Hong Kong government urges patients to consult Chinese doctors before taking medication after reporting case of liver failure

A Hong Kong man suffered from acute liver failure after consuming painkillers and a popular traditional Chinese medicine promoted by the central government as an effective over-the-counter drug to treat Covid-19, local media reported.

Lianhua Qinwen capsules sold in Hong Kong. Photo: Mannings.

The 50-year-old man – who was not infected with Covid-19 – underwent a liver transplant at Queen Mary Hospital on Thursday. Citing sources, Ming Pao and InMedia reported that his wife said he took painkillers and Lianhua Qingwen capsules before being sent to the hospital.

The patient had a history of hepatitis B, a viral disease that affects the liver. He was unconscious by the time he was sent to hospital and doctors were unable to verify the medication he had taken. The source told both outlets that there was so far not enough evidence to prove his condition was caused by the medication he had been taking.

Asked about the patient by InMedia during Monday’s Covid-19 briefing, Hospital Authority Chief Director Sara Ho did not respond directly, but said the proper use of traditional Chinese medicine depends on the health and medical conditions of each patient. Patients should consult a traditional Chinese doctor before taking such drugs, she said.

Hospital Authority Chief Director (Patient Safety and Risk Management) Sara Ho speaks during a press briefing on Covid-19 on March 10, 2022. File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The drug – which contains a level of toxicity that may be harmful to the liver – should only be taken after medical consultation, Vincent Chung, a professor at the School of Chinese Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Ming Pao. Meanwhile, another doctor told the newspaper that an overdose of paracetamol can also damage the liver.

“No scientific evidence”

Lianhua Qingwen, reputed to be effective in suppressing symptoms such as fever and sore throat, has been promoted by the central government as an effective treatment for Covid-19 since 2020.

Google search interest in the drug soared in Hong Kong on March 4. A major maker of the drug, Shanghai-listed Yiling Pharmaceuticals, halted trading on Monday after its share price jumped nearly 10%.

Major cities including Shenzhen and Dongguan have been in lockdown after dozens of Covid-19 cases were discovered, raising fears the mainland is bracing for an unprecedented Omicron wave after following a zero-Covid policy for nearly two years.

The number of searches for Lianhua Qingwen by Google users in Hong Kong increased on March 4. Photo: screenshot from Google Trends.

However, as its global demand grew, the drug was banned in countries like Australia. In November, Singaporean health authorities said the drug was not approved for the treatment of Covid-19 and issued an advisory against misleading claims about its effectiveness in treating or preventing coronavirus.

“[T]there is no scientific evidence from randomized clinical trials to show that any herbal product, including Lianhua Qingwen products, can be used to prevent or treat COVID-19,” reads the opinion.

Photo: Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr.

Among the Covid-19 supplies sent by Beijing’s central government to Hong Kong were some 50,000 boxes of Lianhua Qingwen pills. They were distributed free of charge by pro-establishment group Hong Kong Community Anti-Coronavirus Link to some 25,000 Hong Kongers who registered online.

While the same product from some drugmakers was previously registered as over-the-counter traditional Chinese medicine in Hong Kong, those sent from Beijing were exempted from registration after Hong Kong mooted emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus outbreak in late February, Undersecretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi told lawmakers last week.

On Monday, health authorities reported 26,908 new cases and 286 additional deaths linked to Covid-19. Hong Kong recorded a total of 706,877 infections and 3,993 deaths on Sunday.