Herbal cure for coronavirus sparks frenzy buying in China

February 2, 2020
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A claim by Chinese scientists that “Shuanghuanglian”, a liquid made with honeysuckle and flowering plants could help fight the deadly coronavirus has sparked frenzied buying of the traditional medicine, but doubts quickly emerged.

The rush came after influential state media outlet Xinhua reported at the weekend that the esteemed Chinese Academy of Sciences had found the concoction “can inhibit” the virus.

Videos shared online showed long lines of people in surgical masks lining up at night outside drug stores, purportedly in hopes of snapping up the product, despite official advice that people avoid public gatherings to prevent infection.

It quickly sold out both online and at brick-and-mortar stores, but responses to the remedy’s supposed efficacy have ranged from enthusiasm to skepticism on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

And state media sounded a more cautionary note on Saturday, with broadcaster CCTV publishing an interview with Zhang Boli, one of the researchers leading outbreak containment efforts, who warned of potential side effects from the medicine.

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

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

Researchers at the state-run academy, a top government think tank, are also studying the potential use of a plant commonly known as Japanese knotweed to alleviate symptoms.

Marc Freard, a member of the Chinese Medicine Academic Council of France, told AFP he believes 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 TCM “lacks scientific standards of efficacy” because it relied on “individualized treatment.”

Traditional medicines were widely used in China in conjunction with Western methods during the 2003 epidemic of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed 774 people worldwide.

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

Beijing issued its first white paper on TCM in 2016, laying out plans to build medicine centres and dispatch practitioners to developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

In 2019 the World Health Organisation (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 by Beijing.

But the move was slammed by members of the scientific community, with the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council calling the decision “a major problem” due to the lack of evidence-based practice.

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