Professor Steve Tsang has commented that the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for the treatment of Covid-19 shouldn’t be taken seriously. Tsang, of SOAS’s China Institute suggests that until there is any solid evidence of the effectiveness of TCM for the treatment of Covid-19, these drugs ‘are a nonissue’.
In an article for NBC, Tsang commented that the discussion of this ‘successful’ TCM for coronavirus is simply “causing distraction from questions that could be embarrassing for the Chinese government.”
Whilst the UK news is dominated by a lack of adequate testing and questions of a vaccine, over in China, government officials have been advocating traditional herbal Chinese medicine as both a preventative and remedial treatment for Covid-19. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has been around for over 3000 years, centres on using natural remedies for common ailments, such as burning herbs near the skin, or ingesting them. Examining patients’ tongues to diagnose conditions, as well as acupuncture are also used by practitioners of TCM.
China is now exporting these TCM treatments to the rest of the world, as part of its effort to help with the coronavirus pandemic. To date, at least 100,000 boxes of ‘lianhuaqingwen’, the supposed Chinese medicinal cure for COVID-19, have been exported to Italy, and around 500 boxes to the Netherlands. But just how effective are they?
The secretary of the State Administration of Chinese Medicine recently claimed that these TCM medicines have been successful so far in China, improving recovery rates, reducing mortality rates and decreasing the severity of the virus. In addition, last month, China’s National Health Commission reported that at least 90% of the 80,000 COVIID-19 cases reported in China had used some form of TCM to assist with their recovery.
Although this all sounds very positive, it may be wise to take this evidence with a pinch of salt, given China’s apparent lack of transparency regarding official figures of Coronavirus victims and number of cases, which many believe are significantly higher than the Chinese government are letting on. What if this ‘evidence’ of TCM’s efficacy is built on equally shaky ground?
Scientists have been quick to point out not only the inefficacy of using TCM for the treatment of Covid-19, but also the risk of interaction with other medication, especially prescription drugs. Further, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) warn that TCM treatments can be contaminated with pesticides, industrial chemicals, prescription pharmaceuticals herbs and other substances. The potential harmful consequences of Chinese herbal medicine should not be ignored – and the risk that it may do more harm than good is a very real possibility.
Another cause for concern is the lack of clarity on what exactly this herbal Covid-19 ‘cure’ contains. Chinese officials so far have been rather vague when it comes to what is in the medicine, and what effect each ingredient is meant to have. Dr. Jianping Liu, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, reports that the herbal medication consists of dozens of herbs – but stated that a clear breakdown of the ingredients wasn’t widely available.
In a month’s time, we may all very well be sipping the 20-herb brown ‘detoxifying’ soup that China claims clears lungs affected by Covid-19.
Until then, it could be an idea to stick with Heinz, and wait patiently until a proper, clinically tested vaccine is produced.
Professor Steve Tsang is the director of the SOAS China Institute.