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2020-02-07 12:01:31

Health authorities in China are turning to millennia-old traditional medicines to treat the novel coronavirus that has so far killed more than 600 people and infected over 31,000 worldwide.

The National Health Commission on Wednesday published its latest treatment plan for symptoms of the novel coronavirus, urging medical institutes to include traditional Chinese medicine in their formulas. There is no cure for the virus yet, but with a rising death toll and infection rate, authorities are pushing for a cocktail of TCM and Western medicines in hopes of saving more lives.

According to the plan, there are certain traditional Chinese medicine therapies that can mitigate patients’ symptoms — including fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, and nausea — and that should be applied depending on the patient’s “state of illness, local climate characteristics, and physical condition.” Chinese patchouli, sun-dried tangerine peels, betel nuts, as well as the Peaceful Palace Bovine Bezoar Pill — a mixture of cattle gallstone, buffalo horn, and pearl and ruby sulfur, among other ingredients — are all prescribed under the plan.

As TCM is being promoted to fight the novel coronavirus — as it was in 2003 during the SARS epidemic — supporters of the age-old practice believe the government’s push will give the long-debated field an opportunity to prove its worth. Meanwhile, skeptics doubt whether the 5,000-year-old custom can actually play an important role because of lacking scientific evidence and controversies over ingredients such as animal parts.

Zhang Guojun, a professor at Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, told Sixth Tone that TCM emphasizes “treatment based on syndrome differentiation,” and its effectiveness varies from person to person. He says he believes the medicinal effects of TCM go beyond just fighting the coronavirus.

“Traditional Chinese medicine plays a role in the entire clinical process, no matter if it’s for the diagnosis and treatment of common ailments or for severe problems,” Zhang said.

Jiao Yahui, deputy director of medical administration and supervision at the National Health Commission, said Tuesday that traditional Chinese medicine has played “a very important role” in alleviating the symptoms of coronavirus patients. She added that it has also helped delay mild cases from developing into severe ones, which “can be verified by clinical data and cases.”

However, there is still a lack of scientific evidence showing that the TCM ingredients work effectively on patients, and researchers have been racing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. China said it would begin clinical trials on remdesivir from Feb. 3, after a paper in a renowned scientific journal said the experimental drug may have helped alleviate the symptoms of a patient in the United States.

Doctors in Thailand have said that a mix of flu medicines and HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir were able to mitigate some of the more severe symptoms in some patients. China’s health authority has also said that the HIV drugs can be used on coronavirus patients.

Meanwhile, the central government’s push to promote its national heritage means several local governments — including Shanghai, as well as Hubei, Guangdong, and Henan provinces — have turned to traditional Chinese medicine for coronavirus treatment. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, 23 patients in Hubei — the province with the highest number of deaths and infections — recovered following treatment with a combination of TCM and Western medicine.

The Guizhou Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine has gone a step further, soliciting suggestions from the public on “secret folk recipes” from TCM to help cure coronavirus infections, raising doubts over whether folk therapies could be clinically practical for treating the disease.

Debates over the effectiveness of TCM were cast into the spotlight last week after two medical institutes suggested a traditional Chinese medicine syrup, Shuanghuanglian, could help “contain” the novel coronavirus. This led to a buying frenzy, and to influential state media outlets like People’s Daily, as well as medical experts, advising people not to fall for such claims during public health crises.

Furthermore, after betel nut was listed among the ingredients in Wednesday’s treatment plan, experts debunked rumors that chewing the addictive stimulant could fend off the coronavirus. They also advised people to distinguish between betel nut for medical purposes and the carcinogenic snack that poses health risks.

Zhang Boli, director of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and no relation to Zhang Guojun, said during a press conference Monday that TCM treatment “is not aimed at viruses, but more to regulate the body’s immune system.”

“It is not advisable for everyone to take Chinese medicine for disease prevention,” Zhang said.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: VCG)