Aeconomic recession It is a bad time to get sick, especially in poor countries. As conventional drugs become scarce and expensive, desperate patients are turning to cheaper herbal remedies to treat even serious illnesses like diabetes, cancer and, these days, covid-19. Many doctors, of the scrub-wearing variety, doubt the effectiveness of such treatments. But the business of selling them is healthy.
In 2021, the sales of Yiling Pharmaceutical, a large manufacturer of traditional Chinese medicines, including lianhua qingwen, used against covid, among other ailments, exceeded 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion), nearly double the pre-pandemic figure of 2019. Amid recent covid outbreaks in China in March and April , Yiling’s market capitalization exceeded $11 billion. It has since shrunk, but is still three times what it was before the pandemic. Beijing Tongrentang, another big manufacturer, has doubled in value since the start of 2020, to $11 billion. Both companies have overtaken Pfizer and AstraZeneca, two Western producers of indisputably effective covid-19 vaccines (see chart).
They have a powerful champion in President Xi Jinping. His government has praised the “positive impact on the progress of human civilization” of traditional Chinese medicine. Between 2012 and 2019, the share of alternative treatments in drug sales in China increased from 31% to 40%. The figure is probably higher today, given its widespread use against covid. As Hong Kong grappled with outbreaks this year, 1 million packages of lianhua qingwen they were sent to the territory from the mainland.
Since 2020 China also promotes the supposed benefits of lianhua qingwen in places struggling to get injections and covid treatments. Nearly 30 countries have approved the formulation for import, with some including Kuwait and Laos to treat covid. Belarus has signed an agreement with China to build a factory to produce traditional Chinese medicine in Minsk.
Regulators in the United States and Singapore have warned against the use lianhua qingwen to treat covid. That has not discouraged investors. In terms of profits, traditional medicine manufacturers have a big advantage: their reliance on ancient wisdom saves them billions in research and development costs. Pfizer and AstraZeneca funnel a fifth of their revenue, more or less, into Correct&namely, according to Bloomberg. For Yiling and Beijing Tongrentang the figures are, respectively, 7.8% and 1.2%. ■
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