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Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica in the Storm of 'Shuanghuanglian': Invested in 10 Companies, and also Had Some Discoveries during SARS Outbreak

Originally published in Southern Metropolics Daily(南方都市报) on Feb. 3nd, 2020

Author | Feng, Congyin (封聪颖)

Chief Editor | Dong, Xiangyi (董湘依)

Online Editor | Zhong, Yi (中一)

Translation | Chengji Translation Team

A media article called "Preliminary discovery that Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid, a traditional Chinese medicine, could inhibit the novel coronavirus", distributed by The Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences (SIMM), causes a media backlash.

SIMM has long been engaged in research on antiviral drugs. SARS hit the world in 2003. At that time, "Capital Medicine Journal" and other media reported that SIMM confirmed "Jie'eryin (a traditional Chinese medicine for external use) has an antiviral effect on SARS coronavirus."

After the outbreak of COVID-19 this time, SIMM organized an emergency research team and announced 30 classical drugs and traditional Chinese medicines which are likely to inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They are also in collaboration with 'Frontiers Biotechnology', a pharmaceutical company, on the development of new antiviral drugs for SARS-CoV-2.

On Feb 1st, in an interview with CCTV, Zhang Boli, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who was also a medical expert in the central guide group for outbreak prevention, said that Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid could only help to regulate the status of the human body, but not cure for SARS-CoV-2.

On that evening of the day, SIMM posted a declaration on its official website, which claimed that the article named "SIMM and Wuhan Institute of Virology cooperated to discover the antiviral function of the traditional Chinese medicine Shuanghuanglian on suppressing SARS-CoV-2" provided by them and the WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) for media on Jan 31st, was accurate. The spokesman of SIMM explained that "This conclusion is based on in vitro results in the laboratory. Our research group performed the in vitro experiments and verified Shuanghuanglian has the function of repressing SARS-CoV-2. They need clinical trials in the next step to further verify the conclusion again. The article I provided also mentioned that we are now carrying out clinical trials."

Used to Claim that 'Jie'eryin' could Repress the SARS Virus

According to the introductions on their official website, SIMM's predecessor was the Institute of Medicine of National Beiping Academy, founded in Beijing in 1932, and moved to Shanghai the next year. In 2003, SIMM was moved to the Zhangjiang High-Tech Park in Shanghai Pudong. It is the most historical comprehensive institute for medical innovation.

As an institute that has long been researching on antiviral drugs, they announced that "Jie'eryin" also had the antiviral effect for SARS coronavirus during the SARS outbreak 17 years ago.

An article named "Research Results on Antiviral Effect for SARS of Jie'eryin" was published on Vol. 12 of Capital Medicine Journal in 2003. It was mentioned in the article that, "The antiviral effect of Jie'eryin lotion for SARS virus, has been confirmed by the latest research results from the National Center of Medical Innovation, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Science: It can inhibit SARS virus in vitro at only 1% of the original concentration."

According to the literature, Capital Medicine Journal was the official journal of Beijing Medical Products Administration and was also the guiding journal of medicine management and medical work in Beijing.

It is shown in a public report that the main functions of "Jie'eryin" include treating dry skins or wet skins, killing worms and relieving the itch. Till now, the report is still available on the website of Chengdu Enwei Group, the producer of the "Jie'eryin" lotion.

After the outbreak of COVID-19 this time, SIMM responded actively again. They organized an emergency research team, announced 30 classic drugs and traditional Chinese medicines which have the potential to repress SARS-CoV-2, based on their previous experiences of drug research for SARS. Also, according to the news from Frontiers Biotechnology (Nanjing) Co. Ltd on Jan 30th, they started a collaboration with SIMM on the development of antiviral drugs for SARS-CoV-2. Based on their contract, Frontiers Biotechnology holds the exclusive rights of clinical development, production, manufacture, and commercialization of the candidate drug for SARS-CoV-2, 'DC series', in mainland China.

On the evening of Jan 31st, some media reported that SIMM and WIV had a preliminary discovery that the traditional Chinese medicine, Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid, can inhibit SARS-CoV-2t.

However, this discovery was subsequently questioned. On Feb 1st, People's Daily posted on their official Weibo account that inhibition does not mean prevention or treatment, and reminded people "not to snap up Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid or take it on one's own".

On the same day, in an interview with CCTV, Zhang Boli, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who was also a medical expert in the central guide group for outbreak prevention, said that Shuanghuanglian is just a common traditional Chinese medicine and is composed of three herbs -honeysuckle, baicalein, and forsythia, which can only regulate the inner balance of bodies but has no specific effect on SARS-CoV-2.

SIMM also told the media that they only did a preliminary experiment. It still requires a great number of experiments to verify if Shuanghuanglian can cure patients.

Apart from scientific research, SIMM also invests in external companies.

Tianyancha, a data technology service company with a vast repository of Chinese enterprise information, showed that SIMM invested in 10 companies in total, covering industries of TCM manufacturing, medical consultation, healthcare products, biotechnologies, etc.

At present, most of its companies have been canceled. The only two that are still running or subsisting are Shanghai Chuangyao Investment Co Ltd. and Beijing Huashi-Tianfu Biotechnology Co. Ltd. The proportions of investments by SIMM are 100% and 9.4%, respectively., respectively.

Partner Companies Made Fake Advertisements

The official website of SIMM shows that they have been collaborating with medicine companies all the time.

One of their collaborators, Shanghai Green Valley Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd, has been criticized. The website of Green Valley Pharmaceutical Co. shows that it was founded in 1997, and has a close relationship with SIMM. SIMM is the long term 'core strategic partner' of Green Valley Pharmaceutical, which also set up a 'Green Valley Innovation Foundation' in SIMM to support the development of new drugs. Moreover, the scientific decision committee of Green Valley Pharmaceutical includes Ding Jian, the sixth director (from 2004 to 2013) of SIMM and Geng Meiyu, the vice president of the academic committee of SIMM. Tianyancha reveals that Ding Jian is now the vice-chairman of Green Valley Pharmaceutical, while Geng Meiyu worked as a board member of Green Valley Pharmaceutical from April 2015 and September 2018.

There is also some evidence indicating the relationship between SIMM and Green Valley is beyond normal collaboration.

Two media reports published on the website of SIMM in 2015 and 2017 pointed out that Green Valley Pharmaceutical is a joint venture invested by SIMM and the Green Valley Group together. Tianyancha shows that SIMM withdrew its investments from the company on June 20, 2018. It is now wholly owned by the Green Valley Group.

Public information shows that the Green Valley Group started from selling health care products, and was officially founded in 1997 by Lu Songtao, the chairman of Green Valley Pharmaceutical. One of their main health care products was suspicious of fake advertisements.

In January 2008, a news story revealing the secret "Green Valley" scam was broadcast on CCTV (China Central Television). It said Green Valley Group had launched three generations of so-called cancer products since 1996. They are Chinese Ganoderma Powder, Shuangling Guben Powder, and Green Valley Ganoderma Powder.

The Green Valley Group has been changing the names for more than 10 years to promote the fake products, and also published product advertisements without approval by drug administration. This scam became one of the most typical cases of fake advertisements all over the country in the 2000s.

According to the report, the case has been confirmed by the National Medical Products Administration. A series of advertisements produced by Green Valley for their cancer drugs referred to many research institutes and scholars and experts to promote the anti-cancer effect of their products. For instance, when they were promoting the Green Valley Ganoderma Powder, its advertisement mentioned that "SIMM's in vitro experiments have verified that Green Valley Ganoderma Powder has an obvious repressing effect on solid tumors, leukemia, and lymphoma cells."

In the next year of CCTV's report, another report from Liberty Daily revealed that Green Valley Pharmaceutical has signed a tens-of-millions-dollar contract with SIMM, which granted them the rights of the global development of 'GV-971'. But the annual income of Green Valley Pharmaceutical was only 10 million RMB (~1.4 million USD) at that time.

The development of 'GV-971' lasted for 10 years. In early November 2019, the National Medical Products Administration approved the new medicine for Alzheimer's disease, GV-971 launched by Green Valley Pharmaceuticals, to be sold in the markets. The major inventor of the drug was Geng Meiyu's research group.

A letter in the name of "Rao Yi" to Li Jinghai, committee principle of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), went into public sight on November 29th, 2019. It pointed out that Geng Meiyu's research paper on GV-971 was suspicious of academic fraud. Later, Rao Yi told the media that he "did not send out that letter, but he did write a draft". On the other hand, NSFC told the media it was under investigation.