East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, but a recent high level international conference in Frankfurt, Germany, is determined to prove him wrong, at least with regards healthcare, by finding scientifically-sound intersections between Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. It's a task that, although not easy, could help cost-effectively promote patient health around the world while at the same time contributing to the health of China's economy and giving a boost to China's soft power.
The Silk Road Health Industry Cooperation Forum brought together experts from home and abroad to begin to turn today's problem into tomorrow's opportunity. Former Italian prime minister Massimo D'Alema called it "an extraordinary initiative to combine cultures and economic cooperation."
Forum Chairman and former Chinese minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, set the tone by stating that the European Union and Chinese health industries "can learn from each other and find opportunities for cooperation" .
World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Ren Minghui, said that he saw great promise in improving the world's health through local production and research and development of medicines. He went on to say that "traditional medicine is a very important, but often underestimated resource" that is the primary or only form of treatment for millions of people.
This was also so in China before the launch of reform and opening-up, which opened wide the gates for Western medicines to flood into China. Currently, China is the world's second largest pharmaceutical market with sales of $108 billion last year and a projected annual growth rate of over 9 percent. However, there has been no such reciprocal growth abroad with TCM exports. In fact, some countries such as the United Kingdom have made regulatory approval even more difficult.
Buchang Pharma Chairman Zhao Buchang noted at the forum that Chinese medicine is a treasure house of ancient Chinese science, with its own advantages in preventing and curing diseases. Yet no TCM treatment has been approved as a drug in the West with the substantial economic benefits this status confers. This is because TCM is based on 5,000 years of tradition and anecdotal observations, while Western medicine is based on expensive clinical trials that can last a decade. The major reasons that healthcare costs rise significantly year after year are the R&D costs and regulatory expenses for approving new medicines.
So far no TCM compound has won regulatory approval in the West although several are in the pipeline. My takeaway from the forum is there needs to be more concerted high-level collaborations. Health officials, healthcare professionals and public policy experts should be tasked with finding complementary uses for TCM and Western treatments, as well as identifying efficacious stand-alone TCM treatments.
If developed countries balk, then at least in the interim, they should establish reasonable standards to allow TCM medicines to be sold, not necessarily as cures, but not merely as nutritional supplements either.
TCM surely deserves better and so do patients, hundreds of millions of them who have neither access to, nor money for, other treatments.