A Novel Approach to the Coronavirus? The best

The best way to take on an unknown invader is to beef up defences, according to
traditional Chinese medicine

By Dr Chen Zanyu

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, now formally known
as Covid-19, in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei Province,
has presented an unprecedented challenge to health authorities
all over the world. From SARS, MERS to Covid-19, we humans
are facing more dangerous unknowns than ever before.
Each virus pops up seemingly out of nowhere and causes mass illness
and death, while the best that medical professionals can do is
work tirelessly to limit its damage. It’s a war without borders, and we
often don’t know where our enemies come from – or even who they
really are.
While top scientists work very hard for a cure and a vaccine to prevent
Covid-19, it does not cease to mutate and evolve.
Perhaps it’s time we considered a different approach.
Science has known about viruses for roughly 200 years. It’s possible
that they were here long before we humans evolved on Earth and they
will stick around whether we like it or not. While pervasive, viruses are
not intentionally lethal to humans. Perhaps there are ways we could
live with them in harmony that can also help our immune systems
protect us.
The foundation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the concept
of Tian Ren Xiang Ying (which translates to “the universe and
humans reflect and link with each other”). Humankind is an integral
part of the vast and mighty universe. We may not be able to see and
detect everything in nature, but we can feel and are affected by it. We
take it for granted as long as we function normally, but are shocked
and often suffer when we don’t.
Defence and Harmony
In the thousands of years of TCM history, two major pandemics
spurred the development of TCM: Shang han (or “cold damage diseases”)
gripped large parts of what is now China from around the
1st century alongside prolonged conflicts, wars, famine, cold climate
spells and social unrest. Shang han claimed countless lives and brought
the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) to an end. One of the most important
TCM systems, yin and yang energy, was developed during
that time has since saved hundreds of millions of lives.
The shang han system designates six defensive channels to identify
any yang qi (vital energy or life force) impaired by cold. As yang is
responsible for the defence system and warming of the body, it is located
in the outer and upper parts of the body where defensive battles
are more likely to occur. The symptoms and pulse changes of each
channel are unique and traceable, and formulae for the six channels
are applied to remedy the dysfunction of each. The cold has nowhere
to hide.
Of course, ancient TCM practitioners could not see the physical
causes of the illnesses, viruses, with their naked eye. But they could
feel, trace and anticipate where it would attack. Through this, they
were able to minimise or prevent harm.
Instead, TCM diagnoses a disharmony of cold (han) as the carrier
(which could be seen as bacteria, protozoa, mycoplasmas, yeasts or
viruses) that attacks yang qi, one of the most important aspects of
our defence system (roughly equivalent to the immune system). The
symptoms of impaired yang qi in different channels and organs signal
A Novel Approach to
the Coronavirus?
The best way to take on an unknown invader is to beef up defences, according to
traditional Chinese medicine
By Dr Chen Zanyu
CHINAREPORT I March 2020 41
which TCM methods and formulae to apply for treatment.
TCM sees disharmony of cold as “atmospheric excess” that requires
increasing yang or warming up particular organs or channels to regain
the body’s natural balance. The defending qi will get rid of the pathogens
without harming the body or developing drug resistances.
This approach may not sound very impressive as modern medicine
seems to do much better without relying on TCM. Medications are
prescribed to target and kill pathogens, dangerous viruses or other
microorganisms. But pharmaceuticals often affect our immune systems
as well.
Debates and Analyses
There have been debates and disputes that touch on the credibility
of TCM.
Some ask if TCM cannot distinguish cold from pandemics, how
can the liu yin, or “six atmospheric excesses,” cover such a variety of
The answer is that it can, just as the naked eye can distinguish a
broad spectrum of colours made from just three primary ones.
TCM diagnoses Covid-19 symptoms as a “dampness attack combined
with cold or heat” and “accumulated turbidity.” Like the primary
colours, these are the basic symptoms that need to be addressed
when there is a liu yin disharmony.
The Lancet published a paper on January 24 titled “Clinical features
of patients infected with Covid-19 in Wuhan, China.” Based on the
initial 41 cases, fever and cough symptoms are common, which indicates
for TCM that the virus attacks the lung channel, triggers strong
yang defence and produces excessive heat. Reports from Wuhan note
that fevers are generally under 38 C. Some patients don’t even exhibit
high temperatures, making it difficult to monitor the susceptible
In TCM, however, this indicates the yang heat is not strong. The
pathogen’s properties are more likely accumulated dampness, which
is further signalled by digestive issues and diarrhoea. Wuhan is a city
criss-crossed with rivers and lakes. With water covering a quarter of its
total area, Wuhan has a high degree of dampness.
The dry cough and consequent dyspnoea and acute cardiac injury
of some Covid-19 cases also indicate dryness (or yin exhaustion
caused by lifestyle or loss of bodily fluid due to chronic heat) and cold
properties. The dampness, cold and dryness accumulate and attack
the body, causing the immune system to break down and the disease
to take hold.
The complex yin-yang nature of pathogens can exceed the effectiveness
of the human immune system and medical treatment, causing a
pandemic outbreak.
Questions have also been raised as to why TCM cannot find universal
cures like modern medicine can. Why do TCM doctors always
talk about individual cases? Don’t they know that individual cases do
not count for much in modern medicine?
Well, I would say TCM is both universal and individual. While it
has been developed without the benefit of big data, it has been leading
the way in personalised medicine. TCM has helped produce universal
cures like Artemisinin and Tamiflu for malaria and some types of
influenza. Within China, many pharmaceuticals have been developed
with the help of TCM practices, and more will come in the future.
But viruses are evolving all the time and patients’ personal health
and environmental conditions vary. TCM’s holistic approach has a
better chance of getting on top of the viruses and treating the patient
as a complete entity. Aren’t those the aims of personalised treatment
in modern medicine?
Future developments may not take the form of TCM as we know
it today. But as society seeks an alternative holistic solution, these developments
may integrate Western medicine with Chinese wisdom,
TCM’s rich history, big data and artificial intelligence.
Treating the patient as an individual has been the best method of
all, and in the current fight against Covid-19, solutions offered by
TCM should not be undervalued.
Dr Chen Zanyu, a medical graduate from China, is president of the
Federation of TCM Practitioners in the UK and chief editor of the Journal
of Chinese Medicine in the UK