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For this 160-year-old Darjeeling plantation, Trump’s push for HCQ is a boon

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Bark of Cinchona tree is a natural source of quinine -- of which hydroxychloroquine is a synthetic derivative. Photo | Pixabay
Bark of Cinchona tree is a natural source of quinine — of which hydroxychloroquine is a synthetic derivative. Photo | Pixabay


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Kolkata/ Mumbai: U.S. President Donald Trump’s backing for a malaria drug to treat Covid-19 has boosted the prospects of an obscure plantation in the mountains of eastern India.

About 6,900 acres of the lower Himalayas are under Cinchona cultivation, a tree whose bark is a natural source of quinine — of which hydroxychloroquine, the drug Trump has touted as a “gamechanger” in treating the coronavirus, is a synthetic derivative.

Trump’s backing has fueled stockpiling of the drug among hospitals and consumers, prompting a tussle for supplies that even sparked a short-lived export ban in India. The plantation has accordingly seen a surge of interest in its bark.

“Quinine sulphate that we get from cinchona bark is more potent, it has less side-effects,” said Uden Angmu Yonzone, assistant quinologist at the factory in Darjeeling. Harvesting is limited to once a year, which restricts supply and pushes pharmaceutical companies toward cheaper synthetic ingredients, she said.

Uden couldn’t elaborate on the relative benefits of natural quinine. While there’s no conclusive evidence that hydroxychloroquine works on the virus, demand for the drug created a brief diplomatic spat after Trump warned of potential retaliation if Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t lift a ban on exports. India has some of the world’s largest manufacturers of the finished medicine as well as its component ingredients.


Also read: Hydroxychloroquine: The special drug Trump and the world are dialling PM Modi for


Samuel Rai, director at the Directorate of Cinchona and Other Medicinal Plants, said he received additional queries from Indian pharmaceutical and non-pharma companies based in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal over late March and April regarding purchase of the tree bark.

The plantation employs more than 5,000 permanent laborers and over 400 government employees, with harvests in December and January. The bark sold for 111 rupees ($1.45) a kilogram during the last auction in November, Rai said.

The first Cinchona seeds were sent in 1861 to the Royal Botanical Garden in Calcutta, then the capital of the British Empire in India, and the Darjeeling plantation was set up in 1864. The medicinal properties of the bark were known to the Incas of Peru, who called the tree Kinakina in the local language and Cina in Spanish.

Trump vowed in March to make the affordable medication widely available to fight the pandemic, which has sickened about 2 million people globally, killed more than 126,000, and has no approved cure or vaccine. In India, the government has recommended hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic for health care workers who dose themselves as a preventive measure to avoid contracting the infection while treating Covid-19 patients.

Hydroxychloroquine and its cousin chloroquine have side-effects: the latter can kill an adult in just two grams, or twice the daily amount recommended for treatment, according to a study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The drug is known to have short-term side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and tinnitus while long-term use can irreversibly impair eyesight. It’s forbidden for pregnant women as it can cause congenital defects in babies.

Artificial synthesis of quinine in the mid-20th century eroded demand for the cinchona bark and typical purchasers today include small Indian drug makers who use the ingredient to treat leg cramps. Every year, about 200,000 kilograms of Cinchona is harvested, and currently there is an accumulated stock of 500,000 kilograms available, according to Rai.

“We are in a position to harvest more if mandated by the government,” he said.-Bloomberg


Also read: Inform public not to use HCQ and azithromycin without prescription, Modi govt tells states


 

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Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’

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doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay


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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”


Also read: 6 toilets for 20 houses, inadequate testing: Why Mumbai’s Worli chawls are a Covid hotspot


‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.


Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown


 

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