TCM recipes help contain coronavirus
BRI countries and regions embracing Chinese medicine
Published: May 17, 2021 04:53 PM
Filled capsules awaiting aluminum plastic quality testing at a production line of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical. Photo: Courtesy of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical

Filled capsules awaiting aluminum plastic quality testing at a production line of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical. Photo: Courtesy of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical

The traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has gained greater momentum on going global, boosted by its unprecedented role in the pandemic prevention and control, especially throughout countries along the Belt and Road, becoming an important containing tool to slow down the spreading of the deadly virus. 

China's top leadership has all along called for bigger efforts to develop TCM so that more people in the world could benefit from it. The medicine has lately been increasingly embraced by more people from the world, thanks to its effect in combating the COVID-19, SARS and other infectious diseases.

The use of TCM has now spread to 183 countries and regions, involving 65 countries and regions along the Belt and Road countries, where people have witnessed the significant cooperation on a shared future even during hard times. Ernst & Young predicts in its recent report that the Belt and Road will become one of the important platforms for the promotion of Chinese medicine.

Pillar for disease prevention

The Chinese drug producer Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, the supplier of Chinese herbal medicine Lianhuaqingwen that has played a role in the prevention and control of the COVID-19, has been the direct witness of how their self-developed capsules help the world in containing the coronavirus.

The company has geared up to meet global demand which emerged from early last year through both donation and sales, particularly when the vaccines had yet to become available and preventative measures that can help to contain the disease were in short supply.

Since the outbreak, Yiling Pharmaceutical donated more than 3.5-million-yuan worth of Lianhuaqingwen capsules to the Belt and Road countries including Iraq, Nepal, and Thailand to aid their fight against the virus.

Chinese embassies and consulates abroad have also offered "health packages" to overseas Chinese students with Lianhuaqingwen capsules in the package, in addition to masks and other necessities.

Besides Lianhuaqingwen, other drugs such as Jinhuaqinggan granule by Juxiechang (Beijing) Pharmaceutical and Shuanghuanglian granule by Harbin Pharm Group Sanchine Pharmaceutical were also recommended for the treatment of the disease, the Beijing Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine said in its report last June.

Under the recommendation of experts and regulators, TCM has become increasingly popular and has become a common sight in Chinese households, and sells well overseas.

By April 2021, Yiling Pharmaceutical had obtained registration approval or import licenses in 23 countries and regions around the world, including 18 BRI countries, such as Russia, the Philippines, Thailand and Kazakhstan.

"At the very least, Chinese medicines such as Lianhuaqingwen can help patients with the severe symptoms recover, proving the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine in epidemic prevention and control," Cai Tianzhi, deputy secretary-general of China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Medicines and Health Products, told the Global Times, noting that the epidemic also provides an important opportunity for TCM to go overseas.

Cao Haoquan, president of Weini Technology Development based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, a face-mask maker, told the Global Times on Sunday that they are in the final preparation before exporting masks with materials involving traditional medicine therapy to some BRI countries including Indonesia.

TCM ingredients have been inserted into the middle of the non-woven fabric of the mask to help sterilize virus.

"The therapy, which was offered by a local hospital in Wuhan, Hubei Province, help to reduce the risks from virus infection - an extra protection other than the masks," said Cao.

Confronting challenges 

While TCMs have seen a rising stage for globalization, their effect has not been widely recognized by law in many countries.

The decoction of traditional Chinese medicine, for example, cannot be used in hospitals, and the traditional Chinese medicine donated in China is mostly used for preventive medicine, analysts said.

Although Cao's masks have been widely exported to the US and European countries, the new one requests a completely different application document for its TCM ingredients, and takes time to apply.

In terms of Yiling Pharmaceutical, even though the company's global sales revenue for its Lianhuaqingwen series was roughly 4.26 billion yuan in 2020, which contributed nearly half of its revenue in 2020, overseas sales accounted for a tiny proportion.

One important remaining challenge is that like many other TCM, it has not been recognized as a drug instead of a food additive, experts said.

"The most important problem of TCM going abroad is the standard, because many western countries do not recognize the [clinical] standard of TCM, so more exports are used as food additives rather than drugs," said Cai.

The US FDA Phase II clinical trial of Lianhuaqingwen capsules is currently in the data statistical analysis stage, which has so far taken nearly five years since the phase II clinical trial of the capsule was launched in Virginia in September 2016.

At present, the TCM industry is in a weak position in the medical care system since not only the international society lacks confidence in TCM and the modern scientific means and evidence that can prove the efficacy of TCM is not there, Sun Xuefei, general manager of Yiling Pharmaceutical International Trade Center, told the Global Times.

International integration

As TCMs receive wider recognition during the pandemic, the integration of Chinese medicine into the world's virus prevention and control will become an important pillar in building the Health Silk Road, experts say.

To promote the construction of a healthy Belt and Road, the National Development and Reform Commission of China said that it will formulate the 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-2025) for the development of TCM, which includes encouraging and supporting private sectors to adopt the market-oriented approach and jointly building a group of TCM hospitals with countries that have the potential and willingness to cooperate.

In order to improve integration across the international medical system, Chinese pharmaceutical companies are adopting new standards for wider market access.

Evidence-based medicine can make TCM recipes more systematic and standardized, and make the evaluation of the effectiveness and safety of TCM diagnosis and treatment methods more globally-oriented, said Sun.

The company has completed more than 20 evidence-based research projects relared to patented Chinese medicine, generating a significant volume of valuable scientific evidence, according to the company.