Beijing has fuelled a huge trade in animal-based remedies. Is that where the pandemic began?

Terry Glavin: A study suggesting the coronavirus arose from trafficking in bat-derived concoctions is getting attention. So is the WHO’s role in legitimizing the business.

Staff distribute traditional Chinese medicine on Tuesday intended to treat COVID-19 at the Sanmin residential community in Wuhan, China, where six new cases were recently confirmed. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via Zuma via CP)

Staff distribute traditional Chinese medicine on Tuesday intended to treat COVID-19 at the Sanmin residential community in Wuhan, China, where six new cases were recently confirmed. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via Zuma via CP)

Geopolitical rivalries, partisan politics, the strange utterances from the Trump White House and the Chinese government’s vast capacity for censorship and propaganda continue to get in the way of comprehending exactly how the global coronavirus pandemic made its way around the world from its trailhead in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

The preponderance of evidence has implicated Beijing and the World Health Organization in several acts of negligence and disinformation that inevitably aided SARS-CoV-2 as it set out on its globe-circling rampage. But the sciences of microbiology and virology are now beginning to tell an even more disturbing story that might go a long way to explain the fierce opposition the WHO and Beijing are putting up against an independent investigation into the SARS-CoV-2 catastrophe.

The story goes like this.

Beijing’s promotion of a burgeoning multi-billion-dollar industry that markets products in the guise of traditional Chinese medicine is directly implicated in the initial eruption of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 sickness that first burst onto the scene in Wuhan late last year. But that’s not the half of it. The World Health Organization’s formal endorsement of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) a few months earlier fulfilled a hard-fought agenda Beijing had long pushed at the United Nations agency, and it also legitimized the traffic in precisely the kind of dangerous animal-derived remedy that some scientists are now calling the spark that ignited the pandemic that has now brought the world to its knees.

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There are a few twists in the story, and some blank spaces. There’s the strange but central role played by a Canadian whose recent sinecures include a plum posting with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress in Beijing—the quasi-legislature controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But the most dramatic chapter in the story unfolded quite quietly, in February, in the pages of the journal Letters in Applied Microbiology. It was told in a paper titled “2019-nCoV/SARS‐CoV‐2: rapid classification of betacoronaviruses and identification of Traditional Chinese Medicine as potential origin of zoonotic coronaviruses.”

It was authored by the Dutch scientist Trudy Wassenaar and her Chinese colleague Y. Zhou. It describes a study they undertook that ends up making the case that SARS-CoV-2 first infected people in the raw-material stage of the commercial production of either a powder prescribed for eye ailments and marketed as Yè ming shǎ, which is made of dried bat feces, or a tincture that purports to “detoxify” the body, involving pieces of a bat either ground up and ingested orally or mixed with wine.

Following the 2002 SARS pandemic that went on to kill more than 700 people worldwide, Chinese virologists eventually discovered the deepest Chinese reservoir of coronaviruses in a Yunnan population of the Greater horseshoe bat. SARS-CoV-2, a close cousin of the initial SARS virus, has gone on to kill roughly 300,000 people, forcing nearly half the world’s population into various forms of lockdown.

With the decline of the WHO’s credibility in the face of the coronavirus disaster, the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has emerged as the leading source for data on the pandemic. And Professor Steven Salzberg, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Computational Biology, is lending his voice to the disturbing proposition laid out by Wassenaar and Zhou.

It is almost certain, Salzberg told me, that trafficking in a bat-derived concoction, passed off as a traditional Chinese medicinal remedy, is directly responsible for the SARS-CoV-2 disaster. Despite the widespread misconception in western countries, bat-eating is by no means a common custom in China. “Eating bats has nothing to do with it,” Salzberg said.

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As for the initially reasonable suspicion that the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have been the source of SARS-CoV-2, from a strain that somehow escaped, the idea is now regarded by scientists as implausible. Speculation about the institute as a possible origin first circulated in western intelligence agencies and in scientific circles, and even Shi Zhengli, director of the Wuhan institute’s Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, said she thought it was possible. Shi has since dismissed the hypothesis based on detailed analyses of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic structure, which does not match the genomic sequence of any of the coronavirus strains under lock and key in the Wuhan laboratories.    

Here’s the way Wassenaar and Zhou account for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans:

“We speculate that a live or recently deceased infected bat species was handled by traders because of its value in TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), and that such an infected individual, or the still infective bat or bat products, may have been the route by which the virus entered the exotic meat market in Wuhan.” That’s a reference to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where most of the original people who fell ill with COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, were either vendors or customers. “Alternatively, during the trade chain, a host jump occurred between an infected bat (handled for TCM purposes) and another mammal, that then was the source of infection.”

In May 2019, TCM was added to the WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems compendium, and a specific chapter on TCM was added to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases rules and standards. Normalizing TCM in this way was a catastrophic mistake, Salzberg says. The move was almost entirely designed to further the Chinese government’s plans to reap even further income from the world’s $50 billion annual pharmaceutical market, which China already dominates. It was also intended to provide cover for a $20-billion “farming” industry Beijing has developed involving the rearing, slaughter and marketing of more than 50 species of “wild” animals used in TCM products.

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The species include civets, turtles, pangolins, tigers, crocodiles, and bears. An endangered, anteater-like mammal, the pangolin is a known host of a bat-derived coronavirus very much like SARS-CoV-2. So are civets, mongoose-like mammals that were the intermediary species that carried the initial SARS virus from bats to people in the 2002 outbreak.

Following last December’s SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, China outlawed the farming of “wild’ animals for food, but what was not widely noticed was that paradoxically, farmers were being encouraged to supply the TCM industry instead. In March, after Beijing complained, the WHO removed references to “traditional” remedies in its list of treatments that are ineffective in dealing with COVID-19. Among the remedies Beijing is now promoting as a treatment: Tan Re Qing, a concoction derived from bear bile. It’s a cruel practice, requiring the confinement of bears in small cages, and the extraction of bile from the bear’s abdomen, by means of a tube.

“There’s a lot of scientific outrage,” said Salzberg, a professor of biomedical engineering, computer science and biostatistics. Even so, there may be a silver lining. “If the coronavirus outbreak can be a tool to finally shut down some of this ridiculous trade in animal parts for these bogus medical practices, then great. At least there will be some good side effect from this terrible pandemic.”

A white-bellied pangolin that was rescued from animal traffickers in Uganda (Isaac Kasamani/AFP via Getty Images)

Traditional Chinese medicine is ordinarily benign, and can be useful if administered in tandem with science-based medicine. Roughly 80 per cent of its prescriptions consist of herbal remedies to treat minor ailments or symptoms of illnesses treated with science-based methods.

But the Xi regime is now promoting the industry as a multi-billion-dollar global trading enterprise. That’s what Beijing’s arm-twisting around the WHO over the years was all about, Salzberg said. “There’s a lot of money to be made in this.” Beijing is now in the process of setting up 30 overseas traditional Chinese medicine centres in the countries drawn into its ambitious “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure project.

The other problem with the WHO’s normalization of TCM is that it encourages the traffic in high-priced, animal-derived status items at the fringes of the tradition that hold no value except what can be claimed by superstition—rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks, tiger claws, the scales of the pangolin, and so on. It’s a shadowy, big-money industry that offers not only an open invitation to catastrophic pandemics, but to the extinction of species as well.

Although the complicity of WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in either intentionally or inadvertently assisting Beijing’s early cover-ups of the Wuhan outbreak has been well documented—Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has sarcastically suggested the WHO be renamed the Chinese Health Organization—the WHO’s legitimization of traditional Chinese medicine began during the term of Tedros’ predecessor, Dr. Margaret Chan, the Canadian in the story.

Born in Hong Kong, Chan studied at the University of Western Ontario in the 1970s, and then returned to Hong Kong, ending up as a senior public health official. Beijing had campaigned hard for her when she won the WHO’s director-general post in 2007. During her 10-year term in the WHO’s top job, Chan cultivated close ties to Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping. She appointed Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, the singer and president of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Art, as the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Chan oversaw the launch of the WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy in 2014, extolling its virtues as a means by which poorer countries could catch up to more developed countries.

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At an international conference in Singapore in 2016, Chan noted that treatment costs for cancer and hepatitis could run as high as $150,000 a year. To ease the financial burden on public heath systems in Europe, pharmacists were being trained to handle minor complaints and dispense over-the-counter medications and otherwise act as “gatekeepers.” Traditional Chinese medicine could perform the same function, Chan said.

Bringing TCM into the World Health Organization’s ambit last year was celebrated in Beijing as a “major step for TCM’s internationalization.” But the editors of Nature magazine warned that the move was “unlikely to do anything other than fuel the expanding sales of largely unproven treatments.” Further to that: “The WHO’s association with medicines that are not properly tested and could even be harmful is unacceptable for the body that has the greatest responsibility and power to protect human health.” The editors of Scientific American magazine were blunt. The WHO’s embrace of TCM was “a bad idea” and “an egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice.”

As for Margaret Chan, it was after she left the top job at the WHO in 2017 that she was appointed to the blue-chip Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), as the delegate for Hong Kong, and last month she was appointed the inaugural dean of a new school of public heath at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Maclean’s reached out to Chan through the university and her family, but our messages were not returned.

After she was appointed to the CPPCC, Chan positively gushed about China’s capacity to handle infectious disease outbreaks. “China has improved and invested in its health care system and the information system in reporting to the World Health Organization and being very transparent. China is one of the best countries in terms of preventing and containing infectious diseases.”

Chan gushed about her role with the CPPCC: “This is a transformation of my role, to serve China now as a Chinese from Hong Kong. As director general of the WHO, I was an international servant, and I did not wear my nationality on my sleeve.” And she gushed about Xi Jinping: “I met him quite a number of times and worked with him and his team on health care reform.

“I have to say he is a leader, not only is he a visionary, but he is also courageous and committed. He is one of the very few political leaders that honoured his promises.”