As scientists rush to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, Beijing has championed traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a way to treat the disease.
A recent white paper released by the Chinese government stated 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 mixtures of herbs to acupuncture and Tai Chi.
It is very popular in China across the generations, although there are occasionally fierce debates online about its use.
Experts say China is trying to expand the appeal of the TCM both at home and abroad, but health professionals remain skeptical about its usefulness.
Overall inconclusive effectiveness – USA
The National Health Commission of China has a special chapter on TCM in its coronavirus guidelines, while state media has highlighted its alleged role in past outbreaks, such as SARS, in 2003.
Six traditional remedies were advertised as Covid-19 treatments, the two main ones being Lianhua Qingwen – containing 13 herbs such as forsythia and rhodiola rose suspense – and Jinhua Qinggan – which was developed during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and consists of 12 components, including honeysuckle, mint and licorice.
TCM supporters argue that there is no downside to using them, but experts say rigorous scientific testing is needed before these formulas are considered safe.
The US National Institutes of Health said that while it may help relieve symptoms, its overall effectiveness against coronavirus is inconclusive.
“For MTC, there is no good evidence and therefore its use is not just unjustified, but dangerous,” said Edzard Ernst, a retired researcher of complementary medicines based in the United Kingdom, according to Nature.
However, TCM is growing in China and seeing an increase in demand internationally. Last year, the State Council of China estimated that the TCM sector would be worth $ 420 billion by the end of 2020.
President Xi is considered an “unconditional fan” of ancient practice and has called it a “treasure of Chinese civilization”.
Yanzhong Huang, senior global health member of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that “issues of safety and effectiveness affect the TCM sector and most Chinese still prefer modern medicine to TCM.”
China’s National Institute of Food and Drug Control last year found toxins in some TCM samples.
Smooth power play
Despite Beijing’s persistent efforts to internationalize TCM, many people outside China remain unaware of it.
Critics say China is now using the pandemic as a way to promote it abroad – a charge that has been denied by state media.
However, China has been sending supplies and TCM professionals along with conventional drugs and equipment to Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
“We are willing to share the ‘Chinese experience’ and the ‘Chinese solution’ of treating Covid-19 and allow more countries to learn about Chinese medicine, understand Chinese medicine and use Chinese medicine,” Yu Yanhong, deputy head of the National Department of China. Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said in March.
Huang believes China’s promotion of MTC abroad amounts to a slight boost.
“The government’s narrative showing TCM to be 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 curbing the spread of the virus,” he said. he.
TCM’s international profile rose last year after WHO formally recognized it after years of lobbying by China – a move condemned by the international medical community.
WHO then became involved in more controversy after removing a warning about 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 trial hampered the widespread adoption of TCM. In May, Swedish authorities tested samples of Lianhua Qingwen and found that they contained only menthol.
Links with the wildlife trade
TCM is also the subject of several controversies and Covid-19 highlighted the industry’s links with the wild animal trade.
The National Health Commission of China 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 fear that the growing popularity of TCM products will lead to an increase in illegal wildlife trafficking.
“Even if these endangered species have some treatment value, we should use botanical products as alternatives in the practice of TCM,” Dr. Lixing Lao, an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese Medicine, told the BBC.
In the meantime, some heavy attempts by the media and state officials to promote TCM seem to have backfired.
County officials in Yunnan province experienced public anger in March, after it was reported that students were required to take traditional medicine as a prerequisite for returning to school.
More recently, a draft regulation issued by the Beijing city government that seeks to punish people for “defaming” the TCM has sparked a strong online reaction.
“Science can resist questioning. Traditional Chinese medicine cannot be questioned, so traditional Chinese medicine is not science,” commented a user on Weibo.
Lao says the only way for TCM to be accepted globally is “through scientific evidence, not advertising”.