At his multi-million dollar-state of the art lab just outside of Vancouver, Dr. Ma Yuan-Chan and his team of researchers spend endless hours working to deliver the promise of ancient remedies using the precision of modern technology.
Here, Dr. Ma, a globally renowned professor of pharmaceutical sciences, has led his team to establish the profiles for a large variety of North American and Chinese herbs to determine their identity, potency, and efficacy.
They include Ginkgo biloba, Ginseng, Rhodiola, Echinacea, and Golden Seal; commonly found in the makeup of top-selling herbal medicines, which are inevitable in most of our medicine cabinets.
The analytical methodologies developed at Dr. Ma’s lab have become the international benchmarks to determine the quality of raw materials and finished natural health products in Canada, the United States and China. They are listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia and the Chinese Pharmacopoeia – the leading authoritative guides for herbal drug ingredients and formulas.
Now, amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ma and his team have turned their attention to a combination of herbs in a formula called Shuanghuanglian or SHL, used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat cold, flu and respiratory ailments.
“It is by no means a cure or vaccine for the COVID-19 virus,” said Dr. Ma, who has published over 100 peer-reviewed research papers used by universities, regulatory bodies and drug companies in Asia, Europe, and North America.
“Our observation and that of the international herbal medicine community is SHL targets viral replication and boosts immune response on the viruses causing colds, cough, sore throat and fever.
“It is a product that has been widely used since the sixties as an antiviral and antimicrobial Chinese medicine,” said Dr. Ma, whose scientifically produced SHL formula is licensed by Health Canada, “to relieve symptoms of the common cold, including fever, coughing and sore throat.”
So what exactly is Shuanghuanglian aka SHL?
According to Health Canada, which has licensed the SHL produced by Dr. Ma’s Labs, the herbal formula is a combination of extracts from the honeysuckle flower, the root of the Chinese skullcap, and Forsythia, a genus of flowering plants in the olive family.
It is approved for use in Canada to help relieve symptoms of the common cold including fever, coughing and sore throat – also signs of the onset of COVID-19. Health Canada does not recommend the use of SHL by pregnant women or new mothers who are breastfeeding.
This month, The Chinese government acknowledged the important role Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has played in treating COVID-19 patients and has added treatment of the virus to the specifications of three traditional medicines.
Zhang Boli, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and president of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said the three Chinese patent medicines
Jinhua Qinggan Granule, Lianhua Qingwen Capsule and Xuebijing Injection
have proven to be clinically effective in treating COVID-19.
The key herbs in these traditional medicines are also part of the SHL formula, which is now being studied in China for approval to be used by COVID 19 patients.
“Unfortunately, SHL got some bad press in February after some Chinese media misreported that it is effective in inhibiting the novel coronavirus,” said Dr. Ma. This triggered an online shopping frenzy.
The Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica Chinese Academy of Science clarified by stating: “Modern medical research believes ShuangHuangLian oral liquid is effective in fighting viruses, curbing bacteria and boosting the immune system.
“Presently, ShuangHuangLian oral liquid is undergoing clinical research at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and Wuhan Tongji Hospital.”
Whether SHL can be added to the arsenal to combat COVID 19 remains to be seen.
But it continues to be a go-to herbal remedy for the 400 million patients who are treated with traditional Chinese medicine in China every year.
It is estimated the total TCM market within China will rise to $107 billion by 2025; TCM has also spread beyond traditional Chinese communities, with the global TCM market valued at $121 billion USD.
As scientists, pharma giants and government health agencies race to develop vaccines or treatments for COVID-19, there is increasing scrutiny into the role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in eradicating the disease and other ailments caused by a broad spectrum of the virus, including coronaviruses.
Figures from the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine showed a total of 74,187 confirmed COVID-19 patients, which account for 91.5 percent of the total infections on the Chinese mainland, had been administered TCM as part of their treatment. Over 90 percent had shown improvement by the end of March.
According to Yu Yanhong, secretary of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, speaking at a March 23 press conference in Wuhan, traditional remedies have alleviated symptoms, reduced the severity of the virus, improved recovery rates and reduced mortality rate, NBC reported.
In a review recently published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, by researchers at the State Key Laboratory of Quality Research in Chinese Medicine, and the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences, University of Macau, China, scientists report that in addition to conventional supportive care, “greater than 85% of SARS-CoV-2 infected patients in China are receiving Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment.”
The use of Chinese medicine has been supported by the Chinese national medical authorities during other recent pandemics, including the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 and H7N9 in 2013, according to the South China Morning Post.
Traditional Chinese medicine has proved effective in shortening the recovery time of patients with mild symptoms, and a mixture of tai chi, acupuncture and massage can help with their mental health, according to Zhang Boli, a Chinese medicine expert with the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
China is also working with the World Health Organisation to share information on the use of TCM in epidemic prevention and control. It has shared its experiences and donated TCM products to Japan, South Korea, Italy, Iran, Singapore, Cambodia and France to help in their fight against COVID-19.
China has also developed a Chinese-English bilingual online platform — the Beijing Remote Health Service Platform
to share with the world its experiences of fighting the disease using TCM.
With the increase scrutiny on herbal medicine efficacy in the fight against the current pandemic, there is also increased skepticism by the western medical establishment and pharma giants about the use of TCM.
Traditional Chinese medicine or TCM is a system of medicine that has evolved over 3,000 years and is rooted in maintaining the harmonious flow of energy in the human body.
Ironically, the “harmony principle” is the very essence of the discord between TCM adherents and skeptics.
“Traditional Chinese medicine doctors look at the balance of body, mind, and spirit to determine how to restore qi (energy flows), the yin-yang (opposing forces in the body) balance, and good health,” states the Health Ministry of British Columbia, the first Canadian province to regulate TCM and Acupuncture as a medical health professional.
Because of its fundamental philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine differs from Western medical practice in diagnosis and treatment methods and is difficult to apply Western scientific standards to it.
Last May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) provoked controversy among Western medical experts by endorsing TCM in a chapter of its influential guide of recommended health practice, the International Classification of Diseases.
“Global extension of traditional Chinese medicine with multiple western medicine based disciplines will benefit people all over the world,” WHO said.
Among the most vocal critics of the WHO declaration was Dan Larhammar, a molecular cell biologist and president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
He said the lack of detail about the remedies contributes to doubts over their efficacy, stressing the need for more scientific rigour in studies about TCM.
Qiu Haibo, vice-president of Zhongda Hospital of Southeast University, explained that Western medicine, mostly chemical drugs, were designed to hit a single target, while TCM drugs work like a team and act on multiple targets.
“In the case of Covid-19, the virus can cause inflammation and immune disorder, leading to impaired organ function, including the lungs and heart.
“Western medicine focuses on one area while TCM can treat various problems, ” he said.
Liu Qingquan, president of Beijing Hospital of TCM, said the treatment for infectious diseases mainly focuses on three methods – clearing heat, eliminating dampness, and detoxification.
“TCM is able to quickly mobilize the body’s defence system to evict invading enemies and prevent viruses from causing significant damage to the body.
“Eliminating dampness boosts immunity to fight the virus while clearing heat can change the internal environment of the body so that the virus cannot escape or hide, ” he said.
Dr. Ma, in Vancouver, believes much of the debate about TCM revolves around the purity, potency and consistency of the product from batch-to-batch, not so much about whether the actual plant ingredients have healing attributes.
“We have spent years to develop reliable analytical methods to better identify the quality of raw materials and finished products,” said Dr. Ma
“Many products on the market have been found to be counterfeits, tainted with marker compounds or even misidentified as the wrong species. The goal of our research is to rid the market of these adulterated products by putting developmental efforts into creating an authoritative database that benchmarks the identification of these compounds.”
Health Canada has a similar view with that of Dr. Ma, who has 40 years of natural health experience, including standards collaborations with the Natural Health Products program at the National Research Council of Canada.
Health Canada is currently consulting on a potential new set of regulations for the labelling of “self-care” products, including cosmetics, natural health products and over-the-counter drugs.
It wants to make the rules more consistent for everything from vitamins to traditional Chinese medicine to non-prescription drugs like Aspirin and Tylenol. The proposed changes would mean herbal remedies claiming to relieve cold symptoms would require the same level of scientific evidence as an over-the-counter drug.
For Dr. Ma, this is a good thing because his SHL formula, which treats a broad spectrum of the virus, including coronaviruses, is already where Health Canada wants to go.
Wesley Richards who operates Canadian Western Herbs Corporation, which sells Dr. Ma’s SHL formula and other health products via canadianherbs.ca said natural health products generate more than $12 billion in revenue annually in Canada, and exports are valued at $1.5 to $2 billion.
“But you can’t put a price on safety, efficacy and consistency…we need good qualitative and quantitative data to ensure the consumer is getting what they are paying for,” said Richards.
“There are some out there claiming all kinds of cures and treatments especially now with COVID 19…if you are unsure check for the Health Canada NPN number to see if the labelling is accurate.”
“As for our SHL formula…it’s like having vitamin C in your cabinet…only better.”
Robert Pierce, president of the Vancouver-based Prairie Naturals, said Dr. Ma has perfected the dosage, potency and consistency of the SHL formula through years of scientific analyses.
A 30 year veteran of the natural health products industry, Pierce is now distributing the SHL formula through 2,500 outlets across the country.
“It’s a proven formula and Dr. Ma’s science has only made it better,” said Pierce.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches the capacity of hospitals around the world and as health agencies find ways to flatten the curve of infections, over 115 medical trials have been registered in China, several blending TCM with western medicine and therapies.
The central quest here is to see if the country where the COVID-19 virus originated might also be the birthplace of solutions to stop the pandemic
In British Columbia, the Home of Canadian Traditional Chinese Medicine Society, HCTCMS, a non-profit organization established by a group of traditional Chinese medicine doctors and acupuncturists, believes TCM can help in the fight against COVID-19.
The society is petitioning the B.C. government to expand the role of TCM and Acupuncture professionals to support the fight against COVID-19.
“Chinese herbal formulas, acupunctures, or other forms, the medical expert teams in China had demonstrated TCM and Acupuncture to relieve and to mitigate the symptoms caused by COVID-19; thereby, preventing the disease from mild stage to progress further into severe/critical stage.
“Due to the shortage of test kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital beds, and hospital staff, not every presumptive case can be treated in the hospital.
“By approving TCM and Acupuncture to intervene, this infectious disease when it is at the mild stage will reduce the number of hospital visits to prevent overloading of the B.C. health care system,” states the petition.