Can Chinese Medicine Be Used for Prevention of Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)? A Review of Historical Classics, Research Evidence and Current Prevention Programs



Since December 2019, an outbreak of corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19) occurred in Wuhan, and rapidly spread to almost all parts of China. This was followed by prevention programs recommending Chinese medicine (CM) for the prevention. In order to provide evidence for CM recommendations, we reviewed ancient classics and human studies.


Historical records on prevention and treatment of infections in CM classics, clinical evidence of CM on the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, and CM prevention programs issued by health authorities in China since the COVID-19 outbreak were retrieved from different databases and websites till 12 February, 2020. Research evidence included data from clinical trials, cohort or other population studies using CM for preventing contagious respiratory virus diseases.


The use of CM to prevent epidemics of infectious diseases was traced back to ancient Chinese practice cited in Huangdi’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) where preventive effects were recorded. There were 3 studies using CM for prevention of SARS and 4 studies for H1N1 influenza. None of the participants who took CM contracted SARS in the 3 studies. The infection rate of H1N1 influenza in the CM group was significantly lower than the non-CM group (relative risk 0.36, 95% confidence interval 0.24–0.52; n=4). For prevention of COVID-19, 23 provinces in China issued CM programs. The main principles of CM use were to tonify qi to protect from external pathogens, disperse wind and discharge heat, and resolve dampness. The most frequently used herbs included Radix astragali (Huangqi), Radix glycyrrhizae (Gancao), Radix saposhnikoviae (Fangfeng), Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae (Baizhu), Lonicerae Japonicae Flos (Jinyinhua), and Fructus forsythia (Lianqiao).


Based on historical records and human evidence of SARS and H1N1 influenza prevention, Chinese herbal formula could be an alternative approach for prevention of COVID-19 in high-risk population. Prospective, rigorous population studies are warranted to confirm the potential preventive effect of CM.


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Author information




Luo H, Tang QL, and Liu JP conceived of the design and carried out the study. Tang QL undertook the literature review of historical evidence and assisted in writing the manuscript. Shang YX and Liang SB translated and assisted in analyzing Chinese data. Yang M provided suggestions for the design of study. Luo H undertook the literature review of prevention programs and wrote the manuscript. Liu JP supervised the study and revised the manuscript. Robinson N revised the manuscript and provided important perspectives. All authors read and approved the final manuscript. Luo H and Tang QL contributed equally to this work.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jian-ping Liu.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

Additional information

Supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No.81830115), China; Prof. Nicola Robinson (visiting professor of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine) is supported by the Overseas Expertise Project, Ministry of Education of China (No. MS20080009)

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Luo, H., Tang, Ql., Shang, Yx. et al. Can Chinese Medicine Be Used for Prevention of Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)? A Review of Historical Classics, Research Evidence and Current Prevention Programs. Chin. J. Integr. Med. 26, 243–250 (2020).

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  • Chinese medicine
  • corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  • prevention program
  • clinical evidence
  • review