Over the last couple of months, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread from China to the rest of the world at an unprecedented rate. In China, over 85% of COVID-19 patients have undergone Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment, which utilizes herbal products and mind and body practices to promote health. While it is difficult to imagine how these mysterious mixtures of herbs may be capable of fighting powerful pathogens, we must remember that plants have unique chemical properties, just like pills and vaccines, that allow them to do so.
In 2015, Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the compound artemisinin, a component of anti-malarial drugs. Instead of being created synthetically in a lab, artemisinin was isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, an herb already widely used in TCM. This remarkable discovery showed that there were scientific explanations for how these mystifying TCM remedies healed the body, and that they had true clinical significance.
Because TCM had already been used to combat the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002 and SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 are very similar, researchers at the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences and the University of Macau assessed the overall effectiveness of TCM in treating SARS-CoV symptoms by conducting a literature review. By doing so, they hoped to gain a better understanding of how the specific chemical compounds present in TCM herbal formulas can be used to combat the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers started by analyzing clinical research that had been done previously during the SARS-CoV outbreak. Chest X-rays were taken periodically for both a control group receiving only Western treatment and experimental groups receiving both Western and TCM treatments. The X-rays for both of the experimental groups showed that the patients' lungs were clearing up faster than those in the control group. Ingredients in various TCM herbal formulas were also found to have effects on coronaviruses.
For example, the active compound glycyrrhizin in licorice root was found to potentially inhibit replication of the SARS virus, as well as ginseng and eucalyptus extracts. Rhubarb and lychee extracts inhibited activity of an enzyme vital to viral reproduction. Shuang Huang Lian, an herbal formula prepared from multiple flowers, reduces inflammation by inhibiting cytokines, or signaling proteins that help regulate immune responses.
As of now, the Chinese government has wholeheartedly embraced TCM as an effective treatment for COVID-19. There are currently more than 300 ongoing clinical trials examining the effects of TCM herbal treatments on patients. However, more rigorous scientific research and clinical trials are definitely needed to determine the efficacy of TCM in treating COVID-19.
The current COVID-19 pandemic and the research on TCM has reminded us that no matter how technologically advanced we become, we are still products of nature. When vaccines aren’t available or our technology fails us, we should not hesitate to turn over every rock to treat this disease.