(CNN) China has approved three traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products for sale to help treat Covid-19, the government's National Medical Products Administration announced on Wednesday.
The agency used a special approval procedure to green-light the three products, which "provide more options for Covid-19 treatment," it said in a statement.
The herbal products come in granular form and trace their origins to "ancient Chinese prescriptions," said the statement. They were developed from TCM remedies that had been used early in the pandemic, and that were "screened by many academics and experts on the front line."
The three products are "lung-clearing and detoxing granules," "dampness-resolving and detoxing granules," and "lung-diffusing and detoxing granules," said the statement.
The safety and effectiveness of TCM is still debated in China, where it has both adherents and skeptics. Though many of the remedies in TCM have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence to support their supposed benefits.
In recent years, ancient remedies have been repeatedly hailed as a source of national pride by Chinese President Xi Jinping, himself a well-known TCM advocate.
"Traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people," Xi told a national conference on TCM in October 2019. Throughout the outbreak, Xi has repeatedly exhorted doctors to treat patients with a mix of Chinese and Western medicines.
Tens of thousands of Covid-19 patients received herbal remedies alongside mainstream antiviral drugs last year, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
"By adjusting the whole body health and improving immunity, TCM can help stimulate the patients' abilities to resist and recover from the disease, which is an effective way of therapy," said Yu Yanhong, deputy head of China's National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in March 2020.
In a clinical trial of 102 patients with mild symptoms in Wuhan, patients with combined treatments compared with the control group of patients receiving only Western medicine, Yu said. Their recovery rate was 33% higher, she added.
By late March last year, China had gotten its outbreak largely under control -- and though it has endured occasional flare-ups in various locations, numbers have stayed low and daily life has resumed. Restrictions have been lifted, allowing people to travel around the country and gather without face masks.
Authorities have praised TCM as helping contain Covid symptoms and limit the outbreak -- in January this year, up to 60,000 doses of TCM were sent to front-line police officers to protect them from Covid-19, according to the TCM administration. A number of provinces, including Jilin and Hebei, implemented "TCM Prevention Plans" in January to prescribe TCM to Covid patients.
Now, authorities are looking to expand the industry, which was estimated to exceed 3 trillion yuan ($430 billion) by 2020.
The country will aim to cultivate 100,000 TCM professionals within the next 10 years, and implement measures such as TCM curricula in schools, announced the General Office of the State Council this February. More TCM rehabilitation centers will be built, some with clinical research centers.
State media has also promoted TCM in its coverage; state-run news agency Xinhua reported that TCM offered a source of "hope" for Chinese Americans in New York when the city's public health system was close to collapse, and that remedies have been adopted by Kuwait for Covid treatment.
The World Health Organization, which gave its first-ever endorsement of TCM in 2018, had originally advised against using traditional herbal remedies for Covid-19 on its website -- though that line was later removed due to it being "too broad."
Some in the biomedical community say WHO overlooked the toxicity of some herbal medicine and the lack of evidence that it works, while animal rights advocates say it will further endanger animals such as the tiger, pangolin, bear and rhino, whose organs are used in some TCM cures.