Asia Fact Check Lab: Can 'magical remedies' cure COVID?

Verdict: MISLEADING
By Emma Lee
2022.12.22
Asia Fact Check Lab: Can 'magical remedies' cure COVID? Some of the 'magic' COVID-19 remedies being used in China include canned peaches, garlic, salt, green tea, liquor and Lianhua Qingwen.
Adobe Stock and AP photos; photo illustration by RFA

In brief

China's abrupt relaxation of its zero-COVID policy has contributed to a broad wave of infections that is overwhelming China's healthcare systems and triggering a shortage of over-the-counter medicines. Amid a rush by Chinese to stock their medicine cabinets, social media and some merchants are touting “magical cures for COVID,” from canned peaches, baijiu alcohol, and garlic to controversial traditional Chinese medicines, such as Lianhua Qingwen Capsules.

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found no scientific evidence that these popular products can cure patients with COVID. In fact, public health experts warn that while people may turn to unproven remedies when faced with a lack of medical supplies or clear communications from authorities, relying on such cures could provide a false sense of security and prevent the sick from getting proper care. 

In depth

China began easing some of its zero-COVID restrictions in November 2022, after protests broke out in several major cities over stringent government lockdowns and other containment policies. In early December, the government phased out mass testing in large cities and removed mandatory travel restrictions.

Since then, official daily infection rates as reported by China's National Health Commission (NHC) have fallen sharply, to several thousand nationwide. But social media and other reports suggest a rapid spread of the virus, with many Chinese on the internet reporting large increases in the number of COVID cases in their neighborhoods. Users have also posted pictures of long queues at hospitals and empty pharmacy shelves for over-the-counter medicines. 

The websites of 1 Drug and Ali Health Pharmacy, two of China’s largest online pharmacies, showed that common over-the-counter treatments for colds, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, diphenhydramine, vitamin C, and popular traditional Chinese medicines, are all out of stock, according to a check by AFCL.

Peaches, garlic and alcoholic spirits

In the meantime, many “magical cures” and “folklore remedies” have popped up in online discussion forums. These include:

Canned peaches: Influencers on popular social media websites have recommended canned peaches as a remedy to relieve COVID symptoms, causing several brands of the canned fruit to quickly sell out. 

Electrolyte water: After discussions started trending online about how electrolyte water could help cure COVID, Internet searches for “homemade electrolyte water recipes” surged, with frequently recommended ingredients including lemon, salt water, and a pinch of green tea.

Garlic: Citing traditional literature describing how garlic was used to treat patients during epidemics in ancient China, a retired traditional medicine practitioner announced that he had invented the “Garlic Breathing Method.” This method purportedly gives users a way to inhale allicin, a compound found in garlic which the practitioner alleged can cure all coronaviruses, including COVID.

Salt and vinegar: From the beginning of the pandemic, many people have subscribed to gargling with salt water and sanitizing rooms with steam from boiling vinegar as a way to prevent and treat COVID. These folklore remedies continue to be popular during the latest surge.

Baijiu: A widely circulated post cites a “doctor at Wuhan University’s Zhongnan Hospital” who recommends drinking two shots of baijiu, a spirit usually containing 35 percent to 60 percent alcohol content, daily to prevent getting COVID. A proposal by China’s baijiu trade association to research the potential use of baijiu to treat COVID was a trendy topic in 2020, near the start of the pandemic.

Some of these approaches may have health benefits. For example, studies have shown that eating raw garlic could potentially reduce inflammation and boost the immune system. But generally, news media, medical professionals, and even some manufacturers of “cures”—including one company that produces a popular brand of canned peaches—have expressed disapproval over using these folk remedies for treating COVID. AFCL has concluded after consulting with healthcare professionals that none of the remedies listed above has any antiviral effects. Furthermore, excessive consumption of alcohol can cause liver damage and even poisoning.

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An elderly man on the roadside is helped to take the Chinese medicine Lianhua Qingfei granules during Shanghai’s lockdown on April 5, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Government-backed traditional medicines

Throughout the pandemic, critics have raised concerns over the inclusion of Lianhua Qingwen Capsules—a patented traditional Chinese medicine which has not undergone clinical trials—in the list of government-approved COVID treatments. Health authorities and high-profile medical experts such as Zhong Nanshan, who is often called the Dr. Fauci of China, have endorsed the capsules for treating COVID.

Manufacturer Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd has also released a series of spin-off products such as masks and mints that incorporate Lianhua Qingwen. The company’s stock prices have surged during the recent outbreak, rising more than 20% in the first week of December.

However, no large-scale clinical studies have taken place to show that Lianhua Qingwen or its spin-off products can prevent or treat COVID, Dong-Yan Jin, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, has said to the media. At best, the capsules can relieve some COVID symptoms, but they are not recommended for severe COVID patients, he said.

Findings from a small-scale study recently published in the American Journal of Translational Research showed that early-stage COVID patients who took Lianhua Qingwen Capsules saw symptoms disappear more quickly and were released from hospital earlier compared to a group of control patients.  However, the capsule has not been recommended for treating COVID outside China, and it has been banned by some countries such as Australia, where ephedrine, an ingredient in Lianhua Qingwen, is regulated as a controlled substance. The U.S. prohibits the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids due to serious safety risks, including association with heart attacks.

Several front-line doctors speaking to AFCL said Lianhua Qingwen’s active ingredients such as ephedrine may help to relieve some COVID symptoms. But they emphasized that the drug itself, like canned peaches and garlic, cannot cure the disease. As with other medications, patients should only take traditional Chinese medicine under the supervision of a healthcare provider. 

Face masks and mints that incorporate Lianhua Qingwen are unlikely to prove more effective than normal products in keeping COVID or COVID symptoms at bay, the doctors said.

Why Chinese seek 'magical remedies'

Three years into the pandemic, the World Health Organization and health officials in different countries have established protocols for treating COVID. In China, the widespread circulation of misinformation about “magical drugs” and “folk remedies” underscores both people’s fears about COVID and the country’s lack of preparedness to handle widescale outbreaks. 

Other countries have also grappled with disinformation about COVID treatments. In the U.S., many people and even former President Trump had advocated the use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that’s been widely shown as ineffective as a COVID treatment.

A senior Chinese health expert who works with Chinese health authorities attributed the current chaotic situation in China to false propaganda on the deadliness of COVID and to the “improper distribution of medical resources in the past three years.” 

The expert, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said in an interview that China has spent enormous resources on mass testing, lockdowns, and isolation of infected people, but didn’t use this period to update its healthcare system to prepare for potential major outbreaks. Now many people with symptoms can’t access essential medicine and health services, so they are resorting to “magical remedies.”

In addition, the government’s previous stringent zero-COVID policies and messaging emphasizing the dangers of COVID have placed a heavy psychological burden on the public, the expert said. Even though authorities are now seeking to convey the relative mildness of the current Omicron variant, the public’s anxiety can’t be dispelled instantly.

The expert added that the popular folk remedies and traditional Chinese medicines currently being promoted as COVID cures are not credible. She suggested that most COVID patients will recover through rest and that they can alleviate their discomfort by taking proven over-the-counter medicines. However, patients who develop serious symptoms should seek medical care.

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) is a new branch of RFA, established to counter disinformation in today’s complex media environment. Our journalists publish both daily and special reports that aim to sharpen and deepen our readers’ understanding of public issues.

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