Every morning and evening, the 38-year-old was handed a bag of brown soup — a traditional Chinese remedy blended from over 20 herbs, including ephedra, cinnamon twigs and licorice root.
But unlike most patients around him, Xiong was skeptical of its efficacy and refused to drink it.
“In my opinion, it is a sheer placebo,” said, Xiong, who was discharged in late February from the makeshift hospital run by TCM doctors where no Western medicine was provided, apart from medication for underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure.
The “lung-clearing and detoxing soup,” as the herbal compound he was given is called, was part of the Chinese government’s push to use Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Search for a cure
Scientists are working to find ways to stamp out the deadly virus. But for now, the mainstream antiviral treatments focus on relieving the symptoms — and that’s where China believes its ancient remedies can help.
So far, more than 50,000 novel coronavirus patients have been discharged from hospital, and the majority of them used TCM, Yu said, citing it as evidence for the efficacy of using Chinese and Western medicine in tandem
In another study of more serious cases, patients receiving combined treatments also left hospital sooner than the control group and had greater levels of oxygen in their blood and a higher lymphocyte count — an important indicators of the health of recovering patients, according to Yu.
But not everyone is convinced. Xiong, the recovered patient who refused to drink the TCM soups, questioned the rigorousness and fairness of the trials.
“We must conduct double blind tests with large enough samples — and they have to be chosen completely randomly,” he said.
TCM treatments are not just being carried out in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
In Beijing, that ratio stood at 87%. Among those who had received TCM, 92% had shown improvement, said Gao Xiaojun, a spokesperson for the Beijing Health Commission.
However, Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the claimed improvement rate of 92% should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“You have to be mindful that 80% (of the coronavirus patients) are mild cases. Even if they don’t do anything they might eventually recover,” he said.
The front and center role TCM has taken in fighting the coronavirus outbreak dovetails with the Chinese government’s recent efforts to promote TCM at home and abroad.
China’s State Council estimated last year that the TCM industry could exceed 3 trillion yuan ($430 billion) by 2020 — a 71% increase from 2017. Beijing has also sought to promote TCM alongside its “Belt and Road Initiative,” a massive global infrastructure and investment program.
Ancient remedies have been repeatedly hailed as a source of national pride by Chinese President Xi Jinping, himself a well-known TCM advocate.
In this outbreak, Xi has repeatedly exhorted doctors to treat patients with a mix of Chinese and Western medicines.
Two days later, China’s National Health Commission issued a notice asking medical institutions to “actively promote the role of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) during treatment” of coronavirus.
Feng Yibin, acting director of the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said the prescription was based on four herbal formulas from ancient China, with one dating back as far as 1,800 years ago.
“After being first adopted in four provinces, clinical observations show that the remedy has desirable results, so it was promoted nationwide,” he said.
In addition, Feng said research had shown that the 29 herbs used in the remedy will interact with ACE2 — a receptor used by the novel coronavirus to infect host cells, and are thus an effective method to treat Covid-19.
Is it safe?
Nevertheless, public health experts say it could be a long shot for China to convince other nations — especially Western countries — to adopt TCM treatments to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
“I think the effort to promote TCM worldwide is likely to make way in certain regions, like Africa. But unless the development and marketing of TCM (conform) to the modern standards, like what was done to artemisinin, it is unlikely to be so well-received in the Western world,” said professor Huang from the Council on Foreign Relations.
The safety and effectiveness of TCM is still debated in China, where it has both adherents and skeptics. Though many of the remedies in TCM have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence to support their supposed benefits.
“Almost all TCM products in China do not go through the rigorous procedures Western modern medicine typically goes through. That’s partly why people don’t trust TCM in the Western world,” Huang said.
For the coronavirus, the WHO originally advised against using TCM on its website, saying those with Covid-19 should avoid “taking traditional herbal remedies.”
But that line was later removed.
‘A symbol of patriotism’
Earlier this month, students and teachers in Lincang city in southwestern Yunnan province were instructed to drink TCM soup as a prerequisite for returning to school. They were also told to post photos and videos as proof they were taking the medicine, which was meant to strengthen their immunity, the state run Global Times reported.
The move sparked criticism online, with many questioning why the medicine was forced upon healthy people indiscriminately.
“The problem is, a key concept in TCM is (patients should be treated) case by case. The same disease may have different symptoms on different people. It is surely problematic to force people to drink it without knowing (their conditions) first,” said Feng, the Chinese medicine expert at Hong Kong University.
Amid the government’s heavy promotion of TCM, its critics have also faced strong backlash online.
Xiong, the recovered patient who refused to take the herbal soup, said he was subjected to online abuse after publicly questioning its effectiveness on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform. Another influential user on Weibo and prominent critic of TCM got his account deleted last week.
Xiong said the government is seizing upon rising nationalist sentiments in China to push for TCM.
“Many people are blinded by this kind of nationalism — an extreme and narrow-minded nationalism,” he said.
“So no matter what you try to tell or reason with them, they don’t care about facts.”
Huang said throughout modern China, there has always been an “interesting marriage between TCM and politics” in China. And under Xi’s government, it is now “evolving into a symbol of patriotism.”
“You won’t be considered patriotic if you don’t believe in traditional Chinese medicine,” he said.
CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed to reporting.