Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we had a treatment that reduces the risk of getting infected with the corona-virus? Well, this paper claims that there is one. Here is its abstract:

Since December 2019, an outbreak of corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19) occurred in Wuhan, and rapidly spread to almost all parts of China. This was followed by prevention programs recommending Chinese medicine (CM) for the prevention. In order to provide evidence for CM recommendations, we reviewed ancient classics and human studies.


Historical records on prevention and treatment of infections in CM classics, clinical evidence of CM on the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, and CM prevention programs issued by health authorities in China since the COVID-19 outbreak were retrieved from different databases and websites till 12 February, 2020. Research evidence included data from clinical trials, cohort or other population studies using CM for preventing contagious respiratory virus diseases.


The use of CM to prevent epidemics of infectious diseases was traced back to ancient Chinese practice cited in Huangdi’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) where preventive effects were recorded. There were 3 studies using CM for prevention of SARS and 4 studies for H1N1 influenza. None of the participants who took CM contracted SARS in the 3 studies. The infection rate of H1N1 influenza in the CM group was significantly lower than the non-CM group (relative risk 0.36, 95% confidence interval 0.24–0.52; n=4). For prevention of COVID-19, 23 provinces in China issued CM programs. The main principles of CM use were to tonify qi to protect from external pathogens, disperse wind and discharge heat, and resolve dampness. The most frequently used herbs included Radix astragali (Huangqi), Radix glycyrrhizae (Gancao), Radix saposhnikoviae (Fangfeng), Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae (Baizhu), Lonicerae Japonicae Flos (Jinyinhua), and Fructus forsythia (Lianqiao).


Based on historical records and human evidence of SARS and H1N1 influenza prevention, Chinese herbal formula could be an alternative approach for prevention of COVID-19 in high-risk population. Prospective, rigorous population studies are warranted to confirm the potential preventive effect of CM.

So, what should we make of this conclusion?

To provide an evidence-based answer, I tried to look up the original studies cited in the article. The links provided by the authors seem to be all dead except one which leads to a paper published in the infamous JCAM. Here is its abstract:

Objectives: To investigate the efficacy of an herbal formula in the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) transmission among health care workers. The secondary objectives are to investigate quality of life (QOL) and symptomology changes among supplement users, and to evaluate the safety of this formula.

Design: Controlled clinical trial.

Settings: Hong Kong during epidemic of SARS.

Subjects: Two cohorts of health care workers from 11 hospitals in Hong Kong, 1 using an herbal supplement for a 2-week period (n = 1063) and a control cohort comprising all other health care workers who did not receive the supplement (n = 36,111) were compared prospectively.

Interventions: Taking an herbal supplement for a 2-week period.

Outcome measures: SARS attack rates and changes in quality of life and influenza-like symptoms were also examined at three timepoints among herbal supplement users.

Results: None of the health care workers who used the supplement subsequently contracted SARS compared to 0.4% of the health care workers who did not use the supplement (p = 0.014). Improvements in influenza-like symptoms and quality of life measurements were also observed among herbal supplement users. Less than 2% reported minor adverse events.

Conclusion: The results of this pilot study suggest that there is a good potential of using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) supplements to prevent the spread of SARS.

How can I be polite and still say what I think about this article? Perhaps by stating this: THIS STUDY WAS INCAPABLE OF INVESTIGATING THE ‘EFFICACY’ OF ANYTHING AND ITS RESULTS ARE NOT CONVINCING.

So, are the Chinese authors correct when concluding that Chinese herbal formula could be an alternative approach for prevention of COVID-19 in high-risk population?

No, I don’t think so! And I even feel that it is irresponsible in the current situation to misguide consumers, patients, scientists and decision-makers into believing that TCM offers an answer to the pandemic.


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