Chinese herbs being tested at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on July 14. Photo: HKUST
Chee Yik-wai
Chee Yik-wai

Better regulation of traditional Chinese medicine can help bring it up to international standards, to counter Western stigma

  • While Western medicine has been gradually refined through rigorous testing, traditional Chinese medicine remains under-researched and poorly regulated
  • With more funds for clinical research and stricter regulation, TCM’s full potential to protect lives can be unlocked

Almost three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a judgment has been reached on the value of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in fighting infections.

In the first and largest study of TCM on 64,000 Covid-19 patients in Hong Kong, researchers garnered encouraging results showing that TCM can ease the symptoms of long Covid. This is on top of findings from a study in Pakistan, which showed that TCM can be used to treat mild Covid-19 cases.
At the start of the pandemic, allegations that China’s poorly regulated trade in wildlife, sometimes used in TCM treatment, was to blame for the outbreak cast TCM in a bad light.
Previous efforts to promote TCM internationally, such as the “ health silk road” initiative, have had limited success. The results of the Hong Kong study should instil greater global confidence in TCM. However, deeply rooted cultural differences between China and the West must first be resolved.
For centuries before the introduction of Western medicine to China, TCM was used to relieve pain and cure diseases. Having survived the test of time, a number of modern TCMs based on traditional remedies, such as Lianhua Qingwen, remain popular, with demand growing during the pandemic.

Unlike Western medicine, which has a one-size-fits-all approach, TCM is tailor-made for each patient. While the basic formula might be the same, doctors need to talk to the patient, understand their body type, existing health conditions, lifestyle and habits, and accordingly add or remove ingredients. Two patients might visit a doctor with similar conditions, yet end up with different remedies.


How traditional Chinese medicine is being used in the fight against Covid-19

How traditional Chinese medicine is being used in the fight against Covid-19

TCM sees the body as a network of systems working together to support our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. When treating a condition, each of these aspects is taken into account. Acupuncture, for instance, is used to connect multiple functioning systems in our bodies.

Western scepticism about TCM mainly stems from a difference in philosophical approaches. Western medicine favours a model in which a hypothesis is deduced from theory and observable empirical evidence is collected to test the hypothesis, while TCM involves using specific observations to make a general conclusion. While the former only tackles specific health issues, the latter aims to improve overall health.

Of course, there are numerous TCM remedies that make no sense and have been proved ineffective, if not dangerous. Some ingredients once considered potent, such as rhino horn, have been shown to have no effect except in infuriating animal rights activists.

Yet, in many cases, TCM is a lot more affordable for low-income groups with inadequate access to modern healthcare services. They are usually its staunchest supporters, and tend to regard it with a high degree of mysticism, without necessarily having informed knowledge.

A man helps a woman take Lianhua Qingwen, a type of traditional Chinese medicine, in Shanghai on April 5. Photo: Reuters

This points to a fundamental difference between the two systems: Western medicine insists on proving something works, rather than assuming it does because it has always been used. By comparison, the less scrutinised regulatory environment of TCM leaves room for malpractice.

This has done much damage to TCM’s credibility. To rectify the situation, relevant institutions need to plough resources into large-scale clinical research. The memorandum of understanding recently signed by Malaysia and China for cooperation in developing traditional medicine could be a much-needed first step.

It is important to note that Western medicine started on a similar journey to TCM, having derived from folk remedies which, over the years, were purified and validated. Throughout the process, many traditional Western medicines were shown not to work; the ones that made it to trials represented a tiny fraction of the whole.

Instead of denying that differences in medical standards exist, it may be more useful to step up efforts to both understand and regulate TCM to close this gap.
A researcher works in a lab during clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine in Florida, US, on September 9, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

In this way, we might well end up with hundreds of TCM products that are both safe and effective. Alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, a world leader in healthcare, can play an important role in bringing TCM up to international standards.

Crucially, we should steer clear of politicising the East-West medicine debate, and instead focus on applying a scientific approach to proving the effectiveness of TCM. Anything that can strengthen health should not be demonised.
The World Health Organization’s recommendation of TCM to manage Covid-19 symptoms should speak volumes. Hopefully, through international collaboration, traditional remedies can be improved on and used to protect more lives.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of Crowdsukan focusing on sport diplomacy for peace and development