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The Strange and Twisted Tale of Hydroxychloroquine

How the much-hyped drug sparked a battle between power and knowledge

In the mid-1600s, a Jesuit priest serving in Peru got a useful tip. The indigenous people there, he learned, were using the bark of a particular kind of tree to treat fevers. The priest, who'd probably gone a few rounds himself with the local diseases, got ahold of some of the reddish-brown bark from this "fever-tree" and shipped it back to Europe. In the 1670s, what came to be called Jesuit bark had made its way into a popular patent medicine, along with rose leaves, lemon juice, and wine.

That was the beginning of the impressively effective bark's role in pharmacology (and its side career in mixology). In the mid-1700s, the prolific Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus gave the tree's genus its name—having heard a fanciful (and untrue) tale about the bark's success treating the Spanish Countess of Chinchón, he dubbed it Cinchona. In 1820, French chemists isolated the active ingredient, a plant alkaloid they named quinine. Its bitter flavor became not only a hallmark of the prevention and treatment of malaria but also the basis for a medicinal fizzy water—a “tonic”—that mixed well with the gin that Europeans brought with them to their equatorial conquests. Today, quinine can be found in bitters, vermouth and absinthe; next time you order a Manhattan or a Sazerac, give a little l'chaim to the Peruvians.

Medicine that treats a deadly disease but grows only on certain finicky trees is the kind of thing for which chemists live. A failed attempt to synthesize quinine in the 1800s had accidentally produced the first synthetic pigment (a lovely shade of mauve); after World War I, when endemic malaria arguably did almost as much as Allied soldiers to limit Germany's expansionist ambitions, that country set its scientists to solving a problem. A dye company called Bayer took up the quinine challenge, synthesized some reasonably useful replacements, and became a pharmaceutical powerhouse with a global market. When World War II denied the U.S. access to both German drugs and the quinine-producing cinchona trees of Java, the Americans basically stole a recipe from German prisoners of war and turned that into a successful treatment.

Please select this link to read the complete article from WIRED.

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