Monday, April 20, 2020

The global pandemic and the Hydroxychloroquine link to India

The shipment in April 2020 of Hydroxychloroquine from India to the US, Brazil, Spain, Germany and other countries brings to mind the story of its connection with Srirangapatnam, the British Army and Gin & Tonic.
As most of us are already aware, Hydroxychloroquine has taken the world by storm due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Every newspaper and media person is talking about it, and many more countries are requesting India to supply it.
Now, a curious person might wonder how and why this chemical composition is so widely manufactured and available in India and if there is any history behind it?
Well yes, there is an interesting history behind it that goes way back to Tipu Sultan's defeat. In 1799, when the British defeated Tipu Sultan, the  Kingdom of Mysore with Srirangapatnam as its capital came under British control. For the next few days the British celebrated their victory, but within weeks many started falling sick due to malaria as Srirangapatnam was a marshy area infested with mosquitoes.
The local Indian population had over the centuries developed some self immunity whereas the British soldiers and officers who were suddenly exposed to these harsh Indian conditions started falling sick.
To overcome the mosquito menace, the British Army shifted its station from Srirangapatnam to Bangalore by establishing a cantonment there. This was a welcome change, especially due to its cool weather which the Brits were sorely missing ever since they had left the shores of Britain. But the malaria problem persisted as Bangalore too was no exception to the mosquito menace.
In 1820 French scientists Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou discovered the process of extracting "Quinine" from the bark of the Chinchona tree which could be used to treat malaria. This discovery came just in time for European empires that were fast expanding into the tropical regions of the world. The British in India, who were losing men to malaria, ordered Quinine in bulk and distributed it to their soldiers who were instructed to take regular dosages so that they could build up their immunity to malaria. This was followed up in all other British settlements throughout India because every region in this country had a malaria problem to some extent.

But there was a small problem. Although many sick soldiers quickly recovered, many more soldiers who were exposed to harsh conditions of tropical India continued to fall sick, as it was later found that they were not taking the recommended dosages of Quinine. Why? Because it was very bitter!! So, by avoiding the bitter Quinine, British soldiers stationed in India were lagging on their immunity, thereby making themselves vulnerable to malaria.
That's when the British started experimenting with ways to persuade their soldiers to strictly take these dosages. During their experiments, they found that the bitter Quinine mixed with Juniper berry-based liquor turned it somewhat into a sweet concoction. This is because the molecular structure of the final solution is such that it can almost completely suppress the bitterness of Quinine.
That Juniper berry-based liquor was Gin. And the Gin mixed with Quinine was called "Gin & Tonic", which instantly became a hit among British soldiers.
The same British soldiers, who were even ready to risk their lives in the line of duty but 'feared' the bitterness of Quinine, started swearing by it daily when they mixed it with Gin. It was then the Army started issuing bottles of Gin along with "tonic water" (Quinine) as part of their monthly ration so that soldiers could themselves prepare Gin & Tonic and consume it every day to build immunity.

To cater to the growing demand for gin & other types of liquor among British soldiers, the British built several local breweries in and around Bangalore, and the liquors were supplied not only to Bangalore but to other parts of the country as well. And that's how, due to the many breweries and liquor distillation factories, Bangalore became the pub capital of India way back during the British Raj. Eventually, many of these breweries were purchased from their British owners after Indian independence by none other than Vijay Mallya's father, Vittal Mallya who then led the consortium under the group named United Breweries, with its headquarters in Bangalore.
Thus, Gin & Tonic became a popular cocktail and continues to remain a popular drink. The Quinine, which was called Tonic, started being prescribed by doctors to patients who needed a cure for fever or any infection. Whenever someone in India fell sick, he would often be advised, "Visit the doctor and get some tonic". Over time, the tonic word was so overused that it became a reference to any medicine in general. So, this is how "Tonic" became a colloquial word for "Western medicine" in India.
Over the years, Quinine was developed further into many variants and derivatives, and widely prescribed by Indian doctors. One such derivative, called Hydroxychloroquine, eventually became the standardized cure for malaria because it had relatively lesser side effects as compared to the earlier variants. It is also now the most sought after drug in the world today due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
And that's how a simple peek into the history of Hydroxychloroquine takes us back to Tipu Sultan's defeat, the mosquito menace, liquor rations, colourful cocktails, tonics, and their medicinal cures.

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