Traditional Chinese Medicine and Covid-19 face-off, risks worth taking?

Traditional Chinese Medicine in a face-off versus Covid-19? China’s National Health Commission (NHC) issued a notice asking medical institutions to “actively promote the role of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) during treatment” of coronavirus (Covid-19).

In a bid for risk mitigation, China is dealing with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the steps that can be taken to reduce its adverse, and potentially long-term, effects. 

This came on the heels of the assurance by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that researchers in China have chosen to test 30 existing medicines, biologically active natural products and the country’s traditional medicines for potential therapeutic effects against the Wuhan coronavirus.

Traditional Chinese Medicine widely used in Wuhan and other provinces

NHC had particularly recommended the “lung-cleansing and detoxifying soup” which is an updated version of the guideline and this prescription was promoted to particular Chinese hospitals. The National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine collaborated with the National Health Commission in this reportedly “suitable remedy for patients with mild to serious symptoms” for wide usage in Wuhan and other provinces.

Feng Yibin, acting director of the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said the prescription was based on four herbal formulas from ancient China, with one dating back as far as 1,800 years ago. He announced:

After being first adopted in four provinces, clinical observations show that the remedy has desirable results, so it was promoted nationwide.

In addition, Feng said research had shown that the 29 herbs used in the remedy will interact with ACE2 — a receptor used by the novel coronavirus to infect host cells, and are thus an effective method to treat Covid-19.

TCM efficacy monitored in several hospitals

TCM treatments are being carried out in Wuhan and in the eastern Zhejiang province, the latter having more than 95% of coronavirus patients receiving TCM as of late February, reports the state-run Global Times. Among those who had received TCM treatment in Beijing, 92% had shown improvement, said Gao Xiaojun, a spokesperson for the Beijing Health Commission.  He has endorsed TCM’s active role in improving the recovery rate and lowering the fatality rate among patients, in a press conference late last month.
Yan Yanchun, Deputy Director and Spokesperson of the Information Bureau of the State Council elaborates:

By adjusting the whole body health and improving immunity, TCM can help stimulate the patients’ abilities to resist and recover from the disease, which is an effective way of therapy.


She added that traditional Chinese medicine had helped fight viruses in the past, such as the SARS pandemic in 2002 and 2003 that killed hundreds in China. More than 50,000 novel coronavirus patients have been reportedly discharged from hospitals, and the majority of them used TCM. If accurate, these reports can be taken as evidence for the efficacy of using Chinese and Western medicine in tandem.

Recovery rate reportedly at 33% higher for TCM

Yu Yanhong, deputy head of China’s National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine reported that in a clinical trial of 102 patients with mild symptoms in Wuhan, the combined treatments resulted in a 33% higher recovery rate compared with the control group of patients receiving only Western medicine, Yu said.

Greater levels of oxygen in the blood and higher lymphocyte counts have also been observed in more serious cases. Patients receiving combined treatments also left the hospital sooner than the control group which proved that those observations were important indicators of the health of recovering patients, according to Yu.

A patient infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus also receives acupuncture treatment at Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan plus Western medicine in tandem with TCM.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, criticized the reported 92% improvement rate. He states:
You have to be mindful that 80% (of the coronavirus patients) are mild cases. Even if they don’t do anything they might eventually recover.

Not everyone is convinced. Xiong, the recovered patient who refused to drink the TCM soups, questioned the validity of the reported trials. Westerners are skeptical of the safety and validity of TCM treatments. There was also the question of substandard production of the essential ingredients.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed TCM in 2018, the worldwide organization had apparently overlooked the toxicity of some herbal medicine and the lack of scientific evidence that TCM works. Animal rights advocates had also condemned the use of the organs of animals such as the tiger, pangolin, bear, and rhino in the prescriptions.