Herbal remedies for the coronavirus debate in China

BEIJING: The claim of Chinese scientists that a liquid made with honeysuckle and flowering plants could help combat the deadly has caused the frantic purchase of traditional medicine, but doubts quickly arose.

As the number of deaths from the SARS-like pathogen that sweeps the country continues to increase, buyers have flooded pharmacies in search of Shuanghuanglian.

The fever occurred after the influential state media outlet Xinhua reported on Friday that the esteemed Chinese Academy of Sciences had discovered that the mixture can inhibit the virus.

The videos shared online showed long lines of people with surgical masks who lined up outside the pharmacies at night, supposedly hoping to buy the product, despite official advice that people avoid public gatherings to prevent infection.

It quickly sold out both online and in physical stores, but the responses to the supposed efficacy of the remedy have varied from enthusiasm to skepticism on Weibo, the social media platform similar to China's Twitter.

And state media issued one more warning note on Saturday, and the CCTV television network published an interview with Zhang Boli, one of the researchers who led outbreak containment efforts, who warned of possible side effects of the drug.

The People's Daily newspaper, a government spokesman, said experts advised against taking traditional remedies without professional guidance.

But the claim comes when Beijing seeks to incorporate traditional Chinese medicine (MTC) in its national fight against the virus, which has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 14,000 in the country. On Sunday, the Philippines reported the first death outside of China.

Researchers at the state academy, a group of government experts, are also studying the potential use of a plant commonly known as Japanese knotweed to relieve symptoms.

The National Health Commission said on Tuesday that practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine were among the almost 6,000 members of the medical reinforcement staff sent to Wuhan in Hubei Province, zero zone of the outbreak.

The strategy has rekindled a fierce and long-lasting debate about the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine, which has a history of 2,400 years and remains popular in modern China.

Marc Freard, a member of the Academic Council of Chinese Medicine in France, told AFP that he believed that traditional formulations could be used to treat people with symptoms ranging from fever to thick phlegm.

But he warned that many remedies on the market were of questionable quality and admitted that traditional Chinese medicine lacks scientific standards of efficacy because it was based on an individualized treatment.

Traditional medicines were widely used in China along with Western methods during the SARS epidemic or severe acute respiratory syndrome of 2003, which killed 774 people worldwide.

But a 2012 study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that the combination of Chinese and Western medicines made no difference in the fight against the disease.

The Chinese government has increasingly promoted traditional medicine abroad in recent years, often with nationalist nuances.

Beijing issued its first white paper on MTC in 2016, establishing plans to build medical centers and send professionals to developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

President Xi Jinping called TCM a treasure of Chinese civilization and said at a meeting in October that it should be given as much weight as other treatments.

China is working hard to spread the message internationally about its traditional culture, and medicine is part of this, Freard said.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) even added Chinese medicine to its International Classification of Diseases, a reference document for medical trends and global health statistics, after years of campaigning for Beijing.

But the measure was criticized by members of the scientific community, and the Science Advisory Council of the European Academies called the decision a major problem due to the lack of evidence-based practice.

WHO did not immediately respond to the request for comments from the AFP.

Fang Shimin, a leading writer in China known for his campaigns against academic fraud, told AFP that he believes that the government's promotion of traditional medicine will please nationalism and has nothing to do with science.

It is a huge industry in China that is worth more than $ 130 billion in 2016, a third of the country's entire medical industry, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.