I’m sure you’ve already come on board helping to slow the spread of the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). You’re working remotely if and when you can, you’ve giving up most of your daily routines and pleasures, practicing social distancing—in fact you’ve become a hermit holed up at home. Whether willingly or reluctantly, you’re making your contribution to our communal effort to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic to lessen the load on our overstretched healthcare system and save lives.

Now you may be wondering, Is there anything else I can do? I have good news for you: Yes you can! Let me explain. While conventional biomedicine is currently our method of choice to test for coronavirus (if we have access to testing), the prevailing Western medical model at the moment is not offering any preventative or curative treatments for this infectious disease, only supportive care in the hospital setting, which is of limited availability.

What we can learn from SARS

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV that broke out in Southern China between November 2002 and July 2003. Almost 10% of the over 8,000 cases ended in death. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the current COVID-19, is about 96% genetically identical with the earlier SARS-CoV, so it’s a good place to start looking at things that worked then, which we can now try using in the absence of a preventative or curative medical strategy.

Physicians in China have been dealing with infectious diseases for approximately 2000 years and had to devise methods to treat patients with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The knowledge and experience of medical professionals in East Asia are now a highly valuable resource for us faced with this coronavirus pandemic.

While acupuncture can be used successfully for prevention, mild cases of respiratory infection, as well as recovery, in our Western practice model we are not really set up and equipped to safely care for very ill patients. So, I will focus on Chinese herbal medicine, which can be dispensed to much larger numbers of people and without the absolute need for personal interaction.

How Chinese herbal medicine has been used in China

A number of modern clinical studies from the SARS epidemic almost 20 years ago have informed treatment guidelines of several large hospitals at the center of the recent outbreak in Hubei province, as well as of the Chinese government. These treatment guidelines and strategies are firmly rooted in the body of knowledge of traditional medicine.

Across these different authorities, similar stages of the epidemic are described that can be addressed by Chinese herbal prescription: (1) prevention phase; (2) early phase; (3) pneumonia phase; and (4) recovery phase. I won’t go into much detail about the pathophysiology of these different stages, other than to say that if someone has entered the pneumonia phase, their life is in serious jeopardy and they clearly belong in appropriate hospital care, maybe even an ICU.

How you can use Chinese medicine during this epidemic

So, let’s talk then about the other three stages or phases that you’re more likely going to be finding yourself in and left to your own devices. The prevention phase is now. The vast majority of us are currently healthy or, at most, dealing with mild symptoms of the common cold, seasonal allergies or the flu. Of course, we can’t discount the possibility that any of these symptoms may turn out to be caused by SARS-CoV-2 because we have such limited capacity in this country to test for the virus. Also, don’t forget that we may all be carriers and spreading the virus while not yet showing any symptoms or even never developing symptoms. If you count yourself in this category, your task is to get well again and restore the resilience and competency of your immune system, as well as to “lubricate” your body in such a way that this virus has less of a chance to latch on and overwhelm your defenses. We have a number of different botanicals in the Chinese materia medica that have stood the test of time for centuries accomplishing just that in a couple of widely used combinations. This is backed up by good research.

Should you become sicker and suspect a coronavirus infection, all is not lost. Again, we have a range of different classical prescription formulas that include medicinal herbs with known antiviral action, demonstrated in modern laboratory and clinical research, in addition to herbs that can help your body clear inflammation, reduce high fever, dissolve and expectorate the thick, sticky phlegm in your lungs typical of this viral infection (and often manifesting in dry cough), as well as clearing toxins of the disintegrating viruses and tissue from the body.

Similar herbal formulas can still play a useful role even during the severe phase of pneumonia, though I wouldn’t recommend you rely solely on them for your survival, if you have access to intensive medical care. Hopefully, by beginning to treat early you can change course and avoid more serious illness.

Lastly, after you’ve overcome the worst of the disease and are entering recovery and reconvalescence, Chinese herbal prescriptions can be instrumental in helping your body heal, regain immunocompetence, and prevent a relapse. This phase may last weeks or even months after severe illness, but the herbs we use during this time are mild and nourishing; they can be taken over longer time periods.

Working together

Chinese medicine has a thorough and detailed diagnostic model for analyzing and discerning symptoms of health and disease. While our language and terminology may sound archaic to the uninitiated, they are reliable and precise; they have served our profession and patients well for hundreds of years. We are in a place now where we need all hands on deck. Physicians trained in conventional biomedicine and pharmacology, and doctors of Chinese medicine and naturopathy need to work together so that we all can get through this pandemic and regain a sense of equilibrium and good health, as well as reclaim our communities and joy of life.

© 2020 Christiane Siebert