China has approved the use of bear bile to treat coronavirus patients, angering activists and raising fears it could undermine efforts to stop the illegal animal trade which is blamed for the emergence of the disease sweeping the globe.
The move comes just weeks after China banned the sale of wild animals for food, citing the risk of diseases spreading from animals to humans.
But the National Health Commission in March issued guidelines recommending the use of ‘Tan Re Qing’ – an injection that contains bear bile powder, goat horn and three other medicinal herbs to treat critically ill coronavirus patients.
President Xi Jinping has been keen to promote traditional medicine and saying it should be given as much weight as other treatments.
The active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, is used to dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease but has no proven effectiveness in treating COVID-19.
The medicine can treat patients with respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis, according to its producer.
China has used both traditional and Western medicine in its battle against the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 3,000 and infected more than 82,000.
But activists say greenlighting a treatment that uses an animal product is ‘both tragic and ironic’ given that the origin of the deadly coronavirus is linked to the trade and consumption of wild animals.
Brian Daly, a spokesman for the Animals Asia Foundation, said: ‘We shouldn’t be relying on wildlife products like bear bile as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife.’
The coronavirus is believed to have come from bats, but researchers think it might have spread to humans via an intermediate host mammal species.
Chinese disease control officials have previously identified wild animals sold in a market in Wuhan market as the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conservationists have long accused China of tolerating a cruel trade in wild animals as exotic menu items or for use in traditional medicines whose efficacy is not confirmed by science.
Scientists say Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS) – another deadly coronavirus – likely originated in bats, later reaching humans via civet cats.
Daly added: ‘Promotion of bear bile has the propensity to increase the amount used, affecting not only captive bears, but also those in the wild, potentially compromising an already endangered species in Asia and across the world.’
There are about 20,000 bears being held in tiny cages under cruel conditions across China to cater to the demand from traditional medicine suppliers, said Kirsty Warren, a spokeswoman for World Animal Protection.