Coronavirus: a drug based on bear bile

China has given the go-ahead to a bear bile-based drug to treat patients suffering from Covid-19.

China has given the green light to a bear bile-based drug to treat patients suffering from Covid-19, reigniring controversy over the treatment of plantigrades raised for this purpose. Environmental groups have long denounced the plight of thousands of bears in China, immobilized in narrow cages where their abdomens are punctured by a catheter connected to their vesicle to remove bile.

The latter is resold for the therapeutic qualities it is given in traditional medicine. In particular, it is supposed to help regulate cholesterol or dissolve gallstones and kidney stones. But the controversially effective substance is now included in medical recommendations added by Beijing to the arsenal to fight the new coronavirus.

The Chinese Ministry of Health recommended last month an injection called “Tan Re Qing” consisting of bear bile, but also goat horn powder and plant extracts, for severely affected patients.

President Xi Jinping’s regime, which likes to stir up nationalist fibre, has for years been touting the virtues of traditional pharmacopoeia in the face of Western medicine, and this time especially in the fight against the Covid-19. Tan Re Qing is indicated in the treatment of respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, according to its manufacturer, the Kaibao laboratory in Shanghai.

But for the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), using bear bile against the epidemic is both “tragic and contradictory” since China has just banned the trade in wild animals for food purposes, in response to the onset of the virus.

It was detected in late 2019 at a market in Wuhan (centre), where wildlife was being marketed.

The Asian Black Bear, an Endangered Species

Brian Daly, a spokesman for the AAF, fears that Beijing’s official recommendation will add to the threat to the endangered Asian black bear. “Promoting the use of bear bile may result in an increase in the volumes collected, not only at the expense of bears in captivity but also of those who are at large,” he told AFP. The production of bear bile is legal in China but its export is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

But some 20,000 plantigrades in China are still reduced to paying their bile to a pharmaceutical market valued at more than $1 billion a year, according to Kirsty Warren, a spokeswoman for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. “Throughout Asia, the trade in bear bile is flourishing, even though it is banned in most states,” says Richard Thomas of Traffic.

The active ingredient in bear bile, ursoxycholic acid (or ursodiol), can now be chemically produced in the laboratory, he says. As a result, there is “no reason to incorporate bear bile” into medicines, he said. In addition to the health risk posed by the wildlife trade, animal protection is increasingly needed in China.

At the gates of Hong Kong, the giant metropolis of Shenzhen has just banned this week the consumption of dog and cat meat. According to Humane Society International, Shenzhen is the first city in China to take such a step. As many as 10 million dogs and 4 million cats are slaughtered each year in the country for their meat, according to the association.

 

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