A Scientific Look at Botanical Plants and Supplements Against Coronavirus
Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD
In recent weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news at the expense of everything else that is critical and urgent in our lives. As panic increases and more cases are reported daily, health-minded people are eager or even desperate to know whether there are ways to strengthen the body’s immune system to offer some protection from this specific upper respiratory infection.
There are six known strains of coronavirus, four which are associated with the common cold or moderate respiratory infections. Everyone has likely had a coronavirus infection at some time in their lives. However, two strains — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — are more severe. Between the years 2002-2004 and 2014-2018 these strains respectively were observed to be lethal. However, during these periods, total deaths were under one thousand. SARS has the ability to infect the lower respiratory system as well. The current strain being called Covid19 is a new mutation that is being recognized as a novel SARS. As of this writing, the current coronvirus has been attributed to over 4,000 deaths, the large majority among the elderly. In a recent press conference the Surgeon General remarked that the average age of death was 80.
Compared to other viral infections that target the respiratory tract, especially influenza, there has been far less research either to understand the pathway of infection and the drugs or natural substances to battle the virus. It remains uncertain how long immunity lasts, if any, after infection. Seemingly, immunity wanes quickly. Consequently, since coronavirus is most often responsible for a flu-like common cold, recommended prevention and treatment protocols are largely similar to the flu.
During a recent coronavirus task force meeting, Trump asked whether the flu vaccine would protect against the coronavirus. The flu vaccine is not only influenza-specific, it is also flu strain specific. It offers absolutely no protection to any other viruses. Nevertheless we are going to likely witness a sharp rise in propaganda recommending flu vaccines to fight the coronavirus scare. The belief is that increasing national flu vaccination compliance will not only reduce the risks of flu infection but will also help divert money away from flu infections to better deal with the rising coronavirus cases.
But there is a caveat. A very serious caveat.
Sometimes the universe has an unusual way of providing warnings that we have an opportunity to either heed or disregard to our benefit or detriment. On December 31, 2019 in order to usher in the New Year, China reported the first case of an “unusual pneumonia” in its port city of Wuhan. A week later on January 7th, the pathogen was identified as a novel strain of coronavirus. That same month, the prestigious journal Vaccine, published a study conducted by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Researchers investigated viral interference due to receiving the flu shot; in other words, does the flu vaccine make a recipient more susceptible to other non-influenza respiratory viral infections? The study’s conclusions state “Vaccine derived virus interference was significantly associated with coronavirus and human metapneumovirus.”
This is not the first time that viral interference from the flu vaccine has been associated with an increase in non-influenza respiratory infections. A much more thorough study, an actual clinical trial, was conducted by the University of Hong Kong in 2012. The double blind randomized controlled trial followed a group of flu-vaccinated versus placebo-vaccinated children between 6 and 15 years of age over the course of nine months to determine infection rates from 19 other respiratory viruses. The study found “no statistically significant difference in the risk of confirmed seasonal influence influenza infection between recipients of the [influenza vaccine] or placebo.” However, it was the dramatic number of incidences of non-influenza infections found in the flu-vaccinated group (105 cases), which included coronavirus, as opposed to 54 cases among those who received a placebo. In other words, the results suggest that receiving the flu shot may increase one’s risk of contracting another infectious virus by almost 100 percent.
A recent analysis out of China reviewing rates of infection, targeted populations and mortality reported that the worst hit group is older people, particularly those who have immune-compromised conditions: cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, chronic respiratory illnesses, etc. Taking this statistic into account, we may note that the majority of American adults have some type of chronic condition. It is estimated that 60% of American adults have at least one underlying health condition and 40% have two or more. For example, 33 million have diabetes and an estimated 84 million are pre-diabetic; heart disease affects 121 million and there are approximately 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses annually. All of these people, therefore, have either a mild to severe compromised immune system.
A Swiss study noted that the SARS coronavirus and influenza share two of the same proteases in targeted cells — TMPRSS2 and HAT. These are responsible for activating the spread of the virus at the point of infection and contribute to their pathogenesis in an infected cell. Therefore it may be partially conjecture on our part to suggest that natural supplements and botanical remedies that have been shown in the scientific literature to be effective against influenza may more or less be effective against coronavirus as well. In fact, last month a study was released by Shengjing Hospital of China Medical University in the Journal of Medical Virology recommending that patients’ nutritional status should be evaluated before any conventional treatment. The hospital recommended a regimen that included Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, Omega-3, Selenium, Zinc, gammaglobulin A administered intravenously and Chinese traditional medicine
Therefore we have scoured the peer-reviewed literature on the National Institutes of Health’s Library of Medicine database to identify compelling studies that may warrant vitamin, antioxidant, and botanical supplementation as a means to protect ourselves from coronavirus and other viral infections. These have been shown to either have strong antiviral properties in general or have known biomolecular effects to strengthen the immune system against microbial infection. We are not offering prescriptions. This is just a summary of some important scientific information for you to make better informed decisions for protecting yourself while the coronavirus wends its course.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), coronaviral infections belong to a specific epidemic disease category. Astragulus is not only a very popular plant used in TCM, but it is also one of the most researched and promising botanical plants shown to have antiviral properties. In both TCM and Ayruveda medicinal formulas astrugulus has been prescribed for centuries because of its effectiveness against infections and over-stressed respiratory conditions. Compounds, notably saponins, found in astragulus have been well researched and found to hinder influenza proliferation. The US Department of Agriculture’s Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory found it inhibits avian flu viruses.
Jinlin Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China conducted a study published in the journal Microbiological Pathology that concluded
“Astragulus exhibits antiviral properties that can treat infectious bronchitis caused by [avian] coronavirus”
In China, which has a large poultry industry, avian coronaviruses are a serious threat to chicken farmers. Chinese farmers will often include astragulus in feed to protect the birds from infection as well as pig feed to ward off porcine circovirus.
Two weeks ago, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine completed an analysis of previous research looking at the benefits of Chinese herbal formulas against the SARS coronavirus and H1N1 flu (swine flu). In 3 studies, among participants who took formulas against SARS, none contracted the illness. Nor did any contract H1N1 influenza in four additional studies. A primary ingredient in these formulas’ was astragulus.
Earlier in February, researchers at Beijing Children’s Hospital at the Capital Medical University provided a thorough overview of recommended diagnostic procedures and treatments for specific symptoms witnessed in the current Covid19 infections that included both allopathic and traditional Chinese medicine. In cases where there are signs of severe weakness and stress observed in the lungs and spleen, a formula called Liu Jun Zi is being prescribed, which includes astragulus and ginseng as two primary botanicals.
Last week, the prestigious journal Science published a review out of Yun-nan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China that investigated the great disparities in infection and mortality rates between different provinces – Wuhan being the most severe. In the provinces with the lowest infection rates, there was between an 84% to 98% use of TCM formulas. Again, two of the main ingredients were Astragulus and Ginseng.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhizin Acid)
In traditional medicine licorice root has been used to relieve and treat ulcers, sore throats, bronchitis, coughs, adrenal insufficiencies and allergic diseases. Ancient manuscripts from China, India and Greece all include licorice for treating respiratory tract infections and hepatitis. Licorice’s main antiviral compounds are known as glycyrrhizins (GL). For 20 years Japan has used glycyrrhizins intravenously to treat chronic hepatitis B and C infections with very rare side effects. It has also been shown to induce apoptosis in lymphoma cells and Karposi sarcoma related to herpesvirus. Therefore it was an unexpected surprise to discover that there is notable research on glycyrrihizin’s effectiveness against coronavirus and in particular SARS.
Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease reported GL’s effectiveness against coronavirus and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as well as Epstein Barr virus and human cytomegalovirus. After the deadly SARS outbreak in 2012, virologists at Frankfurt University Medical School investigated several antiviral compounds to treat patients admitted with SARS coronavirus infections. Of all the compounds tested, licorice’s GL was the most effective. The scientists concluded that “Our findings suggest that glycyrrhizin should be assessed for treatment of SARS.”
The above research was later replicated at Sun Yat Sen University in China and published in the Chinese journal Bing Du Xue Bao. The researchers identified several derivatives of glycyrrhizin as primary molecules with antiviral properties. In addition to being effective against the SARS coronavirus, they also found it may be effective against herpes, HIV, hepatitis and influenza.
Earlier in 2005, a team of scientists from Goethe University in Germany and the Russian Academy of Sciences had already identified the antiviral activity of GL against SARS coronavirus. The molecule showed a ten-fold increase in anti-SARS activity compared to other potential treatments tested. One conjugate of GL had a 70-fold increase. That study was published in the Journal of Medical Chemistry. During that same year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences screened over 200 botanical plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to find those with the strong potency SARS coronavirus. Four botanicals stood out. One of the four was licorice’s glycyrrhizin
Extract of licorice root is the most effective and glycyrrhizin is also available as a separate botanical supplement.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberry has become a popular supplement for relieving symptoms of the common cold and flu infections. It is found worldwide and is part of many of the world’s indigenous pharmacopias. There are many species of elderberry; the species Sambucus nigra seemingly has been shown to have the most medicinal qualities. When purchasing Elderberry or Sambucus, it is recommended to note it is Sambucus nigra. It is better to use a prepared formula rather than try to make it on your own from fresh berries and flowers. Elderberries contain cyangenic glycosides that can be poisonous and cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and weakness.
Most research has focused on elderberry’s therapeutic value against influenza.
Hadassah University Hospital in Israel found that elderberry was effective in vitro against 10 different influenza strains. Cytokine activity for IL-1, TNF-a, IL-6 and IL-8 all significantly increased thereby confirming its anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties.
Another Israeli study by Hebrew University in Jerusalem and published in the Journal of Internal Medical Research found that participants enrolled with existing flu like symptoms who took 15 ml of elderberry syrup 4 times a day recovered four days earlier than those on medications or a placebo.
Finally, a more recent 2019 study by the University of Sydney observed that certain compounds in elderberry inhibit the flu virus’s entry and replication in human cells.
However, there is also research showing elderberry’s positive impact on coronavirus infections.
In 2014, researchers at Emory University noted that elderberry extract inhibited coronavirus virility at the point of infection. The scientists hypothesized that elderberry rendered the virus non infectious.
One of the better studies came out of National Sun Yat Sen University and the China Medical University Hospital in Taiwan in 2019. The researchers used an ethanol extract of Sambucus stem (not the berry) and observed its potential against coronavirus strain NL63
It is important to remember that deaths being attributed to the coronavirus are more often than not complicated by secondary infections that are usually bacterial such as pneumonia. In addition to its antiviral properties, elderberry is also effective against pathogenic bacteria. Under laboratory conditions at Justus Liebig University in Germany, elderberry was shown to be very effective against several bacteria that are responsible for pneumonia during flu-like infections, and against Influenza A and B viruses in particular
A systematic review of the existing research before 2011 by the University of British Columbia and published in the journal Pharmaceuticals, concluded:
“all strains of human and avian influenza viruses tested (including a Tamiflu-resistant strain), as well as herpes simplex virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and rhinoviruses, were very sensitive to a standardized Echinacea purpurea preparation”
There are different species of Echinacea. The species Echinacea purpurea has been shown to be most effective and targets the most infectious pathogens. When purchasing echinacea, be certain it is the purpurea strain.
Echinicea does present limitations depending upon the severity of an infection. Once a cold caused by any one of the various cold viruses, including coronavirus, more deeply infects the bronchia and the lower lung, echinacea does not appear to be helpful. It is more effective with upper respiratory tract infections.
One of the largest placebo double blind studies on echinacea was conducted by Cardifff University in the UK. The study followed participants for four months and confirmed the safety of long term echinacea supplementation. It also observed a statistically significant decrease in cold episodes in the echinacea group.
There are no strong studies showing echinacea’s effectiveness against coronavirus. Up until 2014, only one study looked at its bioactivities against coronavirus and that was a mouse model which required high doses of the plant extract.
In 2012, Griffith University in Australia undertook one notable double blind study to determine whether echinacea provided protection to air travelers. The study concluded:
“Supplementation with standardized Echinacea tablets, if taken before and during travel, may have preventive effects against the development of respiratory symptoms during travel involving long-haul flights.”
As a piece of consumer advice, a Cornell University study looked at the medicinal properties throughout different parts of the echinicea plant: leaves, stems, bark, roots, etc. The scientists noted that only echinacea extracts that contain the root showed significant antiviral properties. Echinacea appears to modify the clinical course of flu-like respiratory infection by acting upon IL-8, IL-10 and IFN cytokine activity beneficially.
Oleuropein (OLE) is the most important biomolecule in the olive tree that contributes to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic, anti-cancer, antimicrobial and antiviral activities and effects. One advantage of olive leaf is that it is highly bioavailable to the body’s cells.
There are almost 10,000 studies in the National Institutes of Health literature database referring to OLE, olive leaf, and olive oil, most with respect to its strong antioxidant and anticancer properties. According to analysis conducted by the Regina Elena National Cancer Institute in Rome of the oleuropein content in different parts of the olive plant, extracts made from buds and flowers showed the greatest strength and potency.
Olive leaf has not been shown to be particularly effective against viral upper respiratory infections; however there is considerable evidence to support olive leaf’s ability to strengthen the immune system against infectious viral diseases in addition to possessing many anti-inflammatory qualities.
There are only a few studies showing olive leaf’s effectiveness against respiratory viruses. One randomized trial performed by the University of Auckland in New Zealand suggests olive leaf can contribute to treating respiratory illnesses, including coronavirus. A 2001 study out of the University of Hong Kong identified 6 separate antiviral agents in olive that were effective against parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Olive leaf is also effective against bacterial pathogens. Most bacterial pneumonias are gram-positive. According to a joint study by Arab American University and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, OLE worked best against gram-positive pathogens but gram-negative organisms appeared to be resistant to OLE (eg, E coli, Salmonellas, etc.).
But OLE does possess notable anti-viral properties. The current Covid19 pandemic appears to utilize the host cell’s ACE2 receptor. This same receptor is also activated in HIV infections. This is one reason why patients infected with this new coronavirus strain are being prescribed HIV drugs. Therefore might olive leaf extract contribute to the treatment for this new coronavirus strain?
New York University biochemists identified olive leaf extract’s anti-HIV activity to modulate the host cell gene expression due to HIV infection. In fact, olive leaf extracts reversed HIV-1 infections. This was published in Journal of Biochemical and Biophysical Research. The conclusions state, “Treatment with OLE reverses many of these HIV-1 infection-associated changes.” Another joint study by NYU and Harvard Medical School concluded that OLE from olive leaf is “a unique class of HIV-1 inhibitors” and is “effective against viral fusion and integration.”
Oregano possesses a compound called carvacrol that has been shown to be antiviral. Although it has been tested on several influenza and flu-like respiratory viruses, it does not appear to have been tested against coronavirus.
Soochow University in China and the University of Oklahoma published a study in the BMC Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine focusing on oregano’s antiviral properties against influenza viruses. Although oregano did not kill the virus it nevertheless inhibited the virus’ ability to translate proteins responsible for the viral binding to cells.
A University of Putra Malaysia meta-analysis of existing research of different plant essential oils reported oregano was strongest against the flu-like viruses adenovirus and coxsackie virus.
A 2010 randomized double blind study study published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggested oregano was beneficial as a throat spray and showed significant and immediate improvement of upper respiratory infectious ailments.
University of Arizona published a paper in the Journal of Applied Microbiology investigating oregano’s antiviral properties when used as a sanitizer. The study focused on one flu-like virus, novovirus. If sprayed on surfaces, carvacrol will kill the virus within 15 minutes of exposure. The most recent research into Covid19’s surface life — living outside of an animal host — is 9 days.
Saikosaponins is an important family of compounds found in the Bupleurum plant, which has been shown to have possible anti-coronavirus properties.
Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan examined many of the derivatives of saikosaponins and observed it has very potent anti-coronaviral activity that interferes with the early stage of the virus’ replication. Several companies offer Bupleurum online
University College Dublin and Sichuan Agricultural University conducted a systematic meta-review of the existing medical literature on Chinese herbs that may prevent and treat viral respiratory infections. Among the most promising herbs against SARS coronavirus were panax ginseng, glycyrrhizin from licorice, and Isatis tinctoria, commonly known as woad or Asp of Jerusalem. Isatis is also available online.
Houttuynia cordata also known as fish mint, rainbow plant, fish wort, bishop’s weed is indigenous to Southeast Asia. This botanical directly inhibits coronavirus’ protease and blocks the viral RNA polymerase activity. A study out of Tsinghua University in Beijing found it significantly reduces fevers, sore throat and coughs due to the SARS virus. Tinctures of this plant are available online.
Unlike the US, most of the world, especially in Asia and continental Europe, recognizes Vitamin C as an important anti-viral agent. It is also a remarkable antioxidant shown to ward off infections. At this moment, China is conducting several clinical trials with intravenous Vitamin C to treat patients infected with the Covid19 strain. The city government of Shanghai is now actively treating patients with intravenous Vitamin C. A trial at Zhongnan Hospital in Wuhan is using 24,000 mg per day intravenously. The Wuhan study can be viewed on the US National Library of Medicine’s website here: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04264533
Until recently, Vitamin C has not been tested against coronavirus. There was one study performed to see whether the vitamin protected chick embryo organs from infection by avian coronavirus — a very common infection in fowl. That study showed the vitamin positively increased embryo resistance against the virus. Otherwise, Vitamin C has only been well studied against other viral infections, especially influenza.
Seoul National University College of Medicine concluded that Vitamin C is an essential factor for anti-viral immune responses at the early stage of Influenza A infection.
In 2017 the University of Helsinki reviewed 148 studies that indicated Vitamin C may alleviate or prevent infections caused by bacteria and viruses. The most extensive indication studied was the common cold. Among people who are physically active, Vitamin C was most beneficial. However, many studies relied on very low Vitamin C doses, which likely contributed to the minor benefits observed. Some of these were as low as 100 mg daily. In addition, the studies showed that colds’ duration was frequently shorter and less severe among people with sufficient Vitamin C levels.
An early randomized double blind trial to investigate Vitamin C’s ability to protect elderly hospitalized patients from acute respiratory infections was conducted at Hudderfield University in the UK. The study relied on a very low dose of 200 mg per day. Nevertheless, those who received the vitamin fared significantly better than those taking placebo.
Finally, there was another controlled placebo study involving 715 students between the ages 18-32 taking 1000 mg four times daily. The test group had an 85% decrease in flu and cold symptoms compared to the control.
Barely a week goes by without another study appearing in the peer-reviewed literature that looks at either Vitamin D’s therapeutic characteristics or the risks of Vitamin D deficiency. A high number of otherwise healthy adults have been reported to have low levels of vitamin D, mostly at the end of the Winter season. Deficiency rates vary between 42% for the entire population to 82% for Black Americans and 63% for Latinos. People who are housebound, institutionalized and those who work night shifts are most likely to be vitamin D deficient. This includes many elderly people who receive limited exposure to sunlight.
It has been shown that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increase risk in autoimmunity illnesses and greater susceptibility to infection. It also boosts up the body’s mucosal defenses which are critical for protecting ourselves from infectious respiratory viruses
Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with a global collaborative study to follow up on a Cochrane analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials involving 11,000 participants confirmed that vitamin D. taken daily or weekly significantly cut the risk of respiratory infections in half
Jikei University School of Medicine in Japan conducted a randomized double blind placebo trial to measure the rate that Vitamin D reduced seasonal influenza A. Almost twice as many participants in the placebo group came down with the flu compared to the Vitamin D group. The Japanese scientists also observed that people with a history of asthma were best protected.
For children, a Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia meta review identified 13 of 18 studies confirming that Vitamin D deficiency was associated with increased incidences of acute lower respiratory infection.
Oxidative stress is a well known pathway for microbial infections such as viruses and bacterial pneumonia, especially in the lungs.
When the lungs are subject to serious oxidative stress, there is an increase in inflammatory cytokines, especially IL-1, IL-8 and Tumor necrosis factor or TNF. Each of these cytokines have been shown repeatedly in clinical research to play a role in different respiratory infections including influenza, coronavirus, echovirus, adenovirus, coxsackie virus and others. Therefore, certain antioxidants can alleviate lung damage due to oxidative stress.
N-acetyl cysteine is one of these extremely important antioxidants. It exhibits both direct and indirect antioxidant properties. The indirect benefit is that it increases the concentration of another important antioxidant, glutathione, in the lung cells.
There is no confirmatory evidence that NAC directly targets flu or flu-like viral infections; however it has been shown to significantly reduce the rate of clinical symptoms.
Johann Goethe University Department of Virology observed that NAC inhibits the replication of seasonal human influenza A viruses by decreasing several these pro-inflammatory molecules. The scientists recommend that NAC should be included as an additional treatment option in the case of an influenza A pandemic.
An Italian randomized placebo study conducted at the University of Genoa found that subjects who were already suspected of having contact with the H1N1 flu virus who were placed under NAC treatment had a 25% rate of experiencing symptoms compared to 79% in the placebo group.
Certain cytokines, especially tumor necrosis factor and IL-6, have been associated with the pathogenesis of influenza and can increase the risk of mortality. In a mouse study, Italian researchers at Zambon Research Center gave NAC to flu-infected mice with a significant decrease in mortality.
Nanoparticle or colloidal silver has been studied extensively for its anti-bacterial properties but less so for infectious viruses. Most studies for silver’s antiviral activities have focused on HIV-1, Hepatitis B, herpesvirus and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
In a 2005 issue of the Journal of Nanotechnology, the University of Texas and Mexico University observed that silver nanoparticles could kill HIV-1 within 3 hours, and they suspected that this may be true for many other viruses as well. However, this conclusion may be too premature and more research is necessary.
There are studies showing silver’s efficacy against respiratory viruses. One large study by Japan’s National Defense Medical College Research Institute, published in the Journal of Molecular Sciences, recommended that Japanese healthcare workers take nanosilver to protect them from viruses including coronavirus.
In 2010, the University of Naples measured silver nanoparticles’ capabilities to reduce and prevent infection from the parainfluenza type 3 virus. The scientists hypothesized that the silver may block the virus’ interaction with the cell. Then a joint study by Deakin University in Australia and Osaka University in Japan found that colloidal silver significantly protected cells from H3N2 flu infection and prevented viral growth in the lungs
Finally, colliodal or nanoparticle gold has also been shown to inhibit the flu virus’ binding capaticity to a cell’s plasma membrane. That research was carried out by Freie University in Germany.
Yes, we should be concerned about the coronavirus’ high infectious rate. At the moment, the primary solutions being sought to handle the crisis is to spend billions of dollars to develop an effective vaccine and an accurate diagnostic kit. Additionally, according to a study out of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, the incubation period is estimated at 5.1 days for being infected and capable of infecting others without displaying symptoms. But there is no mention in the medical community nor the mainstream media about what we can do to strengthen our immune system.
Yes, a high quality 99% barrier mask is important, especially if worn in a crowded environment. Repeated washing of our hands for a full minute with soap water. Rub surfaces with alcohol at home and work and allow it to sit for 30 seconds. Likewise, wipe down door handles and telephone receivers. Quarantining people who have been exposed is important until they test negative. Closing schools is prudent. And if a vaccine is eventually developed and shown to be safe and effective that is another recourse. However none of the above protects the immune system in the event of coming into contact with the virus. We believe that the recommended natural solutions shared above, since it is supported in the peer reviewed scientific literature, is something everyone can do. Besides, it is safe and not expensive. Therefore these natural solutions too should be considered as a viable and effective recourse to lessen this pandemic’s fatal effects.