“The use of animals in Chinese medicine is a threat to the whole world”

Down to Earth talks to American scientist and physician David Gorski about traditional Chinese medicine in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has shone a spotlight on traditional Chinese food and medicine, especially items that use animal parts.

While China banned the use of wild animals as food following the pandemic, their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is still not prohibited.

Down to earth spoke to David Gorski, an American surgeon, scientist, skeptic promoting science and exposing quackery, and publisher of the portal scientific medicine on how TCM should be viewed in light of the pandemic. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: Why has Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) been around for so long? Is there a canonical/scriptural/textual basis for this?

David Gorsky: In fact, it hasn’t existed for so long. It is a creation of Chairman Mao (Zedong), whose health officials crafted a revisionist history that portrays the many traditions of Chinese folk medicine as a unified theoretical whole.

RG: Why isn’t TCM different from quackery in scientific terms?

CEO: The vast majority of them have no scientific basis. There is no evidence that ‘qi’ exists or that it can be manipulated with acupuncture, for example.

RG: I especially wanted to focus on the use of animals in TCM. What are the traditional Chinese views on using animals as “food” and “medicine” and how do they differ?

CEO: TCM’s use of animal parts is a threat to so many endangered species. Moreover, as shown by the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of animals by TCM is a threat to the whole world by facilitating the spread of new pathogens from animals making the leap to humans.

RG: Between the SARS epidemic in 2003 and COVID-19 in 2020, the Chinese government had supported livestock as a means of alleviating poverty in rural areas of the country. To what extent are government officials themselves involved in profiting from the use of animals in TCM?

CEO: I don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect it’s a lot.

RG: Why did a global body like the World Health Organization also support TCM?

CEO: I’m scratching my head on this question. This is partly because much of the leadership of the WHO is now Chinese.

RG: How will COVID-19 affect the TCM market, especially drugs made from animal parts?

CEO: It’s hard to say. I hope this will reduce the market considerably, but I suspect that if it does, the effect will be short-lived.