An Asian black bear after being rescued from a bear-bile farm in Chengdu, China. Photo: AFP / Getty Images / Peter Parks

You might not be able to eat it, but you can inject it. 

Even though a menu ban on wildlife was rolled out in China last month, bear ingredients are being used in drugs to tackle the Covid-19 disease. 

A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency has revealed the practice, which is being backed by the country’s National Health Commission.

Tan Re Qing injections are among the recommended treatments for ‘severe’ and ‘critical’ cases of coronavirus in the Covid-19 Diagnosis and Treatment Plan (7th Trial Version), published on March 4, 2020, by the National Health Commission and circulated via state media. Bear bile, which is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder and harvested using some degree of invasive surgery, is one of the ingredients of Tan Re Qing, according to the website of a major pharmaceutical manufacturer,” the EIA stated.

“In February, the Chinese Government banned the consumption of most terrestrial wild animals as food in the wake of the [new] coronavirus. This should be a positive move if implemented effectively and ethically. However, the ban does not cover the use of wildlife products in traditional Chinese medicine,” the international NGO, or non-governmental organization with offices in London and Washington, added.

What makes this decision even more bizarre is that the first cases of what has since become a viral pandemic were reported at a wet market in Wuhan, the sprawling cultural and economic heart of Hubei province in Central China.

Significantly, seafood was not the only ‘catch of the day’ being sold. Snakes, raccoons, porcupines and deer were just some of the species crammed inside cages. They were dotted alongside winding walkways packed with stalls and shoppers before the market was closed down at the end of January.

“Restricting the eating of wildlife while promoting medicines containing wildlife parts exemplifies the mixed messages being sent by Chinese authorities on wildlife trade,” Aron White, an EIA wildlife campaigner and China specialist, said.

“Aside from the irony of promoting a wildlife product for the treatment of a disease which the scientific community has overwhelmingly concluded originated in wildlife, the continued promotion of the use of threatened wildlife in medicine is hugely irresponsible in an era of unprecedented biodiversity loss, including illegal and unsustainable trade,” he added.

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It is unclear where the crossover of the virus came from although pangolins, or scaly anteaters, have joined the usual suspects of bats, snakes and wild cats. 

In 2003, civets were banned and culled in large numbers during the SARS outbreak, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which started a year earlier. These mongoose-like creatures were discovered as the carriers that transmitted the SARS virus to humans.

Yet despite the danger to public health, the wildlife farming industry is worth around US$57 billion annually. Even pressure from Beijing has failed to eradicate markets specializing in what many Chinese diners consider exotic delicacies.

“As the world is crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, the public health and environmental risks of wildlife trade are rightly receiving unprecedented attention. There could be no better time to end the use of the parts of threatened wildlife in medicine, especially as recent surveys conducted in China showed the vast majority of respondents were opposed to using wildlife in medicine,” White, of the EIA, said.

So far, more than 382,000 people have been infected globally with the new coronavirus while the death toll has spiraled past 16,000. In China, more than 81,000 people have been infected with a mortality rate of nearly 3,300. 

Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have reported the worst outbreaks in Europe while the United States has more than 46,000 official cases. A “second wave” has also swept across Southeast Asia.

But, perhaps, just as concerning is the apparent rise in Wuhan of “new asymptomatic Covid-19 cases on a daily” basis.

Earlier this week, the Caixin media group claimed that “more than a dozen individuals” had tested positive for the virus but had shown no symptoms. They were considered asymptomatic and “excluded” from official statistics. 

“According to a member of the infectious disease prevention and control team in Wuhan, every day the city continues to record ‘more than a dozen asymptomatic infected individuals’ … [A] person, who asked not to be named, said that these asymptomatic people are found by tracing the contacts of others who are infected and by screening quarantine workers who are at high risk of infection, as opposed to en masse testing. ‘It’s not possible at the moment to tell if the transmission has stopped,’ the person said,” Caixin reported.

Certainly, more food for thought as the global pandemic drags on.