Drug controversy

Debates on TCM remedies for Covid heat up


TCM’s answer to Panadol?

When Hong Kong was battling the Omicron outbreak in late March, China’s central government sent a team of seven practitioners to the city to offer advice on how to use traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat the virus. Within days of the team’s arrival, the Hong Kong government sent out “anti-epidemic packages” to nearly every family, with each parcel containing a box of TCM capsules known as Lianhua Qingwen.

Lianhua means ‘lotus flower’ and qingwen translates literally as ‘cleansing the epidemic’. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, declared at the time that the pills “may have a better effect than Western medicine”. Made from a blend of herbs like forsythia, honeysuckle flower, ephedra and isatis root, Lianhua Qingwen was not in fact developed for Covid-19. The drug was first developed by Yiling Pharmaceutical back in 2003 as a treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) though it wasn’t released into the market until 2005. Lianhua Qingwen claims it helps to detox the lungs and releases the ‘fire’ built up in the body.

Since then Lianhua Qingwen has been widely used to treat common cold and flu symptoms in China – much like Panadol elsewhere – and can be easily purchased over-the-counter. Its success also helped Yiling go public in Shenzhen in 2011.

Demand  for the product soared in 2020 after authorities recommended Lianhua Qingwen as one of the three patented TCM treatments for Covid (see WiC493). 

Since the pandemic, sales of Lianhua Qingwen have soared. In the first three quarters of 2021, Yiling’s net profit reached Rmb1.2 billion, surpassing the entire financial year of 2020. It share price rose from Rmb8 per share to almost Rmb40 at the beginning of April. At one point Yiling’s market value topped Rmb72 billion ($10.89 billion).

Nonetheless, there’s also been no shortage of controversy surrounding the drug. For instance, it is banned in Australia because a key ingredient used to make the drug is ephedra (which also goes into methamphetamine, commonly known as meth). In November last year, Singaporean health authorities also said the drug was not approved for treating Covid-19, and rebuffed claims about its efficacy in treating or preventing the coronavirus.

“There is no scientific evidence from randomised clinical trials to show that any herbal product, including Lianhua Qingwen products, can be used to prevent or treat Covid-19,” the advisory read.

Still, scepticism surrounding Lianhua Qingwen’s efficacy seems to have done little to dent the drug’s popularity at home. Part of the reason is that Yiling has generated a lot of goodwill with the public by donating the products to areas that are the hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak, including 50,000 boxes of the pills to Hong Kong.

“It not only expresses the generosity of the enterprise, it also generates a great amount of reputation and brand recognition for the company. From the perspective of brand building, it is as effective as any other marketing initiative,” Economic Feidian mused.

TCM treatments offer a radically different approach to modern Western medicines. There’s no debate in Europe or North America about whether Panadol is effective in releasing ‘the fire’ in the human body, for instance, although there are also plenty of sceptics in China about some of the claims made on TCM’s behalf.

Last week, Wang Sicong, son of property tycoon Wang Jianlin, reposted another weibo post claiming that the World Health Organisation (WHO) never recommended the herbal medicine as a treatment for Covid. In a separate post, he also reportedly urged the Chinese securities watchdog to investigate Yiling, saying there are too few media outlets in the country that “dare to seek evidence and speak the truth”. The post was soon deleted.

Three days later, popular Chinese healthcare information platform Dingxiang Yisheng (DXY) published a separate article questioning the merit of distributing the TCM trreatment to the general public. “A drug that does not prevent Covid-19 is being distributed in large quantities to healthy people who are not yet infected. We don’t think that is right,” DXY concluded.   

The PR blows quickly sent Yiling’s shares plunging, wiping out as much as Rmb20 billion in its market value in a number of days.

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