Without Scientific Backing, China Touts Traditional Medicine for Virus Treatment
Scientists are warning of the dangers of using unproven remedies to combat COVID-19.
Chinese officials are touting the virtues of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in treating the disease. The Star of Malaysia quoted “industry experts” as saying that TCM has proved to have a positive effect for prevention and treatment of COVID-19. The newspaper reported that Zhang Boli of the Chinese Academy of Engineering said TCM had “significantly reduced the proportion of patients with mild symptoms becoming severe cases.”
The remedies are being sent to countries such as Iran and Italy as international aid. But scientists outside China say there is no proof that TCM has any effect on COVID-19, and that it is dangerous to support therapies that have yet to be proved safe through clinical trials.
The journal Scientific American said that traditional Chinese medicines often make people sick rather than healing them. “One particularly troublesome ingredient, aristolochic acid, is commonly used in traditional remedies and has been linked to fatal kidney damage and cancers of the urinary tract,” the magazine reported.
TCM also uses animal products, including pangolin scales, rhino horns, shark fins, tiger parts and bear bile. Such products harm the environment, imperil certain species and can lead to more disease as viruses jump from animals to humans.
“Unless evidence can be demonstrated, it is unethical to market TCM methods with claims of effects,” said Dan Larhammar, a molecular cell biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, as quoted by the science journal Nature.
Nature reported that in late April, a doctor at a hospital in China’s Hubei province was censured and demoted after posting online that China’s recommendations on COVID-19 treatments, particularly TCM remedies, were not science-based.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health says the Chinese studies do not use established protocols, and also warns that some TCM products may be contaminated with pesticides, industrial chemicals, prescription pharmaceuticals, or mislabeled herbs and other substances.
COVID-19 is believed to have originated at a “wet market” — an outdoor fish and meat market in Wuhan, China. Such markets can include such things as pangolin scales and bear bile, both substances used in TCM. Critics say that in addition to being culpable for the current pandemic, China’s markets and TCM practices make it an incubator for future contagions.
China has taken steps to ban the trade and consumption of live wild animals for food. But at the same time, the Chinese government has recommended using Tan Re Qing, an injection containing bear bile, to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases. This recommendation, National Geographic reported, highlights a contradictory approach to wildlife: shutting down the live trade in animals for food on the one hand and promoting the trade in animal parts on the other.
To extract the bile, bears are locked and immobilized in tight cages with catheters permanently attached to their livers. Such practices at bear “farms” are accepted under the 2016 version of China’s wildlife protection law, which legitimizes the commercial use of wildlife, asserting explicitly that animals can be used for TCM.
“Neglect and disease are common on these farms, and consumers risk ingesting bile from sick bears, which may be contaminated,” the nonprofit group Animals Asia reported.