Traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions are recommended by China’s public health authority to help prevent and cure Covid infections. Photo: Xinhua

China’s public health authority is recommending hundreds-year-old traditional prescriptions for people to fortify themselves against Covid mutations as infections among fully vaccinated workers have damaged trust in modern, homegrown shots. 

The National Health Commission (NHC) and National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine issued a list of historical and modernized herbal and minerals prescriptions from ancient herbology volumes earlier this month that are believed to be able to neutralize the “miasma” and “evil field” of Covid-19 and thus prevent infections.

This week, newspapers in eastern Zhejiang province reported that the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) department of the province’s public health committee had asked all public hospitals and clinics there to disburse free herbal teas, soups and even scented sachets to help people stave off the virus.

This is part of Zhejiang’s new measures to stem the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, which has been reported across two-thirds of Chinese provinces and municipalities since early July, when border controls failed to shut out the new strain. 

State media including Xinhua have also run features hailing the “wonder” ancient Chinese medical philosophies and formulas can do to prevent and cure cases. The state news agency cited NHC advisories as saying that TCM teas and soups could complement and shore up the immunogenicity from vaccination. 

Ancient herbal formulas are being used to help combat a modern health crisis but not all in China are convinced of their effectiveness. Photo: Xinhua

Questions have been raised, nonetheless, from some medical professionals about the usefulness of ancient herbal medicine and dietary therapies. Critics say TCM is fraught with pseudoscience and folk beliefs and that most of its treatments have no logical, scientifically proven mechanism of action. 

The many anti-vaxxers in the country, meanwhile, say talk of herbal teas to boost Chinese vaccines is another tacit admission from the state media that the inactivated shots from Sinovac and Sinopharm, with more than 1.9 billion doses administered in the country as of Wednesday (August 18) according to the NHC, cannot form meaningful herd immunity against new variants. 

Human trials of Sinovac’s vaccine by countries like Brazil reveal its efficacy rate can be as low as about 50%, although the World Health Organization-validated drug has displayed higher effectiveness in preventing severe cases and fatalities. 

“When many recipient countries and regions of the Sinovac drug like Hong Kong and Singapore are discussing adding a third, booster shot, the NHC is instead talking about drinking herbal teas to boost the vaccine’s potency and I just don’t buy that,” read a post on Weibo.

“Give me one more shot or the better mRNA vaccines used in the West.”

Regional authorities like Zhejiang’s government have started dishing out free TCM soups to residents, when more provinces report “breakthrough infections” among fully vaccinated people. Photo: WeChat

One TCM herbal prescription based on a 400-year-old formula is being promoted by Zhejiang’s public health committee.

It includes plants like coix seed, white poria fungus, Saposhnikovia divaricata, also known as siler root or fang feng, roasted rhizoma atractylodis macrocephalae, which refers to the rhizome of perennial herbaceous plants, Pogostemon cablin, an aromatic, erect herbaceous shrub, as well as more commonly known TCM ingredients such as lotus leaves, red dates and the sweet root extract of liquorice, a plant called Glycyrrhiza glabra that is native to Asia.  

TCM experts claim the formula is inspired by the Compendium of Materia Medica, a work published by pharmacologist Li Shizhen in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty that listed plants, animals and minerals that were believed to have special medicinal properties.

These herbs must first be fully steeped for 30 minutes to an hour before being stewed in special ceramic pots. The official Zhejiang Daily said TCM pundits believed that Covid could exploit people’s deficiency of a vital energy form called qi, and that herbal teas with plant essence could boost qi and thus lift immunity. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a TCM plant as the leader gives a nod to traditional prescriptions. Photo: Xinhua

During the thick of China’s epidemic in early 2020 when Beijing closed down Wuhan, Covid’s original breeding ground, for 79 days, Xinhua also recommended Lianhua Qingwen granules, whose name translates into  “honeysuckle kills the flu.”

The NHC then officially approved its use for treatment, touting its curative effects on mild Covid patients, especially in relieving fever, cough and fatigue. Soon there was a citywide scramble for such granules in Wuhan, amid rumors that the prescription could even help infected patients test negative and thus avoid mandatory isolation. 

The NHC also says the TCM recipes once trialed for curing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) patients in the 2003 outbreak may also be effective in relieving Covid symptoms. But some experts say TCM drugs that may mask symptoms are not the same as the real medicine accredited by the WHO and used in the West that cures the disease. 

Zhang Boli, president of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and a member of a Beijing-convened expert panel on Covid, told Xinhua that since SARS and Covid viruses have similar floral protuberances, TCM formulas proven to be effective in treating patients back in 2003 should also be useful now.

Zhang said the “traditional wisdom” of ancient Chinese medicine and anthropology should be applied to combat the biggest global health crisis of our times, stressing that TCM may be more suitable for Chinese people than Western drugs like mRNA vaccines.  

Read more: