As far as we know, Covid-19 has similar origins to the Neolithic plague — a microbe jumps from some creature to a human living, or working, in frequent close proximity to the critter. Then the first human sufferer transmits it to other people, and away we go.
It is not surprising that such a “zoonotic” transfer took place in China, as with the Sars virus in 2002. The Chinese traditional “wet markets” are the extreme opposite of the aseptic conditions of the supermarkets of the western world: when we buy a chicken from Tesco, we do not choose it, still squawking in a cage, to be killed and chopped up in front of us. There is also a vast Chinese business in the slaughter of more exotic creatures, such as pangolins, and some scientists suggest it was an infected pangolin that kicked the whole thing off — the creature is known to carry a virus very close in its structure to Covid-19.
Does that bear out Prince Charles’s belief that “loss of biodiversity” is the cause of the pandemic? No, and not just because it isn’t the disappearance of exotic species that increases zoonotic infection — how could it? These creatures are not killed in the wild, but bred and farmed on an enormous scale. As a farmer in Jiangxi province, Wang Zhilin, told the Financial Times in February: “Raising wild animals is more profitable than growing crops.” She farms civet cats.
The main market for such exotic creatures is in fact medicinal, as the Chinese have, for millennia, believed that extracts of various unusual animals can cure all manner of ailments. This is an integral part of what is called traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For example, adherents of TCM commonly believe that eating civet cat, in regular doses, can improve male sexual function.
In 2019 the Chinese government persuaded the World Health Organisation, for the first time, to include TCM remedies in its accredited list of available treatments. This was denounced by Scientific American magazine as “an egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice”. But the Chinese government, which seems to have a hold on the WHO leadership, sees TCM as a great export industry — it already brings in about $50bn (£40bn) a year for the country’s economy.
This was the result of decades of campaigning by Beijing — and it likes to count Charles as a longstanding supporter of TCM (phrases such as “2,000 years of ancient wisdom” act like catnip on the prince). In 2007 the People’s Republic of China recorded the visit of Fu Ying, its ambassador in London at the time, to Clarence House, and announced that the royal host had praised TCM. “He hoped that it could be included in the modern medical system . . . and was willing to make a contribution to it.”
I don’t know if the Chinese government realised that among practitioners of “the modern medical system” the prince is regarded as a potentially dangerous crank. Three years before that meeting with Madam Fu, he had publicly endorsed the “Gerson therapy” as a treatment for cancer. This “therapy” involved drinking litres of fruit juice and having daily enemas . . . of coffee. Apparently it was the interior decorator of his country home, Highgrove, who gave Charles the good news that pumping coffee (not boiling hot, I hope) up the anus was a terrific treatment for cancer.
And what would the prince think about the tampering with nature by the modern pharmaceutical industry as it tries to engineer an RNA vaccine, involving nanoparticles, for Covid-19? I think we can guess. Alternatively, we could rely on Ainsworths, the homeopathic “pharmacy” that supplies him and which he has rewarded with a royal warrant. Until it was belatedly stopped by a dozy regulator after a BBC investigation, the firm had been advertising its “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, measles and rubella — that is, not vaccines at all. More recently, Ainsworths has been selling ground-up bricks from the Berlin Wall (diluted with lactose, water and alcohol) as a cure for depression.
I find it pretty depressing that a man who promotes a business of this sort should be treated respectfully when pontificating about the causes of and remedies for a pandemic. Yet he is. Perhaps the situation was best summed up in an open letter to the prince by the cancer surgeon Michael Baum, after the heir to the throne gave his coffee enema endorsement: “It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants who reinforce what they assume are your prejudices. Sir, they patronise you.”