Medical experts are warning Canadians not to believe the hype after a hidden camera investigation revealed a Winnipeg acupuncturist was selling an herbal tea that he claims can prevent COVID-19.
In an email blast to clients last week, Guojian Huang, an acupuncture therapist and specialist in traditional Chinese medicine, said drinking a blend of six herbs in a tea over six days would keep people safe.
“COVID-19 is here.… So is herb tea to prevent COVID-19,” said the email, which was sent March 18.
It told clients of the acupuncture clinic to “order your coronavirus prevention tea now.”
A Facebook post from the same day made a similar claim.
“This is quite outrageous,” said Cedric Cheung, the national president of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada, when told about the claim.
“You cannot make a statement that can possibly mislead a patient.”
Health Canada has not approved any product to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Selling unauthorized health products or making false or misleading claims to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 is illegal in Canada,” a Health Canada spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.
“We take this matter very seriously and we are taking action to stop this activity.”
Tea bags sold to reporter
Using a hidden camera, a CBC reporter posed last week as an interested customer and visited Huang’s clinic to pick up the tea. The recommended six-day treatment cost $60.
He claimed that about 200 doctors and medical staff travelled to the Chinese city of Wuhan — where the virus was first detected in December — and treated patients infected with the disease, but none of them got sick.
“Before going to Wuhan everybody drink this kind of tea, everybody safe after they come back,” Huang told the CBC reporter. “They stay almost one month there.“
WATCH | Hidden camera video inside Winnipeg’s Ankang Acupuncture Healing Centre:
He said in two days he had already sold “hundreds” of packets of the tea, which he mixed at his Winnipeg clinic, Ankang Acupuncture Healing Centre.
Huang said he used herbs from Vancouver and Toronto and followed a recipe crafted by Chinese doctors who had travelled to Wuhan.
“Sometimes experience is more important than science,” Huang told CBC’s reporter.
Huang declined a later interview request but told CBC News via email that his belief in the tea’s healing properties comes from teachings.
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“All info I told you on the phone or in my clinic, I got them from online seminar as well as lots research articles, online-news, etc. where Chinese medicine doctors shared their experiences and knowledge of using Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture to prevent and treat coronavirus,” said Huang’s email.
He later walked back his comments in another email to CBC.
“Please don’t misunderstand the Chinese herbal tea benefits,” said Huang in the later email.
“For prevention, most important is to keep social distance, hand washing, self isolation, wear masks, gloves, eye goggles as needed. Herbs can’t instead of those things.”
‘Now they think they’re invincible’: physician
A Toronto physician who treated patients during the SARS outbreak cautions people against believing claims about COVID-19 cures.
“My concern is that they’re desperate,” said Dr. Peter Lin in a Skype interview with CBC News. “They take this stuff and then now they think they’re invincible, and they don’t do the precautions that will actually protect them, because now they’re trusting in this particular tea.”
Lin runs two family practices in Toronto and is a regular CBC columnist. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he’s heard everything from claims that standing on your head will keep the virus away, to claims that drinking warm water and vinegar will prevent infection.
“Everybody wants to find that magical ‘take vitamin C and you’ll be OK’ … kind of thing,” he said.
“But unfortunately, with this particular virus, it gets into your lungs and it attaches there. So the best thing is to avoid it coming into your lungs. In other words, protect your personal borders.”
Lin said what is effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 is washing your hands often, avoiding touching your face, and keeping your distance from others.
Watch: Canadians cautioned not to believe hype around prevention or cures for coronavirus:
‘Our whole interest is in public safety’
The Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association’s Cheung, who has been an acupuncturist for 45 years, says when it comes to a pandemic such as COVID-19, non-traditional medicine can help people — but it has to be used in conjunction with Western medicine.
“We will happily combine them [herbal and Western medicines] to do the best that we can to establish a success rate,” he said.
He called it “unprofessional” for any acupuncturist to make broad statements such as Huang’s.
“Our whole interest is in public safety and health. It is No. 1, and you cannot make a statement that can possibly mislead a patient,” he said.
“If I know any member of my organization [has made a] fictional statement, I will definitely take action.”
On Wednesday, Cheung said a letter was sent to Huang after the COVID-19 treatment claims were brought to his attention by CBC News. The letter warned Huang to be “cautious” in advertising herbal products in relation to COVID-19, and said any future offence could be subject to legal action.
A Winnipeg virologist said just because the doctors in Wuhan did not contract the virus, it does not mean it was the tea that protected them.
“Correlation does not equal causation, and that that is simply how we look at things in the lab,” said Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
There are currently no medical treatments that prevent or cure COVID-19, Kindrachuk said, and the public needs to question anyone who claims otherwise.
“We have no vaccines and we have no therapeutics,” he said. “If we can’t validate it, it is purely anecdotal.”
Guojian Huang is not a licensed doctor and has never been registered with the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons, according to registrar Dr. Anna Ziomek.
Dr. Ziomek said the college does not register or regulate acupuncturists or Chinese medicine practitioners.
Under the Regulated Health Professions Act, only people who are licensed by the Manitoba college are entitled to use the title “doctor” in the province.
The practice of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture is not regulated in Manitoba, but many practitioners choose to belong to provincial organizations that offer examinations to become members.
Huang is the president of the board of the Manitoba Professional Association of Acupuncture.
When asked to comment on Huang’s claims, the association’s vice-president, Yujing Qiu, said Huang should not have used a word such as “prevent.”
“He should change to ‘help,'” she said in an email to CBC News. “I can help for some person to prevention, but not for everyone.”
Health Canada and the government of Manitoba do not regulate the mixture of special tea. The province said public health inspectors will inspect acupuncture establishments on a complaint basis only.
Currently, there are no routine inspection programs or regulations in place for such establishments.
FDA issues warnings about claims
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to seven companies it said were selling fraudulent COVID-19 products, including one located in Sarnia, Ont.
The FDA said the Canadian company Vivify Holistic advertised a “four-part protocol developed to combat the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan,” which the company posted on its Facebook page and on a separate website, coronavirusdefense.com.
The protocol consisted of drinking a specific loose-leaf tea six times a day.
“The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health,” Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, statement posted on the administration’s website.
“We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one.”
After the letter was made public, a spokesperson for Vivify Holistic told CBC the protocol was developed by a well-known author and herbalist. He said he removed any reference to the virus and quotes by the author from the website.
Like Health Canada, the FDA said there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat or prevent COVID-19.
Health Canada is encouraging anyone with information about the advertising or sale of any health product claiming to treat, prevent or cure COVID-19, to report it using its online complaint form.