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Coronavirus: China and responsible action

March 30, 2020

China is providing urgently needed assistance to Europe in the coronavirus crisis. But what is needed for the long term is a ban on the trade in wild animals. Otherwise, the next pandemic is as good as certain.

Smbolfoto Illegaler Gürteltier-Handel in
The illegal trade in pangolins may have caused the coronavirus pandemicImage: AFP/G. Ginting

We help others in need. That's considered normal. When the COVID-19 crisis began in January, the European Union swiftly sent 50 tons of protective gear and medical equipment to Hubei, the Chinese province where the virus first emerged.

Now Europe has become one of the main battlegrounds in the war against COVID-19 — to deploy the military rhetoric much in favor with politicians around the world right now. And Europe is not faring all that well. China is sending supplies to Italy, Spain and Greece as well as other European countries that are not members of the European Union.

Aid from China is very welcome where health care systems are desperately overstretched. Many countries are going it alone and closing their borders. Solidarity is being sorely tested. Thousands of people are dying, millions face losing their livelihoods. Personal freedoms are being curtailed in once unimaginable ways. Even after the pandemic has been overcome, it will take years for the world to recover.

Trading reptiles online

A US-Chinese propaganda war

Chinese President Xi Jinping has said solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapon against public health crises. Aid as a weapon. In a period of trade wars and nationalism, assistance as a gesture of solidarity has become a tool in a war of propaganda.

The German newspaper Handelsblatt writes that "Beijing is presenting itself as a knight in shining armor. The coronavirus pandemic is shifting the balance of power. China wants to overtake the USA as a responsible and generous world power."

Read more: Doubts over China's claim of beating coronavirus

The article argues that a new era in global politics is dawning, in which the very country where the pandemic began is claiming the role as leader. "China's willingness to help is also being met with mistrust in Europe. For years Beijing has been seeking to extend its influence. Now it sees an opportunity. Aid deliveries are intended not only to save lives but also to form the basis of partnerships — and help rewrite the story of the pandemic," writes Handlesblatt.

Polemics versus cooperative crisis management

Beijing reacted angrily to US President Donald Trump's polemic claims about China's supposed failures in dealing with a homegrown virus. A close-up photo of President Trump's prepared remarks for a White House news briefing show that he crossed out the phrase "corona virus" and replaced it with "Chinese virus." After his rhetoric fueled a rise in attacks on Asian-Americans, Trump began to tone down his racist polemics.

The current crisis is bringing home to the United States and Europe just how dependent they are on the emergent Chinese superpower, and not just in economic terms. Beijing has responded sharply to criticism. China's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang has said, "For those who label products made in China as 'contaminated with virus,' they'd better not wear those made-in-China masks, protective suits and ventilators."

Zhao Lijian, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, went even further, tweeting "It might be the US army that brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

The enduring risk of zoonotic infectious diseases

Truth is the first casualty in war, as this propaganda battle demonstrates. The US has more than 143,000 documented cases and 2500 deaths; it hardly needs saying that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was not created in a US laboratory.

Read more: Is comparing coronavirus death rates futile?

It crossed from an animal host to humans. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. And like most zoonotic diseases, it probably originated in another mammal species. That was the case with HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and now, in all likelihood, COVID-19.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond and virologist Nathan Wolfe discuss the role of wild animal markets in China and elsewhere in facilitating the transmission of disease from animal hosts to humans. This was the case with SARS and is possibly true for COVID-19. In China, wild animals, sold live, are a source of both food and substances used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Tracking zoonotic transmission

SARS may have reached humans via civet cats who got the virus from bats. According to a paper in the scientific journal Nature, pangolins are a plausible host of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. As Diamond and Wolfe note, the scales of the pangolin are a valued ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

Read more: How Vietnam is winning its 'war' on coronavirus 

In densely populated cities across a globalized world, an emergent zoonotic disease can spread quickly and become a pandemic. The wild animal market in the city of Wuhan was closed once the coronavirus outbreak was identified.

But not even the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party evidently dares to permanently ban the trade in wild animals, which are central to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

China Wuhan City mit Marktplatz
Humans and animals in close proximity at a market in WuhanImage: Getty Images/China Photos

The importance of traditional Chinese medicine

As National Geographic magazine has reported, China's National Health Commission recently recommended the use of Tan Re Qing, an "injection containing bear bile, to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases."

The traditional Chinese medicine formula has been used since the 8th century to treat bronchitis and upper respiratory tract infections.

Xinhua, China's national news agency, recently ran an article titled "Traditional Chinese medicine offers oriental wisdom in fight against novel virus." The article says "TCM has never missed a single fight against epidemics throughout Chinese history. TCM classics have provided sufficient evidence of its curative powers in the fight against epidemic diseases such as smallpox over the past several thousand years. The 2003 battle against SARS was a recent example. TCM offered timely and effective solutions to the treatment and recuperation of SARS patients."

Read more: Coronavirus: Can Traditional Chinese Medicine help fight the disease?

The article also says that Wuhan saw "integrated treatment of TCM and Western medicine, especially among non-critical patients." It quotes Zhang Boli, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, saying, ‘Western medicine offers important life-supporting measures such as respiratory and circulatory assistance, while TCM focuses on improving patients' physical conditions and immune function. They complement each other."

A question of responsibility, not blame

It is unlikely that the coronavirus pandemic will end the trade in wild animals as a source of substances for traditional Chinese medicine. After all, the SARS epidemic did not put an end to the practice either. TCM plays an important role in China and elsewhere. Its advocates say that TCM is a holistic form of medicine that can treat complaints that are not adequately addressed by Western medicine, which focuses on symptoms rather than causes.

For this reason, Jared Diamond and Nathan Wolfe argue that COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last viral pandemic: "There will be others, as long as wild animals are widely exploited for food and for other purposes, whether in China or elsewhere."

But no matter how difficult it may be to implement in practice, a global ban on the trade in wild animals could help reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.