Chinese state propaganda outlet Global Times declared on Thursday that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), much of which lacks scientific backing, is showing promise as an effective treatment for the country’s ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Interest in TCM has surged in recent years among alternative health practitioners, with sales of TCM methods such as acupuncture and Tai Chi bringing in around $50 billion in annual revenue to China’s economy. Amid the interest, Chinese health authorities recently encouraged TCM practitioners to help find a cure for the coronavirus outbreak, with initials findings allegedly yielding “optimistic results.”
China’s National Health Commission on Wednesday included TCM in its latest diagnosis and treatment scheme, demanding “greater efforts of treatment integrating TCM and Western medicine” to help contain the virus.
Provincial health authorities in East China’s Zhejiang and Shandong, South China’s Guangdong and Northwest China’s Gansu and Qinghai, also announced further practice of the treatment.
The Times goes on to claim that TCM doctors and experts have argued that combining it with scientific medicine has proven the ability to shorten the treatment process. It states that, while TCM has been found to have “significant effects” in mild and moderate cases of the coronavirus, Western medicine continues to lag behind.
It specifically cites the “renowned Chinese respiratory expert” Zhong Nanshan, who told a press conference in Guangdong on Tuesday that he believes in the “positive effectiveness of TCM in treating patients in their early and middle stages, including killing the virus, reducing opportunities of the virus entering bodies and decreasing the occurrences of Cytokine storm.”
The Times also quotes the deputy director of the Affiliated Hospital of Shaanxi University of Chinese Medicine, Lei Genping, who despite noting that TCM fails to provide scientific explanations of its working mechanisms insists that he does solve a range of medical issues.
“After days of ward rounds, we found that almost every patient has glossy coating on their tongues, which means that they are affected by dampness,” Lei explained. “Some patients have cough, and bitter and dry mouth together with fever. We believe the patients lack yang, so we added bupleurum root and cassia twig into their prescriptions.”
The article does eventually admit that many qualified doctors and scientists have expressed serious doubts over the validity of TCM given that it has barely any scientific backing. Two molecular genetics studies published in 2012 showed how many of the treatments can be harmful, with many unlisted ingredients known to cause cancer.
“Some Chinese herbal products have been contaminated with toxic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms and may have serious side effects,” notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in its analysis of the medicine. “Manufacturing errors, in which one herb is mistakenly replaced with another, also have resulted in serious complications.”
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO), the most important global body trying to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus, accepted TCM as a legitimate form of treatment. The decision was criticized by scientists including the editors of the Scientific American magazine, who described it as an “egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice.”
“Data supporting the effectiveness of most traditional remedies are scant, at best,” the magazine wrote in an editorial. “An extensive assessment was done in 2009 by researchers at the University of Maryland: they looked at 70 review papers evaluating TCM, including acupuncture. None of the studies proved conclusive because the data were either too paltry or did not meet testing standards.”