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The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China recommends injections containing bear bile in official guidelines for the treatment of COVID-19 with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global environmental non-profit, discovered Tan Re Qing, a Chinese patent medicine, among the government’s COVID-19 treatment recommendations. (You can find it on the official list here.) One of the ingredients in Tan Re Qing is bear bile, which is harvested from the gallbladders of bears, either in the wild or from bears held in captivity and “milked” for their bile. (In response to a claim that this was “fake news”, EIA posted a rebuttal, with further evidence.)

EIA noted the irony in China’s promoting bear bile as a COVID-19 remedy “despite a scientific consensus pointing to China’s wildlife trade as the most likely cause of the coronavirus pandemic”. The organization, which monitors illegal trafficking in wild animals, says traffickers were touting their illegal products based on the Chinese government’s recommendations. Bear bile farming is legal in China, but harvesting from wild bears is not. Bear bile is also imported into China from Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea, even though Asiatic black bears, a species commonly farmed for their bile, are protected from international commercial trade in animals and animal products under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Bear bile extraction is nauseatingly cruel. As a recent National Geographic article explains:

At bear bile farms in China and across Southeast Asia, the animals may be kept for decades in small cages. Bile is routinely extracted by inserting a catheter, syringe, or pipe into the gallbladder. All methods for extracting bile are invasive and “cause severe suffering, pain, and infection,” according to Animals Asia, a nonprofit dedicated to ending bear bile farming. Neglect and disease are common on these farms, and consumers risk ingesting bile from sick bears, which may be contaminated with blood, feces, pus, urine, and bacteria, according to Animals Asia.

From a 2011 SBM post on TCM:

The Humane Society of the United States reports that the process of milking is so painful for the bears that they moan and often chew their paws during the procedure. In order to make access to the animals easier, the farmers often break the bears’ teeth and pull out their claws, sometimes brutally removing whole digits. If the bears stop producing bile, they are left to die, or are killed for their gallbladder and paws (considered a delicacy in China).

National Geographic also reports a concern about another TCM product recommended by the Chinese government for COVID-19: Angong Niuhuang Wan, a pill traditionally containing rhino horn. Although rhino horn is banned from global trade and, under Chinese law, the pill must instead contain buffalo horn, some traffickers continue to market pills containing rhino horn.

Indian officials were so alarmed that the recommended remedies might encourage poaching they sent out an alert to wildlife officers. One senior forest official told an Indian newspaper:

They (poachers) do poaching whenever there is an opportunity. Poaching is basically demand-driven. If the demand is high then people will take the risks.

Promotion of TCM for COVID-19

The Chinese government is busy promoting TCM for COVID-19, including exporting TCM products and practitioners to “help” other countries. At a press conference, a Chinese official claimed, without evidence (because there is none), that TCM has “alleviated symptoms, reduced the severity of the virus, improved recovery rates and reduced mortality rates”.

One China expert sees this boosterism as a means of deflecting criticism of China’s response to the pandemic by “causing distraction from questions that could be embarrassing for the Chinese government”. It also jibes with the government’s use of TCM as a tool of nationalism and a lucrative export product.

As David Gorski explained in a prescient 2016 SBM post, Chinese authorities are aggressively promoting TCM by putting TCM and “Western” medicine on “equal footing”, with specific policies “giving equal attention to TCM and Western medicine”. All of this is, as he pointed out, in accord with Mao’s original fabrication of so-called “traditional Chinese medicine” as a means of unifying China and, to boot, a cost-saving measure replacing effective medicine with cheap pseudoscience. This plan includes:

  • Enacting the “Law on Traditional Chinese Medicine”, effective in 2017, requiring local governments to set up TCM institutions in publicly-funded health care facilities, envisioning TCM as “key to reform of medical and health sectors and the drive toward a Healthy China”.
  • State support of TCM research, and development and protection of TCM intellectual property and TCM formulae as state secrets.
  • Of special relevance to COVID-19, expansion of TCM in dealing with disease prevention and control and “dealing with public health incidents”.
  • “Protecting and breeding” rare or endangered wildlife, implying that “the government will promote the preservation and utilization of these animals for their various body parts that are, barbarically, used in TCM concoctions”.

Hence, bear bile as a COVID-19 remedy.

As one Chinese official commented at the time,

The new law on traditional Chinese medicine will improve global TCM influence, and give a boost to China’s soft power.

Here in the U.S., acupuncturists and TCM practitioners are happy to help spread the government’s propaganda and concomitant “boost to China’s soft power” by credulously regurgitating questionable Chinese research, aided by state legislators who have given these practitioners broad scopes of practice and incorporated their pseudoscience into state law. So, ironically, while the Trump administration rails against the Chinese government for (among other things) its role in fomenting a global pandemic, state-licensed health care practitioners are actively promoting what is, in part, a bid for global influence by that same Chinese government.

Thus, the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM), doing its own part to give “equal attention to TCM and Western medicine”, links several documents on treating COVID-19 with TCM among its “Member Resources“. The CCAOM was created “to advance the standing of acupuncture and Oriental medicine (AOM) in the U.S.”, accomplished in part by its establishment of the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the U.S Department of Education-approved accrediting agency for acupuncture and TCM schools. Accreditation makes acupuncture/TCM students eligible for federal student loans. (I wonder what Betsy DeVos would think if she knew the agency she heads plays an important part in advancing China’s interests in the U.S.)

One resource, the “Hubei Province Integrated Chinese/Western Medicine Hospital Critical Viral Respiratory Disease Formulas“, helpfully explains that “the new coronavirus pneumonia roughly approximates Chinese medicine’s ‘warm disease’ or ‘epidemic disease’ category'”, with presenting symptoms including “feeling heaviness in the body” and “greasy tongue coating”.

The fundamental pathogenic factors are dampness and heat. Clinically we need to consider the upper and middle burner for our primary treatment strategy, paying attention to latent heat, and damage to qi and yen.

Some 10 pages of TCM remedies are provided, ending with the recommendation that health care providers “secure and guard your upright, healthy qi”.

Another recommended resource, “How COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) is Currently Treated in China with TCM“, translates Chinese treatment protocols into English, advising that “Chinese medicine should take a primary role in effective treatment and must not be absent in action” and asking readers to “please share this article and the herbal prescriptions with everyone”.

Here, we learn authorities in Wuhan issued an edict that “all medical institutions in Wuhan will ensure that all infected patients take Chinese medicine before midnight on February 3, 2020.” (So much for informed consent!) Treatments include herbal formulas “administered to patients according to the individual’s TCM pattern diagnosis” (a nonsensical, pre-scientific system), including tongue and pulse diagnosis. Patients also received acupuncture at specified points “to strengthen the immune system”, “alleviate early symptoms, and to shorten the duration of the virus”, as well as moxibustion.

Specific treatment protocols are set out, based on TCM diagnoses such as “wind-cold invading the exterior”, for which the “treatment strategy” is “expel wind, release the exterior, clear heat, detoxify”. Another diagnosis: “damp heat afflicting the lung”, with the advised “treatment strategy” of “transform dampness, detoxify, disperse the lungs and expel pathogens”. And so on.

Based solely on the uncontrolled, unrandomized, unblinded observation of patients, results attributed to these TCM treatments are described as reduction of fever, increase in energy, and “obvious improvement in symptoms and an overall improved mental state”. The document claims that the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine

diligently used TCM . . . revealing that Chinese herbs played a definitive role in positive treatment outcomes. Chinese herbal formulas harbor the unique potential to reduce fever and cough symptoms, limit disease progression, and improve overall immunity, and thus a person’s ability to mount an essential response to the virus.

Yet another CCAOM resource is from the Healthcare Medicine Institute, a provider of state-approved acupuncture/TCM continuing education courses in the U.S., titled “Acupuncture and Herbs COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Findings“. The entire document credulously repeats literally unbelievable results claimed by Chinese health authorities for a remedy called Qing Fei Pai Du Tang, a concoction of some 20 different herbs:

  • For patients with pneumonia, symptoms “markedly improved” for 60%, and 30% “stabilized”, for a 90% positive response rate.
  • Of 701 COVID-19 patients treated, “130 patients were cured, symptoms including fever and coughing completely resolved in an additional 51 patients, symptom improvements occurred in an additional 268 patients, and stabilization occurred in 212 patients.”
  • 112 patients had a body temperature in excess of 37.3 degrees C. “After taking Qing Fei Pai Du Tang for one day, 51.8% of patients’ body temperatures returned to normal. After 6 days, 94.6% returned to normal temperature.”
  • Of 351 patients, 214 had coughs. “After one day of drinking Qing Fei Pai Du Tang, 46.7% of patients’ coughs completely resolved. After 6 days, 80.6% had significant reductions in coughing.”

The “Findings” also recommend acupuncture points for COVID-19 treatment, including several “to eliminate pathogens from the body”.

Given the Chinese government’s relentless promotion, one can fairly view TCM as an ambassador for China’s international influence. After all, no one can legitimately make the case that it offers safe and effective treatment of disease. Yet, TCM (often in the form of acupuncture, a theatrical placebo) has infiltrated every facet of the U.S. healthcare system: prestigious medical centers, government institutions, public and private insurance, and healthcare provider licensing. All of this was done with the full support of the U.S. and state governments, albeit unwittingly, in the form of licensing laws, research funds, mandated insurance coverage, and legitimization of TCM education (including student loans). Without much effort on its part, the Chinese government has, in the guise of a healthcare practice, been wildly successful in spreading its ideology throughout America, an ideology grounded in a rejection of science, indifference to human suffering, and cruelty to animals.


Photo: Sun Bear bile extraction. Dan Bennett. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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Posted by Jann Bellamy

Jann J. Bellamy is a Florida attorney and lives in Tallahassee. She is one of the founders and Board members of the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SfSBM) dedicated to providing accurate information about CAM and advocating for state and federal laws that incorporate a science-based standard for all health care practitioners. She tracks state and federal bills that would allow pseudoscience in health care for the SfSBM website.  Her posts are archived here.