Hydroxychloroquine & it’s British Connection

Interesting story about Hydroxychloroquine’s origin

This is a fascinating story about the connection between much sought after Hydroxychloroquine, British Raj, Bangalore, Trump, Vijay Mallya, Tipu Sultan, Seringapatam and the famous drink of the Indian Army, Gin-with-Tonic!!

Well, after the British, Donald Trump must be credited with bringing these yellow tablets to the world’s attention recently. As most of us are already aware, Hydroxychloroquine tablets (commonly used to treat Malaria) has taken the world by storm, thanks to the spread of COVID-19, the absence of any vaccine against it and the pioneering efforts of a group of enterprising doctors in an Indian Hospital in Rajasthan, who successfully treated a group of 20 elderly Italian tourists (one of the 1st group of infected with COVID-19 travelers in India), using a combination of HCQ and other anti-viral drugs and care.

After the US president Donald Trump acknowledged HCQ’s effectiveness as a cure for COVID-19, the global media started talking about it, along with the USA many more countries started requesting India to supply the drug. India, which produces around 70% of the world’s Hydroxychloroquine supply, had by that time already placed a ban on its export. However, President Trump threatened India with “Trade Sanctions” and within hours of that threat, India complied and allowed the partial lifting of the export ban and agreed to supply to more than 100 countries that placed their orders. The USA alone got 29 million dosages in the first tranche. 

Coming back to the topic, Hydroxychloroquine’s current history is definitely paled by the huge centuries-old history it left behind. It all started in the year 1800. The famous ruler of Mysore state – Tipu Sultan, the resister of the East India Company was killed by the British on 4 May 1799 in a decisive war that changed the fortunes of the East India Company in India. The whole of the Mysore Kingdom with Seringapatam as Tipu’s capital came under the British control and for the next immediate period, the British soldiers had a great time celebrating their victory at the capital. However, within weeks, many of them started feeling sick due to Malaria, Seringapatam was a highly marshy area with severe mosquito infestation and hence widespread Malaria trouble.

The local Indian population had over the centuries, developed body-resistance and self-immunity against Malaria. Their spicy food habits also helped to a great extent. However, the British soldiers and officers who were suddenly exposed to the harsh Indian conditions started bearing the brunt.

To quickly overcome the mosquito menace, the British Army immediately shifted their station from Seringapatam to Bangalore (by establishing the Bangalore Cantonment region). This was a welcome change, especially due to cool weather, which the Brits were gravely missing ever since they had left their shores. But the malaria problem still persisted because Bangalore was also no exception to mosquitoes.

Around the same time, European scientists also discovered a chemical composition called “Quinine” which could be used to treat malaria and was slowly gaining prominence. Though yet to be extensively tested on humans, the malaria crisis of the British Army in India came as a great opportunity. Quinine was imported in bulk by the Army and distributed to all their soldiers, with instructions to take regular dosages (even to the healthy soldiers), to help them build immunity. This was followed up across all the British stations throughout India since every region in India had a malaria problem to some extent.

But there was yet another challenge, although the sick soldiers quickly recovered, many more soldiers who were exposed to the harsh conditions of tropical India, continued to fall prey to Malaria. It was later found that they were not taking the prescribed Quinine dosages. Why? Because it was very bitter!! Avoiding the bitter Quinine, continued to expose the British soldiers with Malaria irrespective of the widespread availability of Quinine.

This made top British officers and scientists to brainstorm and experiment with better methods of making their army take regular Quinine dosages. One of these experiments found that the bitter Quinine, if mixed with a Juniper based liquor, actually turned it somewhat into a sweet flavour. The molecular structure of the final solution was such that it would almost completely curtail the bitterness of Quinine.

That juniper-based liquor was none other than “The Gin“. And the Gin mixed with Quinine was called “Gin & Tonic“, which immediately became an instant hit amongst the British soldiers.

The same British soldiers who were ready to even risk their lives but couldn’t stand the bitterness of Quinine started swearing by it daily when they mixed it with Gin. In fact, the Army even started issuing few bottles of Gin along with “tonic water” (Quinine) as part of their monthly ration, so that soldiers could themselves prepare Gin & Tonic and consume them every day to build immunity.

To cater to the growing demand of gin & other forms of liquor among the British soldiers, the British East India Company built several local breweries in and around Bangalore (current day Bengaluru), which was then be transported to all other parts of India. That is how, due to the availability of innumerable breweries and liquor distillation factories, Bengaluru become the pub capital of India way back during British times itself. Eventually and after India’s independence in 1947, most of these breweries were purchased from their British owners, by none other than Vittal Mallya (Vijay Mallya’s father), who then led the consortium under a group named – United Breweries, headquartered in Bengaluru.

Coming back to the topic, that’s how Gin & Tonic became a popular cocktail and is a popular drink even today. The Quinine, which was called Tonic (without gin), was widely prescribed by Doctors for several other diseases such as Rheumatism, chronic pain and other conditions, fever or infection. Even today, if a typical Indian would fall ill, his neighbors would advise him to “Visit a doctor and get some tonic”. Over a period of time, the word “TONIC” was overused so often, that it became a synonym for “a healing drug” and to denote “Western medicine” in India.

Over the years, Quinine got developed into several variants and have been widely prescribed by the Indian doctors. One such descendent of Quinine, called Hydroxychloroquine, eventually became the standardized cure for malaria because it had relatively lesser side effects and which is now suddenly looked upon as the possible saviour of the world against COVID-19.

Hopefully, President Trump gets to read this article and appreciate, how colourful has been the history of the pale-yellow tablets that he sought to bring back some colour into the darkened lives of the Americans.

Partha Roy

Am an avid listener with mass-media, digital media, branding, IT-Telecom, HR & International Recruitment, & Education-Technology backgrounds. In Dubai since 2007, I have 30+ years experience in scripting, launching & profitably running several businesses including Recruitment Agencies, Publications, Events Management Companies, Education-Tech & Distance Learning Services and Background Check businesses across MENA, APAC & Indian markets. I have always been responsible for strategic & tactical management & the P&L. I also take great pride in having formed, trained, directed & supervised teams that delivered during this period. At present, I operate a self-owned management consultancy firm that takes pride in working with leading brands from across the world in each of our industry verticals. I have had a disciplined defences upbringing & schooling from across India. I earned a gold medal during my PG in Public Relations from Mumbai University and Graduated in Commerce from Punjab University, Chandigarh.

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