fan,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China institute.
That’s a “built-in incentive ... as it will meet with Xi’s approval.”
Xi has long hailed traditional medicine as a source of nationalist pride. In January, as the coronavirus spread rapidly, he publicly called for both Chinese and Western medicine to be used in treating the virus.
Within a few days, the national health commission notified medical institutions to “actively promote” TCM for the virus and has since issued several treatment recommendations.
The herbal concoctions claim to relieve weakness and fever, and have been bundled in care packages sent by the government to Chinese students stranded abroad.
Such remedies aim “to clear the abdomen and release filth,” said Liu.
They can also “help the treatment of lungs, make changes to the microbiology in the intestines and help cure damage caused by inflammation.”
One, called “tanreqing,” made with bear bile, goat horn and plant extracts, is supposed to clear phlegm, a sign that a patient’s “qi” or life force, is compromised, he said.
Unlike Western medicine, which generally targets specific symptoms or organs, TCM recognizes the body as an interconnected system and treats multiple issues simultaneously, said Qiu Haibo, vice-president of a hospital in Jiangsu province.
But because TCM can require animal parts, promoting its use means bears and other species “are threatened by trade and having a legal market that legitimizes the use,” said Aron White, China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based non-profit watchdog.
“It is a real impediment to reducing demand for those products and it is the demand that is driving the poaching and trafficking of these species,” he said.
Bear bile extraction, for instance, takes place on farms where bears are kept in cramped cages and subject to a method approved by China, which punctures the bear’s abdomen to allow bile to freely drip out from the gallbladder.
“The lifespan of a bear is about 30 years in the wild,” said Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, a group that has rescued hundreds of captive bears. “But on bear farms, that lifespan is genuinely significantly curtailed.”
While China has moved recently to ban consumption of exotic meats, Beijing continues to allow use of animal products in TCM.
“It’s frustrating that we’re still getting these mixed messages and inconsistency,” said White, whose group recommends the banning of all trade in wildlife.
Some synthetic alternatives are undergoing testing in China, though it remains to be seen whether the government will further regulate the TCM industry after spending years lobbying for global acceptance.
Experts say government regulation would only be a first step in diminishing demand for use of wildlife in traditional remedies.
“You can’t expect them to get rid of this kind of cultural belief overnight ... of animal parts for health,” said Huang.
If you haven’t done any serious research, it’s very difficult to isolate the effect of traditional Chinese medicine.