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COVID-19 and Asian Herbals: Considering the Impact Plants Could Have on the Pandemic

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Traditional Chinese Meds

Here are some Asian Herbals known to mitigate disease that could have an impact on slowing down the Coronavirus pandemic.


Mitigating a Disease

The past few weeks have been hard on everyone in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lacking a proven vaccine to stop the spread of the disease, we have resorted to social isolation as a way to mitigate the spread of the disease and the continual rise in death rates.

The big question of today is just how long will we engage in social distancing? One very justified concern is that politics and greed will trump common sense, and that social distancing will be relaxed too soon, resulting in a prolongation of the pandemic and an even a greater number of deaths to show for it. Fool me once and shame on you, fool me twice and…well you get the picture.

In light of that until a vaccine is discovered and proven to be efficacious and safe, mitigation appears to be our only recourse for survival. This point was recently made in an editorial in the scientific journal Nature Plants with the added reminder that plants are important not only for food—but also for medicine.

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This premise was supported by examples of herbal medicines that have been used for technically the longest clinical trials in history spanning centuries if not longer. However, because those herbal medicines do not come packaged in a cleverly marketed trappings with an FDA stamp of approval gracing its surface, most herbals are discounted as something less…if not dangerous.

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The Difference Between Eastern and Western Drug Development

The biggest difference between Eastern herbal drugs and Western drugs is that the mechanisms behind the efficacy of the Eastern herbal drugs are not as thoroughly analyzed and understood at the molecular level, as it is through a modern Western drug development process.

The editorial points out that drug development in Chinese medicine is largely based on experiences from clinical practices, which is philosophically different from the routine drug development strategy. However, this approach has some advantages.

For example, the safety and effects of many herbal medicines has a history that spans between hundreds to thousands of years, with demonstrated efficacy and safety already in place. Compare that to modern Western drug development which can take many years before a promising therapeutic survives running the gauntlet from lab bench to FDA-approval and eventual prescription.

Timeliness, therefore, is a significant advantage, particularly during emergencies such as the pandemic we face today.

Anti-Viral Herbal Medicine Has a Promising History

According to the editorial, anti-viral herbal medicines have been used successfully in many historic epidemics. In summary:

Anti-viral herbal medicines have been used in many historic epidemics with extracts from plants such as Lycoris radiate, Artemisia annua and Lindera aggregate. Natural products isolated from Isatis indigotica, Torreya nucifera and Houttuynia cordata, have shown anti-SARS effects, while the plant flavone baicalein can prevent dengue virus entry into the host and inhibit post-entry replication. In addition, natural products from Pelargonium sidoides roots and dandelion have anti-influenza activities, as they inhibit virus entry and key viral enzyme activities.

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Asian Herbals that Show Promise

Here is a summary of some proposed Asian Herbals:

1. Chloroquine Phosphate—while chloroquine phosphate has been a contentious topic in news of late, the editorial clarifies its possibilities as well as its limits.

China announced on 17 February, 2020 that it was using chloroquine phosphate as an early line of defense against COVID-19. Health authorities from China reported that chloroquine phosphate (a structural analogue of quinine, originally extracted from the bark of cinchona trees) can be used for treating COVID-19 patients. This anti-malarial herbal-based drug also has the added benefit of broad-spectrum antiviral activity and regulatory effects on the immune system. Clinical evaluation of chloroquine phosphate in more than ten hospitals across several provinces in China has shown that it alleviates the symptoms for most patients and expedites virus seroconversion.

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However, note that the authorities did not tout is as a cure; Only, that they found it mitigated symptoms of the COVID-19.

According to the editorial, “The epidemiologist Nanshan Zhong, who is credited with discovering the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and is advising on the management of the COVID-19 outbreak, has said that chloroquine phosphate is not a highly effective cure but its effects deserve attention, even though its pharmaceutical mechanism remains unclear. However, quinine and quinine derivatives have been used for two hundred years, and the bark from which it is extracted for far longer. Their safe usage and potential side effects are well established.”

Unfortunately, chloroquine phosphate has received some alarming press when misused by a panicked public.

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2. Diammonium Glycyrrhizinate—an extract of liquorice roots, diammonium glycyrrhizinate has anti-inflammatory activity and is used to treat liver damage caused by hepatitis B. Professor Hong Ding of Wuhan University has proposed a combination of diammonium glycyrrhizinate and vitamin C as a COVID-19 therapy. While the editorial admits that this combination gained some attention due in part to publication, such as in the Health Times (Jiankang Shibao). It has not been officially recommended, but is in the process of undergoing clicical trials.

3. Traditional Chinese Medicine Decoctions—The editorial tells us that the latest version of the diagnosis and treatment plan issued by the National Health of Commission of China, recommends some traditional Chinese medicine decoctions. A decoction is a medicinal preparation made from a plant in which an extract of some essence of the plant believed to have medicinal properties is provided in pill form for healthcare usage.

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Examples provided include Huoxiang Zhengqi capsules, Lianhua Qingwen capsules and Radix isatidis granula—the latter two of which were used in treating the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003. Lianhua Qingwen is reported to be under current investigation regarding its effects on treating COVID-19.

Boli Zhang, a leading traditional Chinese medicine expert advising on COVID-19 management, claims that the aforementioned herbal medicines were effective toward improving symptoms of disease such as coughing, weakness and digestive system disorders as well as alleviating anxiety.

A Final Note

An important distinction that the editorial makes is that like chloroquine phosphate, these herbal medicines are generally not highly potent and thus cannot be regarded as a cure—in spite of hyperbole made by our current administration to placate the public with misinformation and lies.

However, Asian herbal medicines’ value right now may lie in that they have the potential to mitigate the impact of the disease on human suffering and aid in slowing down the Coronavirus pandemic until a true cure can be found.

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The editorial closes with what could be interpreted as a plea for not just our nation, but the World as well, for education and for the need for science to govern and guide our response. During this social distancing, We the People are held hostage to disease and politics, and we can be assured that we have not seen our last pandemic.

“Understanding the taxonomy, ecology and conservation of herbs, as well as the pathways of secondary metabolite synthesis, is important for drug development. Investing in research into ethnobotany, phytochemistry, plant physiology, and ecology will be vital in protecting the global population from current and future pandemics.”

If you have a view you would like to share about your experience using an Asian Herbal, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Reference:Redeploying plant defences” Nat. Plants 6, 177 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-0628-0

This story has been reviewed by Dr. Inaam Schneider, MD of Schneider Medical Group. According to U.S. News Health, Dr. Inaam Schneider is an internist in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

Dr. Schneider adds: "Herbal Chinese medicine modalities can give us some help in combating the coronavirus illness. This could include Cloroquin which is structurally related to the quinine extract from tree bark. In China, some studies revealed improvement of the symptoms and reduction of viral load and consequently seronegative testing for coronavirus.

"There are other modalities including herbal concoction’s (which have several substances): however these should be guided by further studies and clinical trials. Other things we can do to improve our resistance to COVID-19 are getting enough rest, eating healthy and a moderate amount of exercise. This hopefully will improve our immunity & make us less susceptible to the disease. This Has to be coupled with social distancing and remaining homebound until the severity of this pandemic is reduced.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.