Mongolian Herbal Medicine, A COVID Revival Takes Root

Bayarjargal grew up watching her mother harvest medicinal plants for her work as a botanist, but says she only began brewing cough syrup for her own family after the pandemic began. She and her husband got vaccinated last year, but she credits their use of traditional medicine — both homemade and supplied by a nearby clinic — for strengthening their immune systems. When her husband eventually contracted COVID-19, in February, he recovered within five days, she says.

A surge of traditional medicine users

Mongolia’s traditional medicine has 5,000 years of history, but nearly disappeared forever due to an official ban between 1922 and 1990. The pandemic has prompted a surge of new users seeking protection and relief from virus symptoms — and newfound popularity as a source of national pride and income opportunities.

“Our ancestors left us with a rich source of knowledge of traditional medicine,” says Dr. Bold Sharav, a professor of traditional medicine at the Mongolian International School of Medicine. “It is important that we use it in the right way.”

The Ministry of Health includes herbal teas and decoctions in its COVID-19 home care treatment packages, distributed to family health centers nationwide and provided free of charge to any adult diagnosed with the disease. Oyunchimeg Murdorj, a senior expert in charge of traditional medicine at the Ministry of Health, says the contents of the kits are based on recommendations from doctors and researchers.

Mongolia’s doctors endorse traditional medicine — but in conjunction with modern medicine, not in place of it.

“In the last two years, Mongolian scientists have experimentally validated more than 50 types of medicinal plants and started using them for medical treatments,” says L. Batkhuu, coordinator of foreign projects for the Institute of Traditional Medicine and Technology, a research center that also operates a hospital and pharmaceutical factory. The government should make greater investments in research, development and production to meet the growing demand, he says.

Oyunchimeg counters that the Ministry of Health has helped bolster traditional medicine practitioners through training and research centers. “Research in traditional medicine has improved in recent years,” she says. “Once the research is well developed and in line with international standards, the government will have a policy on exports.”

Tergel Munkhsaikhan, right, head of Sud-Pharm pharmacy in Orkhon province, explains the uses and effectiveness of traditional medicines to Oyu-Erdene Battumur.

Khorloo Khukhnokhoi

Along with modern medicine

Mongolia’s doctors endorse traditional medicine — but in conjunction with modern medicine, not in place of it.

Dr. Gereltuya Surenkhorol, an infectious diseases specialist at Orkhon Regional Diagnostic and Treatment Center, says that recommended COVID-19 herbal treatments like Mana-4 and Norov-7 don’t fully cure the disease, but boost the human immune system and increase recovery speeds — and should only be used as directed.

“It is even likely that medicinal plants could be harmful, if one does not use a proper dose,” she says, warning that some plants could be poisonous.

Pharmacists across the country say they were not prepared for the pandemic-related surge in traditional medicine requests, and they expect the interest to outlive the virus itself. “Now, traditional Mongolian medicines, decoctions and preparations are most sold,” says Altantuya Sanduidorj, a pharmacist in Orkhon province.

Otgongerel Sukhbat, an economist in Orkhon province, says she had been vaccinated for COVID-19 and had begun drinking Mana-4 and Norov-7 teas when she got infected in April 2021 with the disease. She recovered within a week, and plans to continue to use the treatments along with modern medicine.

“Initially, it was hard to drink it, as it was quite bitter,” she says. “Now I am almost accustomed to it.”

More government support needed

Demand has been growing from international markets, including Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands, according to the Ministry of Health’s Department of Traditional Medicine. International research remains rare, but in a 2021 study by Mongolian researchers published by the Journal of Asian Medical Students’ Association, COVID-19 patients who used both Mongolian herbal medicine and Western treatments recovered 1.7 times faster — 42% of them within one week — than those who only used a single type of treatment.

Of the eight Mongolian manufacturers producing close to 400 traditional medicine products, only four are currently licensed for exporting. In 2017, Odi Tan became the first company to obtain this approval after a months-long process involving the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Specialized Inspection Agency.

Medicinal plants and herbs could contribute to the economy as much as coal export does

“Since coronavirus broke out, pharmacies have started constantly reaching out to us, asking which medicines and preparations are recommended for colds and influenza and what kinds of products are available, further proposing to collaborate,” says Chantsaldulam Baatar, Odi Tan’s executive director.

The company has customers in other Asian countries, but doesn’t yet have the capacity to reach Europe and North America, Chantsaldulam says. So it has focused on growing its supply chain by paying families to cultivate ingredients like nettles, thyme and licorice.

“If the government supports us better and facilitates the opportunities for export, medicinal plants and herbs could contribute to the economy as much as coal export does,” she says.

The government is working with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that products meet national and international quality and safety standards, says Batkhuu, the foreign projects coordinator from the Institute of Traditional Medicine and Technology. His team is working on submitting a funding request for building a large factory that would have the capacity to process and produce raw materials.

“In the future, we will be able to fully meet our domestic consumption, and export,” says Bold, the traditional medicine professor.

More education also is needed to ensure that the booming interest among Mongolians doesn’t lead to harmful effects to people or the environment, says Bayarjargal, the Erdenet mother. “If you don’t pick natural herbs properly, there is a danger that the plants will not grow again,” she says. “It is also important to identify and pick the right non-toxic plants.”

Khorloo Khukhnokhoi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.

Translation note: Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this story from Mongolian.