COVID-19 is coming, whether we like it or not. This epidemic is scary for a number of reasons. It is a new disease, and this fact alone is the cause of much anxiety. The mortality rate has been difficult to determine accurately, but it seems that it could be higher than seasonal flu. And lastly, there seem to be no treatments. But on this final point, it turns out that there may be some glimmers of hope, because of some interesting therapeutic options from the world of Chinese herbal medicine. Anecdotal evidence out of China suggests that Chinese herbal medicine is being used fairly widely to help treat patients with COVID-19. There are no doubt countless individuals in China who are also consuming Chinese herbs preventatively as well.
Chinese Herbal Medicine: A Different Approach to Treating Viral Infections
Could Chinese medicine really be effective at treating a disease for which there are no known Western medicine treatments? We don't know yet, but there are a number of reasons to be hopeful. First, Chinese medicine approaches the treatment of infectious diseases very differently than modern medicine, and this difference may be its key to success. In modern medicine, treatment is directed at the disease-causing agent. With the invention of antibiotics in the mid 20th century, there was suddenly a powerful new arsenal of treatment possibilities for bacterial infections. But it has always been considerably harder to treat viral infections in Western medicine, and it turns out that many upper respiratory tract infections, such as COVID-19 and seasonal flu, are caused by viruses.
By contrast, Chinese medicine therapies focus on addressing the specificities of the clinical presentation and its underlying “patterns of disharmony.” The actual nature of the microorganism is essentially irrelevant to this diagnostic process. Is it still possible to get results without knowing the “cause.” Yes, scholars argue, because the treatments also work differently. Some claim the reason Chinese herbal remedies can be effective for treating infectious diseases is not because they directly destroy the microorganism but because they alter the body’s internal microenvironment that allow microbes to flourish.
Historical Precedence: Chinese Herbal Applications before Antibiotics
Second, there are also strong historical reasons for believing that Chinese medicine might be effective at treating COVID-19. Although it may be difficult to give a precise pharmacological reason (at this point in time) why Chinese medicine might be effective for treating acute, infectious disease, there is ample historical evidence to support this claim. I have personally had the good fortune as a medical anthropologist to interview a significant number of senior doctors of Chinese medicine, who studied and practiced Chinese medicine as early as the 1930s, well before the invention of antibiotics.
Many of these doctors explained to me that the treatment of acute illnesses was considered the great strength of Chinese medicine. Indeed, the key to one’s success as a doctor in this period was mastering the treatment of acute, infectious diseases. That meant being skilled at treating conditions like cholera, measles, small pox, bubonic plague, typhoid, and so on.
With the development of antibiotics after WWII, the rapid development of the Western medicine profession in the 1950s and 1960s, and the implementation of many important public health measures in China, the Chinese medicine profession was gradually but almost entirely pushed into other areas of expertise.
When I was studying Chinese medicine in Beijing in the late 1990s, it was widely believed that Chinese medicine was only effective for treating chronic illnesses. Acute conditions, it was assumed, had to be treated with Western medicine. Only the most elderly doctors still remembered the very different conditions before WWII. The SARS epidemic of 2003, caused by a different coronavirus, was the first realization to many doctors within the Chinese medicine profession there may be effective treatments for acute, infectious diseases.
Like COVID-19, there were no effective biomedical therapies for SARS. When doctors of Chinese medicine became involved in this epidemic, the results were promising. The scale of COVID-19 is much larger than SARS and the role of Chinese medicine has been much greater. Although the details are still not well known yet, given the unique approach of Chinese medicine to infectious diseases we have reason to be hopeful that doctors in China are developing some clinically efficacious treatments for COVID-19.
The above observations are taken from Dr. Karchmer’s broader research on this topic, which can be found in the below link:
Karchmer, E.I. 2015. “Slow Medicine: How Chinese Medicine Became Efficacious Only for Chronic Conditions,” in Historical Epistemology and the Making of Modern Chinese Medicine. Howard Chiang, ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 188-216.