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 new disease sweeping the globe.
The move comes just weeks after Beijing 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.
It is one of six traditional Chinese medicine products included in the directive.
President Xi Jinping has been keen to promote traditional medicine, calling it a "treasure of Chinese civilisation" 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.
China has used both traditional and Western medicine in its battle against the novel coronavirus, which according to official figures has killed more than 3,000 and infected more than 82,000 on the mainland.
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 China's trade and consumption of wild animals.
"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," said Brian Daly, a spokesman for the Animals Asia Foundation.
The novel coronavirus is believed to have come from bats, but researchers think it might have spread to humans via an intermediate host mammal species.
Mainland disease control officials have previously identified wild animals sold in a market in Wuhan market as the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bile farming is legal in China -- but exports of the product or treatments made from it are banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which China is a signatory to.
"Across Asia, bear bile trade is widespread, although it is illegal in most countries," said Richard Thomas from animal rights NGO Traffic.
"But the active ingredient in bear bile -- ursodeoxycholic acid -- is readily synthesised in laboratories, so even if it did prove to be popular, there should be no need for bear bile to be included (in medicines)."
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. (AFP)
Activists slam China's use of bear bile for Covid-19
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