MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

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Scientists from Israel and Iceland recently suggested that an extract of spirulina algae has the potential to reduce the chances of COVID-19 patients developing a serious case of the disease. Here is the abstract of their paper:

An array of infections, including the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), trigger macrophage activation syndrome (MAS) and subsequently hypercytokinemia, commonly referred to as a cytokine storm (CS). It is postulated that CS is mainly responsible for critical COVID-19 cases, including acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Recognizing the therapeutic potential of Spirulina blue-green algae (Arthrospira platensis), in this in vitro stimulation study, LPS-activated macrophages and monocytes were treated with aqueous extracts of Spirulina, cultivated in either natural or controlled light conditions. We report that an extract of photosynthetically controlled Spirulina (LED Spirulina), at a concentration of 0.1 µg/mL, decreases macrophage and monocyte-induced TNF-α secretion levels by over 70% and 40%, respectively. We propose prompt in vivo studies in animal models and human subjects to determine the putative effectiveness of a natural, algae-based treatment for viral CS and ARDS, and explore the potential of a novel anti-TNF-α therapy.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the research was conducted in a MIGAL laboratory in northern Israel with algae grown and cultivated by the Israeli company VAXA, which is located in Iceland. VAXA received funding from the European Union to explore and develop natural treatments for coronavirus. Iceland’s MATIS Research Institute also participated in the study.

In a small percentage of patients, infection with the coronavirus causes the immune system to release an excessive number of TNF-a cytokines, resulting in what is known as a cytokine storm. The storm causes acute respiratory distress syndrome and damage to other organs, the leading cause of death in COVID-19 patients. “If you control or are able to mitigate the excessive release of TNF-a, you can eventually reduce mortality,” said Asaf Tzachor, a researcher from the IDC Herzliya School of Sustainability and the lead author of the study. During cultivation, growth conditions were adjusted to control the algae’s metabolomic profile and bioactive molecules. The result is what Tzachor refers to as “enhanced” algae.

Tzachor said that despite the special growth mechanism, the algae are a completely natural substance and should not produce any side effects. Spirulina is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a dietary substance. It is administrated orally in liquid drops. “This is natural, so it is unlikely that we would see an adverse or harmful response in patients as you sometimes see in patients that are treated with chemical or synthetic drugs,” he said. The algae have been shown to reduce inflammation. Tzachor said that if proven effective, spirulina could also be used against other coronaviruses and influenza. “If we succeed in the next steps,” said Dr. Dorit Avni, director of the laboratory at MIGAL, “there is a range of diseases that can be treated using this innovative solution – as a preventative treatment or a supportive treatment.”

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This is undoubtedly interesting, and one can only hope that their research is successful. However, it is a far cry from what some journalists are already making of the news. One headline read: “Scientists Discover ‘All-Natural’ COVID Treatment That Can Prevent ‘Cytokine Storm’ In Severe Patients.”

 

 

 

For some time now, I have been using the umbrella term ‘so-called alternative medicine’ (SCAM). As I explain below, I think it is relatively well-suited. But this is not to say that it is the only name for it. Many other umbrella terms have been used in the past.

Is there perhaps one that you prefer?

  • Fringe medicine is rarely used today. It denotes the fact that the treatments under this umbrella are not in the mainstream of healthcare. Some advocates seem to find the word derogatory, and therefore it is now all but abandoned.
  • Unorthodox medicine is a fairly neutral term describing the fact that medical orthodoxy tends to shun most of the treatments in question. Strictly speaking, the word is also incorrect; the correct term would be ‘heterodox medicine’.
  • Unconventional is also a neutral term but it is open to misunderstandings: any new innovation in medicine might initially be called unconventional. It is therefore less than ideal.
  • Traditional medicine describes the fact that most of the modalities in question have been around for centuries and thus have a long tradition of usage. However, as the term is sometimes also used for conventional medicine, it is confusing and far from ideal.
  • Alternative medicine is the term everyone seems to know and which is most commonly employed in non-scientific contexts. In the late 1980s, some experts pointed out that the word could give the wrong impression: most of the treatments in question are not used as a replacement but as an adjunct to conventional medicine.
  • Complementary medicine became subsequently popular based on the above consideration. It accounts for the fact that the treatments tend to be used by patients in parallel with conventional medicine.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) describes the phenomenon that many of the treatments can be employed either as a replacement of or as an adjunct to conventional medicine.
  • Holistic medicine denotes the fact that practitioners often pride themselves to look after the whole patient – body, mind, and spirit. This could lead to the erroneous impression that conventional clinicians do not aim to practice holistically. As I have tried to explain repeatedly, any good healthcare always has been holistic. Therefore, the term is misleading, in my view.
  • Natural medicine describes the notion that many of the methods in question are natural. The term seems attractive and is therefore good for business. However, any critical analysis will show that many of the treatments in question are not truly natural. Therefore this term too is misleading.
  • Integrated medicine is currently popular and much used by Prince Charles and other enthusiasts. As we have discussed repeatedly on this blog, the term is nevertheless highly problematic.
  • Integrative medicine is the word used in the US for integrated medicine.
  • CAIM (complementary/alternative/integrative medicine) is a term that some US authors recently invented. I find this attempt to catch all the various terms in one just silly.
  • So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is the term I tend to use. It accounts for two important facts: 1) if a treatment does not work, it cannot possibly serve as an adequate alternative; 2) if a therapy does work, it should be part of conventional medicine. Thus, there cannot be an ‘alternative medicine’, as much as there cannot be an alternative chemistry or an alternative physics.

Yet,some advocates find ‘SCAM’ derogatory. Intriguingly, my decision to use this term was inspired by Prince Charles, arguably the world’s greatest champion of this sector of healthcare. In his book ‘HARMONY’, he repeatedly speaks of ‘so-called alternative treatments’.

You don’t believe me?

Fair enough!

In this case – and in order to save you the expense of buying Charles’ book for checking – let me provide you with a direct quote: “Some so-called alternative treatments seek to work with these functions to aid recovery…” (page 225).

And who would argue that Charles is dismissive about alternative medicine?

 

 

 

As we have often discussed, proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), have an unfortunate tendency to mislead the public about vitamins and other supplements. Consequently, there is much uncertainty in many people’s minds. It is, therefore, all the more important to highlight new information that might counter this phenomenon.

This study tested whether high-dose zinc and/or high-dose ascorbic acid reduce the severity or duration of symptoms compared with usual care among ambulatory patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection. It was designed as a multicenter, single health system randomized clinical factorial open-label trial and enrolled 214 adult patients with a diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection confirmed with a polymerase chain reaction assay who received outpatient care in sites in Ohio and Florida. The trial was conducted from April 27, 2020, to October 14, 2020.

Patients were randomized in a 1:1:1:1 allocation ratio to receive either:

  1. zinc gluconate (50 mg),
  2. ascorbic acid (8000 mg),
  3. both of these agents,
  4. standard care only.

The treatments lasted 10 days.

The primary endpoint was the number of days required to reach a 50% reduction in symptoms, including the severity of fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue (rated on a 4-point scale for each symptom). Secondary endpoints included days required to reach a total symptom severity score of 0, cumulative severity score at day 5, hospitalizations, deaths, adjunctive prescribed medications, and adverse effects of the study supplements.

A total of 214 patients were randomized, with a mean (SD) age of 45.2 (14.6) years and 132 (61.7%) women. The study was stopped for a low conditional power for benefit with no significant difference among the 4 groups for the primary endpoint. Patients who received usual care without supplementation achieved a 50% reduction in symptoms at a mean (SD) of 6.7 (4.4) days compared with 5.5 (3.7) days for the ascorbic acid group, 5.9 (4.9) days for the zinc gluconate group, and 5.5 (3.4) days for the group receiving both (overall P = .45). There was no significant difference in secondary outcomes among the treatment groups.

The authors concluded that, in this randomized clinical trial of ambulatory patients diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 infection, treatment with high-dose zinc gluconate, ascorbic acid, or a combination of the 2 supplements did not significantly decrease the duration of symptoms compared with standard of care.

This study has several limitations (and its authors are laudably frank about them):

  • Its sample size is small.
  • It has no placebo control group.
  • It is open-label.
  • Patients were not masked to which therapy they received.

The trial nevertheless adds important information about the value of using zinc or vitamin C or both in the management of COVID patients.

The fact that the NHS England has stopped reimbursing homeopathy in 2018 is probably quite well known. France followed more recently, and then Germany too reported trouble for homeopaths on various levels. About two years ago, the manufacturer of homeopathic products, Hevert (Germany),  threatened legal action against several German critics of homeopathy for expressing the fact that highly diluted homeopathic remedies do not work beyond placebo. Crucially, the medical associations of many regions in Germany have – one after the next – discontinued their training in and recognition of homeopathy.

Now similar difficulties are being felt also by Austrian homeopaths. In 2019, the Vienna medical school closed its course on homeopathy because students had filed a complaint about its unethical content. And recently, it was reported by the Austrian ‘Initiative für Wissenschaftliche Medizin‘ that at a secret webinar run by lobbyists in Vienna things were reported to no longer going well for homeopathy. Faced with such problems, the lobbyist, Dr. Jens Behnke, recommended in the above-mentioned secret webinar an alliance of all so-called alternative medicine (SCAM):

“…..and if we do not form this broad alliance now, in order to make appropriate professional PR and lobbying … then everything will fall apart….”

Now a union of pseudomedicine and politics is being forged with the aim of stopping the decline of quackery and paving the way for pseudomedicine in Austria. A resolution has been tabled in the Austrian parliament with the following demands:

  1. Institutionalising of the field of “Complementary Medicine” as “Integrative Medicine” in the academic education at all medical schools.
  2. Appropriate support for and funding of complementary medicine research, especially in the university sector.
  3. Establishment of a broad range of complementary medicine in the hospital sector, in outpatient but also inpatient healthcare.
  4. Promotion of active knowledge transfer in the area of integrative and complementary medicine within the Austrian medical profession.
  5. Securing of complementary diplomas by the Austrian Medical Association.

The motion was introduced by the Freedom Party (FPÖ, the Austrian far-right party) on 21.12.2020, forwarded to the Health Committee for consultation, and is now scheduled for consultation there. The application was introduced by the FPÖ-Nationalratsabgeordnete Mag. Gerhard Kaniak (Chairman of the Health Committee of Parliament, pharmacist), Peter Wurm (entrepreneur), Dr. Dagmar Belakowitsch (physician), and “other deputies”. It is supported by members of the “Initiative Complementary Medicine at Austrian Universities” of the Austrian Society for Homeopathic Medicine. The list of signatories of the motion reads like the “Who’s Who” of pseudo-medicine procedures in Austria – foremost homeopathy, but also anthroposophic medicine, ozone therapy, functional myo-diagnostics (= kinesiology), Ayurvedic medicine, orthomolecular medicine, TCM, etc. It almost goes without saying that it also includes Prof Michael Frass (a prominent member of THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME), who regular readers of my blog would have met several times before.

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Instead of a comment (other than I sincerely wish that reason prevails in Austria and the motion is going to be defeated), I think I will quote the concluding phrases from my memoir (which incidentally also covers my most turbulent time in Vienna):

When science is abused, hijacked, or distorted in order to serve political or ideological belief systems, ethical standards will inevitably slip. The resulting pseudoscience is a deceit perpetrated on the weak and the vulnerable. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who come after us, to stand up for the truth, no matter how much trouble this might bring.

 

 

 

Physicians who include so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in their practice are thought to have an understanding of health and disease different from that of colleagues practicing conventional medicine. The aim of this study was to identify and compare the thoughts and concepts concerning infectious childhood diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, pertussis, and scarlet fever) of physicians practicing homeopathic, anthroposophic and conventional medicine.

This qualitative study used semistructured interviews. Participating physicians were either general practitioners or pediatricians. Data collection and analysis were guided by a grounded theory approach.

Eighteen physicians were interviewed (6 homeopathic, 6 anthroposophic, and 6 conventional). All physicians agreed that while many classic infectious childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella are rarely observed today, other diseases, such as chickenpox and scarlet fever, are still commonly diagnosed. All interviewed physicians vaccinated against childhood diseases.

  • A core concern for physicians practicing conventional medicine was the risk of complications of the diseases. Therefore, it was considered essential for them to advise their patients to strictly follow the vaccination schedule.
  • Homeopathic-oriented physicians viewed acute disease as a biological process necessary to strengthen health, fortify the immune system and increase resistance to chronic disease. They tended to treat infectious childhood diseases with homeopathic remedies and administered available vaccines as part of individual decision-making approaches with parents.
  • For anthroposophic-oriented physicians, infectious childhood diseases were considered a crucial factor in the psychosocial growth of children. They tended to treat these diseases with anthroposophic medicine and underlined the importance of the family’s resources. Informing parents about the potential benefits and risks of vaccination was considered important.

All physicians agreed that parent-delivered loving care of a sick child could benefit the parent-child relationship. Additionally, all recognized that existing working conditions hindered parents from providing such care for longer durations of time.

The authors concluded that the interviewed physicians agreed that vaccines are an important aspect of modern pediatrics. They differed in their approach regarding when and what to vaccinate against. The different conceptual understandings of infectious childhood diseases influenced this decision-making. A survey with a larger sample would be needed to verify these observations.

The authors (members of a pro-SCAM research group) stress that the conventional physicians saw many risks in the natural course of classic childhood illnesses and appreciated vaccinations as providing relief for the child and family. By contrast, the physicians trained in homeopathy or anthroposophic medicine expected more prominent unknown risks because of vaccinations, due to suppression of the natural course of the disease. Different concepts of disease lead to differences in the perceptions of risk and the benefit of prevention measures. While prevention in medicine aims to eliminate classic childhood diseases, anthroposophic and homeopathic literature also describes positive aspects of undergoing these diseases for childhood development.

This paper thus provides intriguing insights into the bizarre thinking of doctors who practice homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine. The authors of the paper seem content with explaining and sometimes even justifying these beliefs, creeds, concepts, etc. They make no attempt to discuss the objective truths in these matters or to disclose the errors in the thought processes that underly homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine. They also tell us that ALL  the interviewed physicians vaccinated children. They, however, fail to provide us with information on whether these doctors all recommend vaccinations for all patients against all the named infectious diseases. From much of previous research, we have good reasons to fear that their weird convictions often keep them from adhering strictly to the current immunization guidelines.

 

My father invented a therapy for which there was no disease, my mother caught it and died.”

This type of scurrility makes me laugh. And it reminds me of the missing link in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). We have heard about alternative therapies, alternative diagnostic methods, but what about alternative diseases and conditions? Here are some that SCAM practitioners seem to be oddly fond of:

  • – adrenal fatigue
  • – chi deficiency
  • – yeast overgrowth
  • – leaky gut syndrome
  • – leaky brain syndrome
  • – chronic Lyme disease
  • – various food ‘sensitivities’
  • – methylation dysfunction
  • – spinal subluxation
  • – vaccine-induced ‘toxicity’
  • – toxin-overload

But surely, these cannot be enough! For the field of SCAM to make progress, we definitely need many more. So, I had a brainstorm and came up with the following suggestions:

  • Ataxia: the condition (of many SCAM practitioners, but also others) where patients fail to declare their income to the taxman; usually cured by a short stay in the nick.
  • Cardioversion: an insurmountable dislike of conventional clinicians like cardiologists; a self-limiting condition that usually improves after receiving proper medical attention during a serious illness.
  • Collagen: a genetic disorder that shows itself through a strong dislike of experts who have been to college; incurable.
  • Deepak Chopra Syndrome: a serious neurosis where the patient cannot stop uttering BS; incurable.
  • Digitoxin: the unfortunate condition where a spiritual healer sends toxic spirits into the patient via his/her fingers; needs urgent detox.
  • Donovan bodies: a psychiatric affliction where patients are compelled to look and sing like Donavan; requires a sound-proof cell.
  • Duodenal ulcer: an unfortunate condition where the patient has two denal ulcers at the same time; emergency Reiki is advised.
  • Dyspepsia: the pathological preference of Coke over Pepsi; incurable.
  • Familial diseases: an umbrella term for all the few conditions that SCAM practitioners actually know about; can improve with reading a few textbooks.
  • Free radicals: terrorists on the run; call the police!
  • Fungal infection: a rare form of food poisoning where the magic mushrooms were off; needs detox.
  • Iridocyclitis: an obsession that afflicts iridologists who cannot stop riding bicycles; incurable.
  • Keratosis: the dangerous situation where a patient develops an aversion to his/her carer; change of carer is often needed.
  • Murial dyslexia: the inability to be able to read the writing on the wall; incurable.
  • Myositis: is always worse than your ositis.
  • Osteoblast: an event where, after chiropractic manipulation, a bone breaks with an audible noise; see an orthopedic surgeon.
  • Semi-colon: the embarrassing situation where a colonic irrigationist managed to clean out only half of the colon; manageable by changing your therapist.

If you, the reader, can think of more ways to expand the repertoire of SCAM terminology, please feel free to let us all know by posting your ideas below.

There are skeptics who keep claiming that there is no research in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). And there are plenty of SCAM enthusiasts who claim that there is an abundance of good research in SCAM.

Who is right and who is wrong?

I submit that both camps are incorrect.

To demonstrate the volume of SCAM research I looked into Medline to find the number of papers published in 2020 for the SCAMs listed below:

  • acupuncture 2 752
  • anthroposophic medicine 29
  • aromatherapy 173
  • Ayurvedic medicine 183
  • chiropractic 426
  • dietary supplement 5 739
  • essential oil 2 439
  • herbal medicine 5 081
  • homeopathy 154
  • iridology 0
  • Kampo medicine 132
  • massage 824
  • meditation 780
  • mind-body therapies 968
  • music therapy 539
  • naturopathy 68
  • osteopathic manipulation 71
  • Pilates 97
  • qigong 97
  • reiki 133
  • tai chi 397
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine 15 277
  • yoga 698

I think the list proves anyone wrong who claims there is no (or very little) research into SCAM.

As to the enthusiasts who claim that there is plenty of good evidence, I am afraid, I disagree with them too. The above-quoted numbers are perhaps impressive to some SCAM proponents, but they are not large. To make my point more clearly, let me show you the 2020 volumes for a few topics in conventional medicine:

  • psychiatry 668,492
  • biologicals 300,679
  • chemotherapy 109,869
  • radiotherapy 17,964
  • rehabilitation 21,751
  • rehabilitation medicine 21,751
  • surgery 256,958

I think we can agree that these figures make the SCAM numbers look pitifully small.

But the more important point is, I think, not the quantity but the quality of the SCAM research. As this whole blog is about the often dismal rigor of SCAM research, I do surely not need to produce further evidence to convince you that it is poor, often even very poor.

So, both camps tend to be incorrect when they speak about SCAM research. The truth is that there is quite a lot, but sadly reliable studies are like gold dust.

But actually, when I started writing this post and doing all these Medline searches to produce the above-listed volumes of SCAM research, I was thinking of a different subject entirely. I wanted to see which areas of SCAM were research-active and which are not. This is why I chose terms for my list that do not overlap with others (yet we need to realize that the figures are not precise due to misclassification and other factors). And in this respect, the list is interesting too, I find.

It identifies the SCAMs that are remarkably research-inactive:

  • anthroposophic medicine
  • iridology
  • naturopathy
  • osteopathy
  • Pilates
  • qigong

Perhaps more interesting are the areas that show a relatively high research activity:

  • acupuncture
  • dietary supplements
  • essential oils
  • herbal medicine
  • massage
  • meditation
  • mind-body therapies
  • TCM
  • yoga

This, in turn, suggests two things:

  1. It is not true that only commercial interests drive research activity.
  2. The Chinese (TCM and acupuncture) are pushing the ferociously hard to conquer SCAM research.

The last point is worrying, in my view, because we know from several independent studies that Chinese studies are often the flimsiest and least reliable of all the SCAM literature. As I have suggested recently, the unreliability of SCAM research might one day be its undoing: This self-destructive course of SCAM might be applauded by some skeptics. However, if you believe (as I do) that there are a few good things to be found in SCAM, this development can only be regrettable. I fear that the growing dominance of Chinese research will help to speed up this process.

Yes, I have just published a new book! Its title is ‘Alternativmedizin – was hilft, was schadet: Die 20 besten, die 20 bedenklichsten Methoden’ (Alternative medicine – treatments that help and treatments that harm: The 20 best and the 20 most worrying methods). Yes, it is in German, and somehow I doubt that there will be an English version of it. Therefore I take the liberty of translating a short section for those who do not read German.

But first, let me tell you about the book’s concept.

Some people who read this blog seem to have the impression that I am dead against so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – my friend Dana Ullman, for instance, is convinced of it. This, however, is not quite correct (Dana rarely is). The truth is that I am

  • FOR evidence-based medicine,
  • FOR a level playing field in all areas of healthcare,
  • FOR critically evaluating all options.

This also means, of course, that I am against misleading consumers about the value of SCAM. And therefore I am FOR any SCAM that demonstrably does more good than harm.

This attitude should have been clear from all my books. However, it seems to be difficult to understand for those who are on the more fanatical end of the SCAM spectrum. And because it is not that obvious, I decided to write a book that analyses (understandably yet analytically [including ~300 references of the original science]) the evidence for 20 SCAMs that are supported by reasonably sound evidence together with 20 for which this is not the case. My hope is that, with this approach, I might reach more consumers who are in favour of SCAM.

There is a risk, of course. Chances are that, instead of reaching more people from the pro-camp, I will merely offend both the sceptics as well as the enthusiasts.

We shall see.

Anyway, here is the promised bit that I translated for you. It is the postscript of the book, and I hope it gives you a flavour of what it is all about. Here we go:

 

In the first chapter of the book, I promised that I would neither uncritically hype alternative medicine nor unfairly condemn it. I have taken great pains to keep this promise.

Have I succeeded?

I fear there will be many who answer this question in the negative. And I can’t even blame my critics! Who likes to be criticized for something in which he deeply believes? Who likes to hear that his prejudices against everything called alternative medicine are wrong and counter-productive? Who doesn’t mind an ugly fact that destroys his beautiful theory? Both the dogmatic naysayers and the naive believers will be dissatisfied with my book (or at least parts of).

That’s a shame, but ultimately it is irrelevant. My point was not to take the word of one camp or another in the endless trench warfare that is alternative medicine. My main concern was to present the evidence as up-to-date, understandable, and objective as possible, and to serve those who are seriously interested in facts.

The book is thus not for dogged trench warriors; rather, it is aimed at ordinary consumers with an interest in their health. After all, the vast majority of the population is not among the unteachables of one camp or the other. Most people don’t want ideology, they want effective medicine. And most of them are baffled by the unmanageable variety of alternative medicine on offer, the grandiose promises of healing, and the vehement emotions that it all triggers.

In the area of alternative medicine, there is undoubtedly a lot of nonsense, charlatanry, and danger. But there are also some things that demonstrably do more good than harm. In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, consumers don’t need creeds. What they need above all is reliable evidence!

You can read about this evidence in my book. How you then deal with it is solely your decision. I do not want to tell anyone what to do with my presentation of the facts. But I know that the abundance of misinformation in the field of alternative medicine causes great damage and that the consumer and reader of my book, deserve better than to be led up the garden path.

If this book helps readers to make wise treatment decisions, my efforts will have been worthwhile. And if they get half as much pleasure from reading it as I did from writing it, my goal has been achieved.

THE END

(If by any chance you do read German and are in the position to publish a book review, please let me know and I will see that you get a free review copy of my book)

Unintended consequences are outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen. They exist almost everywhere and often have effects that are the opposite of what was intended.

Just look at our current misery, the pandemic, for instance. Practically all epidemiologists advocated stricter and earlier preventative measures than the ‘anti-lockdown’ brigade in politics and elsewhere wanted and implemented. Had we listened to the epidemiologists, we would almost certainly have had fewer lockdowns and less economic downturn. The unintended consequences of the political decisions to be slow and less than strict with lockdowns are what we can currently observe in many countries:

  • repeated, longer, and less and less effective lockdowns,
  • huge economic damage,
  • more deaths,
  • more long-term illness;
  • financial hardship for many,
  • more psychological problems and frustration.

But I am not here to moan about politicians not listening enough to scientists. I want to vent my anger and concern about much of the research that is currently being published in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

What is happening here – slightly simplified and exaggerated to make my point – is (as often discussed previously) roughly this:

  • more and more enthusiasts of SCAM feel that they should conduct and publish some research;
  • they are largely ignorant of or willfully ignore the accepted standards of science;
  • they have little interest in cause and effect or critical thinking;
  • they aim to promote and not to test SCAM;
  • several SCAM journals have realized that there is good money to be earned from publishing utter rubbish;
  • more and more papers are being published that are flawed to the point of being meaningless;
  • the few relevant SCAM papers with sound science get drowned out and become all but invisible;
  • outsiders glancing at the literature get the impression that SCAM is swamped with rubbish and thus an area that is best avoided;
  • consequently, SCAM research is fast losing all credibility and is becoming the laughing stock of proper scientists;
  • eventually, the notion that ‘ALL SCAM IS RUBBISH’ must filter through into public life;
  • in the end, the pseudo-researchers of SCAM will have provided the nail in SCAM’s coffin.

The INTENDED consequence was to promote SCAM.

The UNINTENDED consequence will be to destroy SCAM.

This self-destructive course of SCAM might be applauded by some skeptics. However, if you believe (as I do) that there are a few good things to be found in SCAM, this development can only be regrettable.

What can be done to avert such a negative outcome?

I wish I knew!

But four productive steps might be the following:

  1. make sure researchers are adequately trained and supervised to do sound science;
  2. motivate funding agencies to stop supporting pseudo-science;
  3. ensure that journal editors and reviewers realize they have the responsibility to avoid publishing nonsense
  4. motivate Medline to de-list a few of the worst SCAM journals.

 

“Today, scientists note that the glycyrrhizic acid contained in this plant prevents the development of a new coronavirus, which the whole world is fighting against. Moreover, even a small concentration of an aqueous extract of licorice root has a neutralizing effect.”

These are the words of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan. The plant he referred to is licorice. With is the promotion of a herbal solution for the pandemic, he is in good company:

  • Thailand’s health ministry approved the use of Andrographis Paniculata, commonly known as green chiretta, to treat patients who are in the early stages of a Covid-19 infection.
  • The health authorities of Tamil Nadu distributed herbal medicine to the general public as a preventive measure against Coronavirus disease.
  • Madagascar claims to have a cure for Covid-19, the herbal tea named Covid-Organics has the plant artemisia as an ingredient.
  • China has been using TCM alongside conventional treatment methods to treat Covid-19 patients. Some of the herbal formulations used in the treatment are:
    • Jinhua Qinggan Granule
    • Sheganmahuang decoction
    • Lianhuaqingwen capsule
    • Maxingshigan decoction
    • Xuebijing Injection
  • Indonesia is testing two herbal medicines: Cordyceps militaris, a fungus common in the Himalayas, and a herbal formulation comprising Ginger, gripeweed, Ngai camphor, and Andrographis paniculata.

And what about some evidence? In 2020, Medline listed 302 articles on herbal medicine for COVID-19. Here I selected just 10 of them to give you a flavor:

1st article

COVID-19 is the most recently discovered coronavirus infectious disease and leads to pandemic all over the world. The clinical continuum of COVID-19 varies from mild illness with non-specific signs and symptoms of acute respiratory disease to extreme respiratory pneumonia and septic shock. It can transmit from animal to human in the form of touch, through the air, water, utensils, fomite and feco-oral route blood. The pathogenesis and clinical features of COVID-19 be the same as the clinical manifestation associated epidemic Fever. In Unani medicine, various herbal drugs are described under the caption of epidemic disease. Great Unani scholar also Avicenna (980-1037 AD) recommended that during epidemic condition movement should be restricted, self-isolation, fumigation around the habitant with perfumed herbs (Ood, Kafoor, Sumbuluttib, Saad Kofi, Loban, etc.), and use of appropriate antidotes (Tiryaqe Wabai) and vinegar (Sirka) as prophylaxis. Herbal approach is based on single (Unnab-Ziziphus jujuba, Sapistan-Cordia myxa, Bahidana-Cydonia oblonga, Khatmi-Althea officinalis, Khubazi-Malva sylvestris, Zafran-Crocus sativus, Sibr-Aloe barbedensis, Murmuki-Commiphora myrrha, Darchini-Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Qaranfal-Syzygium aromaticum, Rihan-Oscimum sanctum, Habtus Sauda-Nigella sativa, Aslus Sus-Glycyrrhiza glabra, Maghze Amaltas-Cassia fistula and Adusa-Adhatoda vasica) and compound drugs (Habbe Bukhar, Sharbat Khaksi, Sharbat Zanjabeel, Naqu Nazla, Majoon Chobchini, Jawrish Jalinus and Khamira Marvareed) most of them are claimed for anti-viral, anti-pyretic, blood purifier, cardioprotective and expectorant activities. Traditionally most of the herbal practitioners are using it.

2nd article

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), viral diseases continue to rise, and pose a significant public health problem. Novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. The pathogenesis and clinical manifestations of COVID-19 is close to Amraz-e-Wabai (epidemic diseases) which was described by Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle, Razes, Haly Abbas, Avicenna, Jurjani etc. Presently, there is no specific or challenging treatment available for COVID-19. Renowned Unani Scholars recommended during epidemic situation to stay at home, and fumigate the shelters with aromatics herbs like Ood kham (Aquilaria agallocha Roxb.), Kundur (Boswellia serrata Roxb), Kafoor (Cinnamomum camphora L.), Sandal (Santalum album L), Hing (Ferula foetida L.) etc. Use of specific Unani formulations are claimed effective for the management of such epidemic or pandemic situation like antidotes (Tiryaqe Wabai, Tiryaqe Arba, Tiryaqe Azam, Gile Armani), Herbal Decoction (Joshandah), along with Sharbate Khaksi, Habbe Bukhar, Sharbate Zanjabeel, Khamira Marwareed, Jawarish Jalinus, and Sirka (vinegar). Such drugs are claimed for use as antioxidant, immunomodulatory, cardiotonic, and general tonic actions. The study enumerates the literature regarding management of epidemics in Unani medicine and attempts to look the same in the perspective of COVID-19 prevention and management.

3rd article

Unani system of medicine is based on the humoral theory postulated by Hippocrates, according to him the state of body health and disease are regulated by qualitative and quantitative equilibrium of four humours. Amraz-e-Waba is an umbrella term which is used in Unani medicine for all types of epidemics (smallpox, measles, plague, Hameer Saifi, influenza, Nipaha, Ebola, Zika, and 2019 novel coronavirus, etc.) mostly fatal in nature. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a severe acute respiratory infection, and the pathogenesis and clinical features resemble with those of Nazla-e-Wabaiya (influenza) and Zatul Riya (pneumonia) which were well described many years ago in Unani text such as high-grade fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, running nose, dry cough, respiratory distress, alternate and small pulse, asthenia, foul smell from breath, insomnia, frothy stool, syncope, coldness in both upper and lower extremities, etc. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global emergency pandemic. Unani scholars like Hippocrates (370-460 BC), Galen (130-200 AD), Rhazes (865-925 AD), and Avicenna (980-1037 AD) had described four etiological factors for Amraz-e-Waba viz., change in quality of air, water, Earth, and celestial bodies, accordingly mentioned various preventive measures to be adopted during epidemics such as restriction of movement, isolation or “quarantena”, and fumigation with loban (Styrax benzoin W. G. Craib ex Hartwich.), sandalwood (Santalum album L.), Zafran (Crocus sativus L.), myrtle (Myrtus communis L.), and roses (Rosa damascena Mill.) and use of vinegar (sirka) and antidotes (Tiryaq) as prophylaxis, and avoiding consumption of milk, oil, sweet, meat, and alcohol. This review focuses and elaborates on the concept, prevention, and probable management of COVID-19 in the light of Amraz-e-Waba.

4th article

Background: Current recommendations for the self-management of SARS-Cov-2 disease (COVID-19) include self-isolation, rest, hydration, and the use of NSAID in case of high fever only. It is expected that many patients will add other symptomatic/adjuvant treatments, such as herbal medicines.

Aims: To provide a benefits/risks assessment of selected herbal medicines traditionally indicated for “respiratory diseases” within the current frame of the COVID-19 pandemic as an adjuvant treatment.

Method: The plant selection was primarily based on species listed by the WHO and EMA, but some other herbal remedies were considered due to their widespread use in respiratory conditions. Preclinical and clinical data on their efficacy and safety were collected from authoritative sources. The target population were adults with early and mild flu symptoms without underlying conditions. These were evaluated according to a modified PrOACT-URL method with paracetamol, ibuprofen, and codeine as reference drugs. The benefits/risks balance of the treatments was classified as positivepromisingnegative, and unknown.

Results: A total of 39 herbal medicines were identified as very likely to appeal to the COVID-19 patient. According to our method, the benefits/risks assessment of the herbal medicines was found to be positive in 5 cases (Althaea officinalis, Commiphora molmol, Glycyrrhiza glabra, Hedera helix, and Sambucus nigra), promising in 12 cases (Allium sativumAndrographis paniculataEchinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea, Eucalyptus globulus essential oil, Justicia pectoralis, Magnolia officinalisMikania glomerataPelargonium sidoidesPimpinella anisumSalix sp, Zingiber officinale), and unknown for the rest. On the same grounds, only ibuprofen resulted promising, but we could not find compelling evidence to endorse the use of paracetamol and/or codeine.

Conclusions: Our work suggests that several herbal medicines have safety margins superior to those of reference drugs and enough levels of evidence to start a clinical discussion about their potential use as adjuvants in the treatment of early/mild common flu in otherwise healthy adults within the context of COVID-19. While these herbal medicines will not cure or prevent the flu, they may both improve general patient well-being and offer them an opportunity to personalize the therapeutic approaches.

5th article

Recently, the novel life-threatening coronavirus infection (COVID-19) was reported at the end of 2019 in Wuhan, China, and spread throughout the world in little time. The effective antiviral activities of natural products have been proved in different studies. In this review, regarding the effective herbal treatments on other coronavirus infections, promising natural products for COVID-19 treatment are suggested. An extensive search in Google Scholar, Science Direct, PubMed, ISI, and Scopus was done with search words include coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS, MERS, natural product, herb, plant, and extract. The consumption of herbal medicine such as Allium sativum, Camellia sinensis, Zingiber officinale, Nigella sativa, Echinacea spp. Hypericum perforatum, and Glycyrrhiza glabra, Scutellaria baicalensis can improve the immune response. It seems that different types of terpenoids have promising effects in viral replication inhibition and could be introduced for future studies. Additionally, some alkaloid structures such as homoharringtonine, lycorine, and emetine have strong anti-coronavirus effects. Natural products can inhibit different coronavirus targets such as S protein (emodin, baicalin) and viral enzymes replication such as 3CLpro (Iguesterin), PLpro (Cryptotanshinone), helicase (Silvestrol), and RdRp (Sotetsuflavone). Based on previous studies, natural products can be introduced as preventive and therapeutic agents in the fight against coronavirus.

6th article

Background: The aim of the present review is to provide basic knowledge about the treatment of Coronavirus via medicinal plants. Coronavirus (COVID-19, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV) as a viral pneumonia causative agent, infects thousands of people in China and worldwide. There is currently no specific medicine or vaccine available and it is considered a threat to develop effective novel drug or anti-coronavirus vaccine treatment. However, natural compounds to treat coronaviruses are the most alternative and complementary therapies due to their diverse range of biological and therapeutic properties.

Methods: We performed an open-ended, English restricted search of Scopus database, Web of Science, and Pubmed for all available literature from Jan-March, 2020, using terms related to phytochemical compounds, medicinal plants and coronavirus.

Results: The view on anti-coronavirus (anti-CoV) activity in the plant derived phytochemicals and medicinal plants give the strong base to develop a novel treatment of corona virus activity. Various phytochemicals and medicinal plant extracts have been revised and considered to be the potential anti-CoV agents for effective control and future drug development. We discuss some important plants (Scutellaria baicalensis, Psorothamnus arborescens, Glycyrrhiza radix, Glycyrrhiza uralensis , Lycoris radiate, Phyllanthus emblica, Camellia sinensis, Hyptis atrorubens Poit, Fraxinus sieboldiana, Erigeron breviscapus, Citri Reticulatae Pericarpium, Amaranthus tricolor, Phaseolus vulgaris, Rheum palmatum, Curcuma longa and Myrica cerifera) emerged to have broad spectrum antiviral activity.

Conclusion: Nigella sativa has potent anti-SARS-CoV activity and it might be useful souce for developing novel antiviral therapies for coronaviruses.

7th article

COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by WHO on March 11, 2020. No specific treatment and vaccine with documented safety and efficacy for the disease have been established. Hence it is of utmost importance to identify more therapeutics such as Chinese medicine formulae to meet the urgent need. Qing Fei Pai Du Tang (QFPDT), a Chinese medicine formula consisting of 21 herbs from five classical formulae has been reported to be efficacious on COVID-19 in 10 provinces in mainland China. QFPDT could prevent the progression from mild cases and shorten the average duration of symptoms and hospital stay. It has been recommended in the 6th and 7th versions of Clinical Practice Guideline on COVID-19 in China. The basic scientific studies, supported by network pharmacology, on the possible therapeutic targets of QFPDT and its constituent herbs including Ephedra sinicaBupleurum chinensePogostemon cablinCinnamomum cassiaScutellaria baicalensis were reviewed. The anti-oxidation, immuno-modulation and antiviral mechanisms through different pathways were collated. Two clusters of actions identified were cytokine storm prevention and angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor binding regulation. The multi-target mechanisms of QFPDT for treating viral infection in general and COVID-19 in particular were validated. While large scale clinical studies on QFPDT are being conducted in China, one should use real world data for exploration of integrative treatment with inclusion of pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic and herb-drug interaction studies.

8th article

In December 2019, a novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, causing the disease COVID-19, spread from Wuhan throughout China and has infected people over 200 countries. Thus far, more than 3,400,000 cases and 240,000 deaths have occurred worldwide, and the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the globe. While numbers of cases in China have been steadying, the number of infections outside China is increasing at a worrying pace. We face an urgent need to control the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, which is currently expanding to a global pandemic. Efforts have focused on testing antiviral drugs and vaccines, but there is currently no treatment specifically approved. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is grounded in empirical observations and the Chinese people use TCM to overcome these sorts of plagues many times in thousands of years of history. Currently, the Chinese National Health Commission recommended a TCM prescription of Qing-Fei-Pai-Du-Tang (QFPDT) in the latest version of the “Diagnosis and Treatment guidelines of COVID-19” which has been reported to provide reliable effects for COVID-19. While doubts about TCM still exist today, this review paper will describe the rationalities that QFPDT is likely to bring a safe and effective treatment of COVID-19.

9th article

The fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia (namely COVID-19) that seriously harms human health is a common task for all mankind. Currently, development of drugs against the novel coronavirus (namely SARS-CoV-2) is quite urgent. Chinese medical workers and scientific researchers have found some drugs to play potential therapeutic effects on COVID-19 at the cellular level or in preliminary clinical trials. However, more fundamental studies and large sample clinical trials need to be done to ensure the efficacy and safety of these drugs. The adoption of these drugs without further testing must be careful. The relevant articles, news, and government reports published on the official and Preprint websites, PubMed and China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) databases from December 2019 to April 2020 were searched and manually filtered. The general pharmacological characteristics, indications, adverse reactions, general usage, and especially current status of the treatment of COVID-19 of those potentially effective drugs, including chemical drugs, traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs), and biological products in China were summarized in this review to guide reasonable medication and the development of specific drugs for the treatment of COVID-19.

10th article

Objective: To analysis the medication characteristics of the prescriptions issued via open channel by the National and Provincial Health Committee and the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine in treating coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Methods: We collected the data of traditional Chinese medicine related to treatment plans published by the National and Provincial Health Committee and the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine from the start of COVID-19 outbreak to February 19, 2020. The frequency analysis, cluster analysis and association analysis were performed.

Results: The study collected 4 national and 34 regional prevention and treatment plans, 578 items, 84 traditional Chinese formulations, 60 Chinese patent medicines, and 230 Chinese herbs. The high frequently used herbs were Liquorice, Scutellariabaicalensis, Semen armeniacaeamarae, and Gypsum. The commonly used traditional formulations included Maxing Shigan decoction, Yin Qiao powder, and Xuanbai Chengqi decoction. The Chinese patent drugs included Angong Niuhuang pill, Xuebijing injection, and Lianhua Qingwen capsule. The most common paired medications were Ephedra and Semen armeniacaeamarae, Fructusforsythiae and Liquorice. Two core combinations and one novel formula were discovered in the study.

Conclusions: Yin Qiao powder and Huopo Xialing decoction are the basic formulations for Weifen syndrome of COVID-19. In addition, Maxing Shigan decoction, Liang Ge powder, Qingwen Baidu decoction and Da Yuan decoction are the basic formulations for Qifen syndrome of COVID-19. The main medication characteristics are clearing heat, entilating lung, removing toxicity and removing turbidity. It shows that removing toxicity and eliminating evil are the prescription thought in treating epidemic disease of traditional Chinese medicine.

Confused?

Me too!

What seems to emerge is this:

  • ‘Herbalists and Co’ did not wait long to jump on the corona bandwagon.
  • They managed to confuse not just you and me, but even politicians, presidents, and their advisers.
  • They produced a plethora of articles implying that an endless array of herbs might be effective.
  • In doing so, no clear consensus emerged as to which herbs are the most promising.
  • Sound evidence seems to be not available.
  • Clinical trials are slow to start or not even planned.
  • Everything is based on more or less wild extrapolation.
  • Much of what is being published is borderline irresponsible.
  • YET, IT MUST BE GOOD FOR BUSINESS!
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