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Douglas Todd: COVID-19 outbreak spotlights traditional Chinese medicine in Canada

Vancouver Sun logo Vancouver Sun 2020-07-02 Douglas Todd
a group of people standing in front of a store: Workers at a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop wear face masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (March 26, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.) © Billy H.C. Kwok Workers at a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop wear face masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (March 26, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.)

The scientific war of words over Chinese traditional medicine is heating up in this era of COVID-19, since some of its ingredients contain wild-animal parts that researchers link with the origins of the pandemic.

As global concerns have mounted, China’s authorities in June deleted at least one traditional Chinese medicine product made with bat droppings from the country’s official drug guide, called the pharmacopoeia. The state media also reported that authorities will ban the use of endangered pangolins in traditional Chinese medicine .

The move by China’s Communist leaders has major implications for B.C.’s College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncturists , which was established in 1999 by the B.C. legislature, one of the first Western governments to endorse TCM in this way. Some other jurisdictions in Canada, including Ontario, followed suit.

The B.C. regulatory body oversees more than 1,000 registered “doctors and herbalists.” Given the popularity of traditional Chinese medicine in B.C., the college is growing by more than 150 new practitioners each year.

The latest move by China’s leaders to restrict the use of bat feces and pangolin scales in at least some prescriptions came soon after the country also temporarily banned the trading of wild animals for eating. Although the precise origins of the coronavirus are still unknown, most health scientists believe the virus came from bats before being passed onto humans by other species, quite likely pangolins, that are sold at China’s wholesale markets.

a close up of an animal:  The pangolin is Earth’s only scaly mammal and also the most trafficked type of animal in the world for their scales and meat, which are a culinary delicacy and traditional medicine in China and Vietnam. © Linh Pham The pangolin is Earth’s only scaly mammal and also the most trafficked type of animal in the world for their scales and meat, which are a culinary delicacy and traditional medicine in China and Vietnam.

The dried parts of bats, the only mammal than can sustain flight, are used widely in traditional Chinese medicine, which is based on theories about enhancing qi, or vital life energy. Dried bat fecal matter is used to cure eye conditions and mixed into wine or powders to “detoxify” the body. The karetin-filled scales of pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal, are believed to be good for nursing mothers and for promoting blood circulation.

This week, Postmedia asked the registrar of B.C.’s College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncturists, Jonathan Ho, a dozen questions related to whether his organization is monitoring or restricting traditional medicines that use bat feces or pangolin parts.

But a college spokesperson recommended taking the questions to a directorate of Health Canada, which it said controls the ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine and other “natural” cures. “Any registrants who import or sell natural health products that are not authorized by Health Canada are subject to disciplinary action,” Maharukh Bhagat said, speaking on behalf of Ho.

Health Canada could not be reached for comment. And B.C.’s Health Ministry did not respond to questions.

Even though some traditional Chinese medicines have been around for thousands of years, the tension between Western scientists and traditional practitioners has grown in the months since Chinese President Xi Jinping began pulling out all the stops to advocate traditional Chinese medicine around the world, including by setting up 30 centres across Asia. The industry is said to be worth up to US$100 billion a year and Xi proudly associates it with ancient Chinese culture.

Related

The vice chair of B.C.’s Traditional Chinese Medicine Association, Jian Xian Kevin Lu, recently reinforced President Xi’s global push to have traditional Chinese medicine used to heal COVID-19 patients. The B.C. practitioner has promoted a petition, signed by more than 2,300 people, calling on B.C.’s NDP government to allow traditional Chinese medicine to be used to combat the coronavirus.

Roughly 80 per cent of traditional Chinese medicine is herbal based, with even some skeptics considering much of it benign, or in some cases a placebo, for non-critical medical conditions. Still, many Western health researchers have denounced much of it, mainly because its remedies have not been properly tested in controlled experiments that have been through peer review.

China’s apparent decision in June to reduce the use of bat matter and pangolin parts in the country’s official traditional medicine guide, the pharmacopoeia, comes in the wake of ongoing research in the East and West warning that the often-illegal trade in such wild animals could pose a bio-security risk to the global population.

Many scientists are aghast that the World Health Organization, in response to years of pressure from China, a major funder of the United Nations body, recently cancelled its earlier alerts about what it had previously labelled the dubious nature of traditional Chinese medicine remedies to instead offer its qualified endorsement of them.

a dog sitting on a wire fence:  Bats in cages in market near Jakarta, Indonesia. Bat parts and fecal matter are used widely in TCM. © Traffic.org Bats in cages in market near Jakarta, Indonesia. Bat parts and fecal matter are used widely in TCM.

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, a top source for data on the pandemic, is one of the organizations emphasizing that traditional Chinese medicine is likely at the root of certain “zoonotic” coronaviruses, which transfer from animals to humans.

Professor Steven Salzberg, of Johns Hopkins, recently said that bat-derived traditional medicines are most likely responsible for COVID-19. The leading U.S university department is by no means the only medical centre saying so.

In early 2019 before COVID-19 began spreading out of China, scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Beijing predicted: “It is highly likely that future … coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China.”

Another major paper produced more than a year ago, by Dutch scientist Trudy Wassenaar and her China-based colleague Y. Zhou , made the case that the 2003 SARS epidemic originated in the collection of bat feces to be ground into a traditional medicine marketed to detoxify the body.

Several more major studies, including one led by microbiologist Antonio Wong of Hong Kong University , have linked the spread of the coronavirus to bats, especially large horseshoe bats. One study of a cave with large deposits of bat quano, which is also used for fertilizer, discovered four out of 104 samples tested positive for the coronavirus .

Even though Chinese authorities, as of last month, appear to be restricting the use of one traditional-medicine pill that uses bat parts, called Huanglian Yanggan, China-based researchers have found the fecal material of bats is used in other remedies.

With traditional Chinese medicine going under the microscope more than ever because of two new global developments — the quest to prevent another coronavirus outbreak, as well as President Xi’s bold bid to spread traditional Chinese medicine around the planet — many more difficult questions are likely to be raised.

dtodd@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/@douglastodd

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