The role of Chinese herbs in the treatment of novel coronavirus
TRADITIONAL CHINESE HERBAL REMEDIES
As evidenced by a February 18th tweet from China Xinhua News, healthcare practitioners across China are relying on centuries-old remedies to treat the novel coronavirus. In the absence of targeted drugs and vaccines, with continual updates to the national diagnosis and treatment program for novel coronavirus, the role of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is on the rise. More COVID-19 patients are being treated with Chinese medicine or integrated Western-Chinese medicine, and the role of TCM herbal prescription formulas is expanding. What formulas are they using? What do the properties of these herbs tell us about TCM approaches to the virus?
USE OF CHINESE HERBS TO TREAT THE CORONAVIRUS
With an array of treatment methods and a wealth of experience in its arsenal, Chinese medicine has been used to fight plagues and epidemics for thousands of years. The focus of TCM is not just the virus itself but also symptoms and changes to the body caused by the invasion of the virus. Treatment starts with the patient as a whole, to identify patterns and then dispel sickness and support health.
HERBAL FORMULA USAGE RATES 80% TO 95%
Reports from throughout China indicate TCM formula usage rates of 80% to 95% in confirmed cases of novel coronavirus. One specialist described isolation wards containing a mix of mild, typical, and severe cases of novel coronavirus. Typical cases are characterized as imaging findings in the lungs but the absence of disease progression to respiratory failure. In hospitals, traditional Chinese medicine plays a significant role in regulating diarrhea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal symptoms; in addition, intervention with Chinese medicine may stop the condition from progressing to the severe and critical stages.
WHAT FORMULAS ARE BEING USED? WHAT FORMULAS HAVE BEEN VALIDATED?
The National Health Commission and the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine recommend Qing Fei Pai Du decoction (清肺排毒汤); clinical observation and data analysis have been performed on the therapeutic efficacy of this classical TCM formula. One formula for Qing Fei Pai Du decoction appearing on multiple sites, including Baidu, listed 21 ingredients. The top ingredients in terms of quantity are calcium sulfate, Radix bupleuri (common name bupleurum, effective in the treatment of alternating chills and fever; may induce headache or nausea), Poria cocos (efficacy in draining dampness and transforming phlegm; concurrent administration of diuretics contraindicated), Radix dioscoreae (Chinese yam, known to tonify qi and yin of the lungs, spleen, and stomach; may have hypoglycemic effects, use with caution in comorbid hepatobiliary disease).
Pneumonia Formula No. 1 (肺炎一号), developed by the Chinese Medicine Department at Guangzhou Eighth People's Hospital, and its variations Pneumonia Formula No. 2, Pneumonia Formula No. 3, Pneumonia Formula No. 4, and Pneumonia Formula No. 5 are also in use. Formula No. 1 has achieved favorable clinical results in Guangzhou. Formula No. 1 includes two herbs that clear heat and relieve toxicity, Flos lonicerae (honeysuckle flower) and Fructus forsythiae (forsythia fruit), along with 16 other ingredients.
In Chinese medicine, the treatment regimen adopted varies by person. If a patient is in poor physical condition, dispelling disease is not enough, treatment must focus on supporting health. For example, in those with poor appetite it is necessary to focus on spleen health; in patients with damp-heavy qi and thick tongue coating it is necessary to improve the flow of urine. Ear needling (acupuncture) may be used to treat the patient’s psychological state and resolve issues of insomnia, in order to restore the patient’s biological clock.
Just as treatment varies by individual patient, the virus varies by region. This too is a factor in treatment selection. It would not be appropriate to select one uniform formula for the entire nation.
NOT ADVOCATED FOR THE HEALTHY
NOT ADVOCATED FOR THE PREVENTION OF CORONAVIRUS
According to the head of a university of traditional Chinese medicine, the entire populace does not need to take this medicine. Healthy people need to improve resistance in order to avoid getting sick. High-risk populations, including healthcare providers, may take herbal remedies as appropriate.
Practitioners emphasized that these are treatment prescriptions and are not recommended as preventive prescriptions. The general public should not self-administer these prescriptions.
This blog briefly examines TCM principles and herbal remedies in light of recent Chinese media reports on novel coronavirus treatment in China. This examination is not intended to replace medical advice from a trained and qualified professional, and the use of herbal preparations is not recommended without the advice of a healthcare provider. Substances in herbal preparations may interact with prescription drugs to eliminate therapeutic efficacy or induce toxicity.
Kerilyn Sappington is the founder of Integrative Translations, which specializes in Chinese-to-English medical translation of conventional and complementary medicine.