With no approved drugs for the new coronavirus, some people are turning to alternative medicines, often with governments promoting them.
This is most evident in India and China, densely populated countries with a deep history and tradition of touting such treatments, and where there’s sometimes limited access to conventional medicine.
In India, where a lockdown of its 1.3 billion residents is underway, the government faced criticism after claiming some treatments might help prevent infections. In China, where the pandemic began, officials made unsubstantiated claims that traditional medicine was key to fighting the virus. In Venezuela, where the health care system is severely crimped, President Nicolas Maduro pitched drinking an herbal tea.
The World Health Organization had advised against taking “traditional herbal remedies” on its website. It later acknowledged that some were turning to alternative medicine “to alleviate some of the milder symptoms of COVID-19,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, welcomed rigorous studies of alternative treatments “like we would of any drug.” He said numerous studies are underway in China, many testing traditional therapies.
“It’s up to the people who make the claim to provide the evidence,” said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs Quackwatch, a website about unproven medical therapies.
On Thursday, the U.S. National Institutes of Health warned against alternative medicine — including certain herbal therapies and teas — for treating or preventing COVID-19, saying there was no evidence they work and some may be unsafe.
Here’s a closer look at the claims:
India is steeped in Ayurveda, a Hindu system of medicine that revolves around herbal medicines and dietary restrictions.
As the outbreak spread outside China earlier this year, India’s health arm that promotes alternative medicine pushed unproven remedies to “strengthen the immune system,” according to an online post by the Ministry of AYUSH.
Criticism prompted the government to clarify that these remedies were not a cure. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended India’s lockdown and asked citizens to “follow the instructions issued by AYUSH ministry to enhance immunity.”
The government also recommended a single dose of a homeopathic drug, according to Anu Kapoor, who heads a government-run homeopathic hospital in New Delhi.