Coronavirus: can traditional Chinese medicine help fight the disease? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

In a recent article posted on a WeChat public account for medical news, Tang Ying, director of a county hospital in Henan province, describes how she protects her doctors from coronavirus by giving them Chinese medicine.

Administrative staff who are not directly in contact with patients take a soup of dried ginger with licorice. Physicians working in fever clinics should add Guizhi Tang – a cinnamon-based formula – along with Fuling, a mushroom, and Bai Zhu, an herb often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies for its benefits purportedly ranging from supporting immunity to enhancing spleen function.

“This time at the forefront of the battlefield against the novel coronavirus, Chinese medicine should not be absent,” Tang wrote.

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His traditional approach is in line with Chinese government recommendations for treating symptoms of the virus. Advice released by the National Health Commission last week includes supplementing ingredients commonly used by Chinese medicine practitioners with Western drugs.

There is still no known cure for the disease, which was first identified in Wuhan, central China, and has spread to 25 other countries around the world. Without a single solution, some doctors and individuals are turning to traditional Chinese medicine, sparking debates about the efficacy and safety of these remedies.

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Does TCM work?

“There is this tension between what is identified in a medicine and what is identified in ours,” Shelley Ochs, a TCM practitioner in Beijing, told DW. Ochs, who obtained his doctorate. from the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, said TCM-trained professionals have a different set of considerations when it comes to identifying, combating and preventing disease.

“We target the symptoms that the person has and we target the whole schema.”

The Health Commission promotes traditional medicine after its use during the SARS outbreak in 2003 for patients who suffered bone deterioration due to the after effects of steroid use.

The effort is part of China’s broader efforts to rejuvenate and spread the practice of Chinese medicine, a market that is expected to bring in around 397 billion euros ($433 billion) in revenue in 2020. , according to China’s State Council Information Office.

But some medical professionals have responded with skepticism to China’s drive to revive traditional medicine – arguing that the ingredients used in TCM treatments lack regulation and testing.

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After the WHO added a section on traditional medicine to its reference document on medicine last year, two groups of European experts from the Federation of European Academies of Medicine and the Scientific Advisory Council of European Academies published a joint statement urging the WHO to reconsider.

Western skepticism

“While there has been some convergence, there is no agreed international standard to enable comparable data collection across countries and no common starting point for testing the effectiveness of interventions or monitoring safety. “, reads the press release.

The China Health Commission’s recommendations for the use of traditional ingredients also come at a time when misinformation and unverified cures for coronavirus are prevalent. The WHO has tried to stamp out fake remedies, like those circulating online that claim garlic and sesame oil offer protection against the virus.

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Ming Lei, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University, said the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine are recognized in his field when it comes to extracting ingredients for new drugs. But the novel coronavirus treatment timeline makes acquiring new pharmaceuticals with these ingredients unrealistic. “The components could be useful but they take a long time to develop,” Lei said.

Meanwhile, China has started testing remdesivir, an antiviral drug produced by US pharmaceutical company Gilead, which has not been approved for use but has shown positive results.

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mix and match

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Experts say mixing traditional medicine with Western antiviral drugs may be a recipe for success

Despite divergent approaches between Chinese and Western medicine, Ochs said it’s not uncommon for the two forms to be used in tandem; Traditional medicine is integrated into many public hospitals in China, and TCM doctors in China are trained in Western medicine. Since there is no definitive cure yet, Ochs sees a mixed approach as a good option for treating coronavirus symptoms, depending on their severity.

Ochs is confident in the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine for her family; They drink pear juice to moisten the lungs, eat congee to keep the digestive system healthy, and take Yu Ping Feng San, an herbal formula for immune support, at the first signs of a cold.

But Ochs said she is also looking for information from specific case studies to learn more about the disease and how it manifests. “I would really take into account what we know about the course of the disease,” she said, noting that the use of mainstream medicine does not mean she ignores science emerging from other fields. “You would be doing your patient a disservice.”