As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives and ravage economies around the world, people remain hopeful for effective cures for the disease. China, where the new coronavirus likely originated late last year in a wet market where wild animals were for sale as food, has just approved a cure to treat infected patients: bear bile.
The country's National Health Commission now recommends the use of "Tan Re Qing," a traditional medicinal formula that contains powdered bear bile, goat horn and some medicinal herbs. The move is in line with President Xi Jinping's push to promote traditional medicine, which he calls a "treasure of Chinese civilization," along with scientific treatments.
Ursodeoxycholic acid, which can be derived from bear bile, has been used extensively in China and countries such as Vietnam to treat liver disease and dissolve gallstones. However, it has not been shown to be effective in treating COVID-19. On the other hand, much of TCM is not science but superstition of rank. It is also a scourge in exotic wildlife.
After the novel coronavirus outbreak, China banned the sale of exotic animals for food, but the country's continued reliance on quack medicine fortified with exotic animal parts means critically endangered animals like sun bears and moon bears will remain in. serious risk.
According to a new report by environmental group World Animal Protection, some 24,000 bears are kept in cages in China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and South Korea so they can be raised for their bile in traditional medicine. In China alone, around 20,000 endangered bears are kept for this purpose, and this in a country that promotes itself as a brave protector of pandas.
"This should sound the alarms as a result of the contagion of COVID-19, since 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, and it is believed that 70% of them come from wild animals," warns the non-profit organization. profit.
There is also the great suffering that all these thousands of unfortunate bears must endure on bear farms, where conditions are invariably dire. "Bile is extracted from live bears that suffer from unhealthy bears, and it is one of the most extreme forms of animal abuse in the world," says World Animal Protection.
“The bears are largely bred in captivity, trapped in small sterile cages in factory farm style conditions for the duration of their long and miserable lives. They suffer unthinkable trauma on a regular basis, ”he adds. "Most commonly, his bile is drained from his gallbladder using a metal tube through a surgically created opening in the bear's abdomen."
The irony of using wildlife products to fight a virus that has jumped us from exotic animals has not been lost to conservationists.
"We should not rely on wildlife products like bear bile as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated in wildlife," emphasizes Brian Daly, a member of the Animals Asia Foundation.
"The promotion of bear bile has the propensity to increase the amount used, affecting not only captive bears, but also wild ones, which may compromise an already endangered species in Asia and around the world." he adds.
Nor is it just bears that continue to feel the brunt of the constant demand for exotic animal parts in China and elsewhere. Pangolins are also at risk of being poached to extinction just so their scales can be used in traditional Chinese medicine. These scales, which are made up of keratin, have no real medicinal value.
According to a new report from the Wildlife Justice Commission, 206 tons of pangolin scales were seized in 52 seizures between 2016 and 2019, from Africa to Asia. And that, he says, "is only a fraction of the total trafficking since a significant proportion of the smuggling is likely to go undetected."
It has been suggested that the deadly new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may have originated in pangolins as it bears a strong genetic similarity to a virus found in these plastic anteaters.
Meanwhile, pangolins face the possibility of going extinct throughout their ranges in Africa and Asia. In just 10 years, more than 1 million animals have been poached, most of them in Africa, where criminal gangs often operate with impunity in the face of lax law enforcement.
Unless the demand for its parts in traditional Chinese medicine wanes, pangolins and other critically endangered animals may be doomed.