Hydroxychloroquine, US President Donald Trump’s choicest ‘magic’ drug to fight COVID-19, has intimate links with West Bengal’s northern hill region of Darjeeling, producer of the world’s finest aromatic teas.
The anti-malarial drug, a synthetic molecule derived from chloroquine, is a chemical offshoot of quinine, which is extracted from the bark of cinchona trees. Darjeeling district, which boasts of cinchona plantations spread over 6,900 acres, is the only place in India where the medicinal plant is being commercially cultivated.
Today, with the synthetic variant in short supply, prompting even President Trump to bully India into sending large quantities of the drug, Darjeeling’s cinchona planters believe that pharma companies will soon opt for organic quinine. The US President’s desperation to acquire the anti-malarial drug to save the lives of his countrymen is reminiscent of Britain’s usage of quinine powder to keep British officers and Indian soldiers fighting trim in malaria-prone areas of nineteenth century colonial India.
Quinine had been in use for the treatment of malaria from as early as the 1600s, according to the Medicine for Malaria Venture, a Geneva-based research body.
Ever since hydroxychloroquine proved effective in the treatment of Covid-19 patients, the Directorate of Cinchona and Other Medicinal Plants (DCOMP) at Mungpoo in Darjeeling district has been receiving regular sale queries for the bark of cichona. DCOMP is the lone body in the country that produces and sells cinchona tree barks for production of quinine.
“The craze for malarial drugs has created shortage of quinine the world over,” said a senior manager of the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Ltd, India’s first pharmaceutical company and known to manufacture anti-malarial drugs like chloroquine phosphate and quinine sulphate.
Cinchona cultivation has a long and interesting history. A tree that is native to South America, commercial cultivation of cinchona started in the Darjeeling hills in 1862, under the direction of Dr Thomas Anderson, the then Superintendent of the Royal Botanical Garden, Calcutta (now Kolkata). By then, the medicinal value of the plant in curing malaria, a dreaded tropical disease, was well-known.
As demand for quinine manufactured from cinchona trees shot up, the British administration engaged Chinese prisoners to grow them in Ooty in Nilgiri hills in 1864. Cinchona cultivation interested the British administration because it was keen to protect the lives of its troops and officials after “being shaken up by the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857”, wrote Lucile H Brockway in the collective volume Seeds and Sovereignty—The Use and Control of Plant Genetic Resources.
Along with cultivation of tea that preceded by about two decades, cichona became the economic backbone of Bengal’s hills. It was only after quinine was synthesised in a laboratory in 1944 that demand for organic quinine reduced.
“Cultivation in Ooty stopped in the 1960s when demand fell,” said Dr Samuel Rai, Director of DCOMP. In Darjeeling, however, the magic tree continues to be grown. “The DCOMP has even been trying to expand plantation area by 90 to 100 acres every year. This season we harvested around two lakh kg of barks and sold them through auction at Rs 111 per kg,” Dr Rai added.
Harvesting of these trees happen in December-January, since it is easier to separate bark from the wood during this season. Locals mostly procure the bark from the auction and sell it to pharmaceutical companies. However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, DCOMP has received queries from Madhya Pradesh and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. The necessary procedure will continue after the lockdown is lifted.
“Suddenly, even villagers are enquiring about the cinchona bark. It could be that they too are thinking of chewing the bark to prevent corona virus,” said Rai. This sudden curiosity, he hopes, will bring good news for cinchona cultivation, which currently provides direct employment to about 7,000 people.