TCM as a cause of COVID-19? Viruses don’t talk politics: experts
Published: Jan 14, 2021 02:01 AM

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has approved placing more parts of the country into the highest level of restrictions, known as tier 4, on December 19. Photo: VCG

Conspiracy theories and smears have arisen ahead of a visit by WHO experts to Wuhan to investigate the origin of COVID-19. A new, but also "old" smear came from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well as the country's media outlets. 

In a speech to an environmental summit on Monday, Johnson said the pandemic was "the product of an imbalance in man's relationship with the natural world." 

"Like the original plague which struck the Greeks I seem to remember in book one of the Iliad, it is a zoonotic disease. It originates from bats or pangolins, from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin you will somehow become more potent or whatever it is people believe; it originates from this collision between mankind and the natural world and we've got to stop it," Johnson said.

Local media reports interpreted the PM's comments as criticism of China's use of traditional medicine and an implication that the practice of harvesting pangolin scales is connected to the coronavirus, even though Johnson never mentioned China or Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) in his speech. 

These reports sparked an uproar on Chinese social media platforms with the hashtag of "British PM tries to ascribe coronavirus to TCM" being one of the top three most viewed topics on Sina Weibo.

The British government should reflect on why the country failed to contain the virus and helped spread the new strain, they said. 

Scientists discovered the mutated strain on September 20, but the Johnson administration failed to act until the situation got out of control. Then the PM rushed to declare a lockdown, wasting more than three precious months.

Shifting the blame to traditional Chinese medicine is just an effort to divert public attention Cui Yongqiang, a chief physician at a hospital affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday. Johnson was talking about politics, not science, but viruses don't talk politics, Cui said.

TCM has been viewed with skepticism overseas for years and many people still have misunderstandings about the medical system as they were only told about the backward parts, not the new mainstream. 

"TCM is a complete medical system. It has its own theories on health, pathology, diagnostics and treatment, with various modalities such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, manual manipulation and breathing exercises. Using animals as a source for medicinal items was more common in ancient times and now TCM focuses more on plants and mineral substances," Cui said. 

A growing number of scientists believe that the coronavirus landed in multiple locations around the world and China was just the first to report it. It may have appeared in other countries earlier than in China and the source is still a mystery. 

"Stigmas can be broken through adequate information," Cui said. 

China started banning pangolin hunting in the wild in 2007 and stopped commercial imports of pangolins and pangolin products in 2018.

The latest version of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia for 2020 does not include pangolins, which means the mammals will no longer be used in TCM. The move came after China upgraded all species of pangolin from second-class to first-class protected animals considering their rapidly decreasing numbers due to over-hunting and habitat destruction.