Should we combat COVID-19 with wildlife products?

Should we combat COVID-19 with wildlife products: The shocking use of bear bile during this pandemic

When the coronavirus occurred in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, a story travelled quickly around the world. The story being that someone contracted the virus by consuming a wild animal.

Researchers agree virus caused by ‘zoonotic spillover’

Despite the conflicting theories surrounding the source of COVID-19, researchers agree that the virus was caused by a 'zoonotic spillover'. This is defined as the 'transmission of a pathogen from a vertebrate animal to a human, [which] presents a global public health burden'. The term was coined by Dr Raina Plowright, an Assistant Professor at Montana State University. Her research 'investigates the dynamics of disease systems that connect human and animal populations'.

Which animals are responsible?

So which animals are responsible for the respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that caused COVID-19?

The two animals suspected of carrying the disease were a bat and a snake, and there is some truth to this. According to recent studies, SARS-CoV-2 could have originated in bats.

A published study in the Lancet, a medical journal, stated that 27 out of the 41 initial COVID-19 infected patients were linked to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where wild animals are also sold. Although, the very first recorded coronavirus patient apparently had no contact with the market.

Pangolins have also been in question. The scientific journal, Nature, reported that pangolins were not on the list of inventories of wildlife products sold in the Wuhan market. However, this could be an intentional oversight since it’s illegal to sell pangolins. Their meat and scales, which are supposedly traded for medicinal purposes, makes them 'the most illegally traded mammal in the world' – according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

However, according to a new study by Jinping Chen of the Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Resources and colleagues in China, pangolins are not responsible for the emergence of COVID-19. Despite them being natural hosts of Betacoronaviruses, with its potential effect on human's unknown.

Recent research suggests that SARS-CoV-2 could have possibly spilled over from an intermediate host to humans. But the source is still in question. In Chen's study, he examines whether pangolins could be an intermediary host between humans and bats.

Bear bile a ‘natural’ remedy for COVID-19!

With this in mind, you would hope that people would steer away from using animal products to help combat COVID-19. However, with the panic surrounding the fatal effects of this pandemic spreading around the world, the Chinese Government decided to publish a list of recommended 'natural' remedies for COVID-19 - and one of these remedies includes bear bile.

Bear bile has been used for centuries in Chinese traditional medicine due to its active ingredient ursodeoxycholic acid, which is commonly used to treat liver diseases. Nevertheless, this is a worrying step back from animal welfare.

Founded in 1998 by Dr Jill Robinson, who is recognised as the world's leading expert on the cruel bear bile industry, the charity Animals Asia Foundation has been campaigning to end the trade on bear bile. The charity states that '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'.

Included in their mission, is running an international public information campaign on the danger of wildlife trafficking and abuse. In addition to running two sanctuaries in China and Vietnam, where they rehouse abused bears and animals from bile farms. The charity has rescued 632 bears to date.  

Dr Robinson, an Ambassador for World Animal Day, said:

“We urgently support the humane and responsible alternatives to bear bile that will prevent the ongoing exploitation and utilisation of both captive and wild-caught bears, and continue to offer help and resources for the bears themselves when the farms close. With so many herbal and synthetic alternatives now available to replace bear bile, we believe that the time has come to be more proactive in protecting all bear species across Asia.”

Guest article by Gemma Griffiths

- June 19, 2020