Coronavirus Chronicles: can the cinchona superpower of India save the world?

Cinchona-nitida-quinine
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There currently isn’t any immediate calamity that can be any greater in impact than the coronavirus crisis engulfing the world with terrifying intensity in each passing moment. The yet incurable malady that the COVID- 19 is, this one tiny virus has been having humanity scrounging every nook and cranny for a hopefully potential agent to at least ward off its menacing advances. While vaccines are in the works with uncertain future and even uncertainer potency against the latest wave of coronavirus doing the rounds, the ‘common world’ is banking on an already available drug to shake off the COVID 19 monkey off the back of fatigued humanity.

That drug in question is hydroxychloroquine, which has been at the center of some short- lived diplomatic tension between India and the United States. As US President Donald Trump touted this synthetic drug, of which India is the largest producer, as a gamechanger in treating the coronavirus, there obviously has been an increase in demand for it. Such was the scrambling for this hopefully potent drug the world over that India had to opt for a short export ban on it so that internal interests aren’t affected. Naturally this export ban meant India would not be supplying hydroxychloroquine to the US, even when President Trump himself had asked for it. Needless to say what emerged thereafter is some threat of potential retaliation from the suppossedly most powerful country that subsided only after India lifted the ban on the same on humanitarian grounds.

hydroxychloroquine
Source: CNBC.com

But as tasking an entity the current scheme of things as planned by the coronavirus might be turning out to be, it isn’t a pandemic bereft of benefits. Indeed when it is more shocking than surprising, the wave of the coronavirus has had its endowment of benefits. And this recent surge in demand for the hydroxychloroquine drug may well spell another set of gains especially for India. Because the production of this potent drug requires the bark of the cinchona plant as the raw material, it is expected that the almost dying cultivation of the novel plant would receive a tremendous boost. At least that’s what the ground reality is supposed to spell in ordinary parlance.

While this might not be a claim founded quite on science, the assumption that the current scenario might still spark renewed interest in the cinchona plant is going strong. That even when experts and scientists do not likely credit hydroxychloroquine as being an effective cure for or even as a preventive agent against the coronavirus. The Indian government however has given this anti malarial drug validation as a prophylactic for health care workers to avoid contracting the infection while treating Covid-19 patients. But even in the face of conflicting scenario, either for or against the potency of the drug as a treatment for the pandemic, the forthcoming better days for cinchona planters might not be more than just a farce. This we say because hydroxychlorquine is not a natural drug and therefore has nothing to do with the cinchona plant in its production. A synthetically devised medicine that while is a derivative of quinine does not rely on either cinchona or quinine to be produced, hydroxychloroquine is chemically produced at cheaper costs than what the cinchona plant or its bark would amount to. Additionally, cinchona and quinine are toxic and have undesirable side effects, some even fatal, that restricts their over the counter availability thereby limiting sale.

However, the current mood is upbeat as an extensive renewed interest in the drug spells at least some hope, however founded or unfounded that might be, for the cinchona planters in India. The ‘fever tree’ however is not endemic to India. In fact it was only in the 1860s that cinchona was introduced in the country, in the Nilgiris of southern India to be precise.

Cultivation began in the Calcutta of 1861 even as the plantations later expanded to areas like Ootacamund and Darjeeling of West Bengal, and the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu as well as to Wayanad in Kerala. It is however only the Darjeeling plantation that survives till this date, after having revived from a shut down in 2001, though the Nilgiris too continue with the medicinal production on a small scale. The plantation in Darjeeling sure have evolved; set up in 1874, the cultivation now takes place on some 3400 acres of land, even as a hundred acres are added every year. The small hilly village of Mungpoo would likely be the ‘hotspot’ for cinchona if cultivation induced by growing demand indeed takes on steam even as other sites like Munsong, Rongo, Latpanchar and Ambotia would expect to see some light. This indeed would mean better times for all of these cinchona havens that just for the record though, otherwise incurs a loss of more than 25 crores in Indian rupees per year.

Cinchona demands and thereby cultivation have also been somewhat undone over the years by its relative slow harvest. Harvesting being limited to once a year in the months of December- January, restricted supply resulted in demands shifting base to synthetic variants, which are both easily procurable and come cheaper than the natural bark. Come the COVID 19 however and cinchona is the most betted on of all probable cures. Trust this one dark moment for mankind change the course of history- of the world or at least of India’s cinchona industry with its all engulfing prowess!


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