As scientists compete to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, Beijing has been advocating Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a way to treat the disease.
A recent technical document released by the Chinese government claimed that 92% of the country’s Covid-19 cases were treated in some way.
TCM is one of the oldest forms of medical practice in the world and includes a variety of treatments, from herbal concoctions to acupuncture and Tai Chi.
It is very popular in China across the generations, although fierce online debates about its use occasionally arise.
Experts say China is seeking to expand the appeal of traditional Chinese medicine both at home and abroad, but health professionals are skeptical about its usefulness.
Inconclusive General Effectiveness – US
The Chinese National Health Commission has a special chapter on traditional Chinese medicine in its coronavirus guidelines, while state media has been highlighting its alleged role in past outbreaks like Sars in 2003.
Six traditional remedies have been announced as Covid-19 treatments, the two most important being Lianhua Qingwen, which contains 13 herbs such as forsythia suspense and rhodiola rose, and Jinhua Qinggan, which was developed during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and is made up of 12 components. which include honeysuckle, mint and licorice.
TCM supporters argue that there are no downsides to its use, but experts say rigorous scientific testing is needed before such formulas are deemed safe.
The US National Institutes of Health said that while it may help with symptom relief, its overall effectiveness against coronavirus is inconclusive.
“For TCM there is no good evidence and therefore its use is not only unjustified but dangerous,” said Edzard Ernst, a retired UK-based investigator of complementary medicines, recently.
However, TCM is growing in China and is seeing an increase in international demand. Last year, the Chinese State Council estimated that the traditional Chinese medicine industry would be worth $ 420 billion (£ 337 billion) by the end of 2020.
President Xi is said to be an “unconditional fanatic” of ancient practice and has called it a “treasure of Chinese civilization.”
But Yanzhong Huang, senior global health member of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that “safety and efficacy issues affect the traditional Chinese medicine sector, and most Chinese still prefer modern medicine to traditional Chinese medicine.”
Last year, China’s National Institute of Food and Drug Control found toxins in some TCM samples.
Soft power play
Despite Beijing’s persistent efforts to internationalize traditional Chinese medicine, many people outside of China remain unaware.
Critics say China is now using the pandemic as a way to promote it abroad, an accusation that has been denied in state media.
However, China has been shipping traditional Chinese medicine supplies and professionals along with conventional medicines and equipment to Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.
“We are ready to share the ‘Chinese experience’ and the ‘Chinese solution’ of Covid-19 treatment, and allow more countries to learn about Chinese medicine, understand Chinese medicine and use Chinese medicine,” Yu Yanhong, deputy director of the National National of China. Traditional Chinese Medicine Administration said in March.
Huang believes that China’s promotion of TCM abroad amounts to a soft power boost.
“The government narrative portraying TCM as effective against Covid-19 also serves to promote the superiority of China’s anti-Covid approach, at a time when Western approaches appear to be ineffective in containing the spread of the virus,” he said.
TCM’s international profile increased last year after the WHO formally recognized it after years of lobbying by China, a move condemned by the international medical community.
The WHO was later embroiled in further controversy after removing a warning on the use of traditional remedies to treat Covid-19 from its recommendations in English and Chinese.
But the lack of standards and almost no clinical trials have hindered the widespread adoption of TCM. In May, Swedish authorities analyzed samples of Lianhua Qingwen and found that they contained only menthol.
The Lianhua Qingwen capsule, a Chinese herbal product, was selected in the # COVID19 Traditional Chinese Medicine (#TCM) prevention and control program in Beijing; that is, the capsule can be used to support other treatments for adult patients and those under medical observation. pic.twitter.com/54xNcgdRHy
– Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 17, 2020
Links to wildlife trade
TCM is also the subject of several controversies and Covid-19 has highlighted the industry’s links to the wildlife trade.
The Chinese National Health Commission was criticized after recommending injections containing bear bile powder as a treatment for coronavirus.
China recently banned the use of pangolins, an endangered species that is used in folk medicine for its scales.
But wildlife conservationists worry that the increasing popularity of MTC products will lead to an increase in illegal wildlife trafficking.
“Even if these endangered species have some treatment value, we should use botanicals as alternatives in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine,” Dr. Lixing Lao, an honorary professor at the University’s School of Chinese Medicine, told the BBC From Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, some heavy-handed attempts by state media and authorities to promote traditional Chinese medicine appear to have failed.
County officials in Yunnan province sparked public anger in March after it was reported that students were forced to take traditional medicine as a prerequisite for returning to school.
Most recently, a draft regulation issued by the Beijing city government seeking to punish people for “smearing” TCM sparked a strong online reaction.
“Science can resist questioning. Traditional Chinese medicine cannot be questioned, so traditional Chinese medicine is not science,” commented one user on Weibo.
Dr. Lao says that the only way for traditional Chinese medicine to be accepted globally is “through scientific evidence, rather than propaganda.”