Doctors warn against claims that Beijing-touted health supplement distributed in Canada treats COVID-19

International student Neemay Li didn’t hesitate to show off on YouTube a gift from Vancouver’s Chinese consulate in early April.

Like thousands of other Chinese students in Canada who are sheltering in place due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Li received what the Chinese government officially calls a “health-care package.” 

It’s a goody bag with surgical masks, two N95 respirators, disinfectant wipes and two boxes of 24 Lianhua Qingwen capsules — a traditional Chinese medicine approved by China’s health authorities as part of the standard therapy for COVID-19 symptoms.

“These are the love from my motherland,” the 24-year-old theatre production major at Simon Fraser University said in Mandarin while opening the bag in her video.

SFU student Neemay Li said she’s grateful to receive the capsules from the Chinese consulate because she’s seen the product selling for high prices online in Canada. (CBC)

Li says she’s heard the pills can be sold for about $50 per box in Toronto.

The capsules’ popularity — and price — has been rising due to misinformation circulating on Chinese state media regarding its efficacy. Doctors in Canada are warning people to be cautious about the herbal supplement, even though it has met the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and Natural Health Products Regulations since 2012 and is sold in Canada.

Health Canada is vowing to take action to stop any false or misleading claims that products can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.

“Selling unauthorized health products or making false or misleading claims to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 is illegal in Canada,” said Health Canada’s spokesperson in an emailed statement to CBC News. “The department takes this matter very seriously and will take action to stop this activity.”

Lianhua Qingwen capsules are manufactured by Yiling Pharmaceutical based in China’s Hebei province. 

The supplement is made of herbs including weeping forsythia, Japanese honeysuckle flowers and ephedra, which are common in traditional Chinese medicine to treat what’s called “wind heat,” usually appearing as cold-like symptoms, said Jeda Boughton, a Vancouver doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) who has been practising for almost two decades. 

Jeda Boughton, a registered TCM doctor in Vancouver, said traditional Chinese medicine shouldn’t be taken preemptively before illness happens. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Boughton is cautious about the Chinese embassy’s practice to distribute a TCM product to a large number of people, because traditional Chinese medicine is tailor-made for patients for one particular moment after they present symptoms. 

“This is not something that you would take preemptively before you have this illness,” she said. 

Boughton recommended seeking professional opinions before taking over-the-counter TCM products. 

Misinformation in Chinese media

The medication has gained traction in Chinese media since February, when respiratory health experts in China’s Guangdong province announced that it and other four other TCM products have “efficacy in inhibiting coronavirus.” 

There is no evidence the product can kill the coronavirus, but Chinese state media has exaggerated its usefulness. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan on Mar. 10. State-controlled media in China run misleading headlines that suggest Lianhua Qingwen capsules and other TCM products can treat COVID-19. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

A recent news story on the China Global Television Network says “traditional Chinese medicine Lianhua Qingwen capsule has been proven effective for the treatment of COVID-19.”

A news story by China Daily last month ran the under headline “TCM drugs approved to treat virus.”

“If you read it very fast, then you’re assuming that it’s treating the COVID-19,” said Dr. Peter Lin, CBC medical columnist and a family doctor based in Toronto.

Treating symptoms doesn’t mean treating disease

According to the company’s website, Lianhua Qingwen capsules are recognized by China’s National Health Commission for treating symptoms of COVID-19, such as fatigue and fever, but not the coronavirus itself.

According to CBC medical columnist Dr. Peter Lin, a product that can treat the symptoms of COVID-19 doesn’t mean it can treat the coronavirus itself. (CBC)

Lin said treating symptoms of a disease should not be confused with treating the disease.

“We all take a Tylenol or acetaminophen for fever. COVID-19 has fever. So then I’m going to take the Tylenol or acetaminophen for the fever, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a treatment to get rid of COVID-19,” said Lin.

“So I think that’s where we just have to make sure that the consumer … understands.”

But some online retailers are already taking advantage of the capsules’ fame to gouge consumers. While Yiling’s online shop sells 24 capsules for 14.80 Chinese yuan ($2.96 Cdn), the capsules are listed for many times that price on eBay and similar websites.

Gift packages distributed across Canada

The gift packages were distributed by Chinese diplomatic missions across Canada and around the world — via the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations — to international students of Chinese nationality. 

Vancouver’s Chinese consul general Tong Xiaoling (right) presented the “health-care package” to a student representative at a ceremony held at the consulate’s premise in Shaughnessy. (Chinese Consulate General in Vancouver)

In early April, the Chinese consulate held a small ceremony in its Shaughnessy premises in Vancouver to dispatch the gifts to international students across British Columbia. 

“Despite its small size, the ‘health-care package’ conveys the care from the [Chinese Communist] Party and the [Chinese] government, and symbolizes the pamperings from people in the motherland,” said the consulate’s Chinese-language press release on the event.

Students should have COVID-19 information literacy

Kong Weiwei is a Chinese deputy consul general in Vancouver and attended the ceremony. He echoed Health Canada’s message that there’s currently no treatment to kill the coronavirus and said Chinese students should be mature enough to read the Lianhua Qingwen capsules’ instructions and other sources of information to avoid any misunderstanding.

“They’re not babies,” Kong said in English referring to the university students. “We don’t want to be like a nanny telling every one of them these [the capsules] cannot kill the virus,” he said in Mandarin. 

“Canadians are so meticulous when it comes to reading the drug use instructions….They [the Chinese students] should have learned from the Canadians.”

Vancouver’s deputy consul general Kong Weiwei said international students are mature enough to understand information related to COVID-19 on their own. (CBC)

Kong said students could consult with TCM or Western doctors regarding the use of Lianhua Qingwen capsules. 

Li said she would seek doctor’s advice if she was ill enough to consider taking the capsules. But said she is grateful to her government for taking care of her when she is stuck in a foreign country amid the pandemic.

“[The] Canadian government has a lot of plans like CERB [Canadian Emergency Response Benefit], but I’m a student and I don’t qualify to apply for it. So I really got nothing from the Canadian government, and they didn’t give me any masks, any medicines or any manuals.” 

Health Canada encourages anyone who has information regarding potential non-compliant advertising of any health product claiming to treat, prevent or cure COVID-19, to report it by sending an email at drug-device-marketing@canada.ca or using the online complaint form.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

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