It has been called, with good cause, “The Tree of Life” and “The Miracle Plant that Saved the World.”
Donald Trump brought it to public attention, albeit indirectly. In a press conference he mentioned possibly game-changing malaria drugs for treating corona virus. For latest developments regarding those medications, watch this CNN report dated March 20, 2020.
Medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are far less enthusiastic than Trump, and are urging caution.
Cinchona pubescens is commonly called cascarilla, red cinchona, quina, quineira. It is native to central and South America.
Cascarilla is known for its medicinal properties. Its bark is the source of quinine which is used to treat malaria.
Always resilient, often invasive, cascarilla varies in size, from short to 10 meters (33 feet) in height.
Quinine was first isolated from the bark in 1820, but extracts have been used to treat malaria since at least 1632. It is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines needed in a public health system. The wholesale price in the developing world is about US$1.70 to $3.40 per course of treatment. In the United States a treatment costs more than $200. If that doesn´t tell you something decisive, nothing will.
So, how did a plant come to be associated with a cure for malaria?
(1) Malaria is not native to the Americas. Spanish conquistadores and colonists brought it in the 1400s-1500s.
However, the medicinal properties of cascarilla were not unknown. Pre-Columbian Natives since time immemorial used cascarilla to cure headaches, fevers, colds and other maladies.
Legend has it that in the 1600s the Countess of Chinchón, Spain was gravely ill with malaria. Her doctor gave her no chance of survival. A Jesuit priest heard about her plight and brought her a bundle of cascarilla from Loja, Ecuador. After drinking an infusion for several days, the Countess was completely cured.
(2) A traveler wandering in the South American wilderness was going mad from malaria-induced fever. He came upon a pothole filled with dirty water. He was in such agony he decided he had nothing to lose, and took a drink. Within hours, his fever disappeared.
The traveler looked around and noticed cascarilla growing alongside the pothole.
The export of cascarilla-produced quinine quickly became an economic boom for Ecuador and other Andean nations. The tide started to turn, however, in 1860, when the Englishman Richard Spruce stole seeds.
By 1880, English and Dutch plantations of cascarilla in their Southeast Asian colonies monopolized the trade. Even Andean nations were forced to buy quinine from them.
During World War II, Japanese conquests closed off the plantations to the West. Production of cascarilla-quinine restarted in the Andes, only to subside when the war was over.
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Is there a Patecte-cascarilla connection?
According to my sources, tomb raiders – “huaqueros” – customarily hid their valuable relics in mule trains transporting cascarilla from the Amazon through the Chordeleg area on their way to Cuenca and beyond.
For more on the possible huaquero-cascarilla connection, see our post “A Pre-Columbian Crown for a Victorian Queen.”
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Let´s end where we began: Donald Trump.
Vanity Fair summed up:
“[On March 19] Donald Trump declared at a press conference that chloroquine was a possible ´game changer´ and that the FDA had approved it. ´We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately,´ he promised. On Saturday, Trump continued to beat the drum, tweeting that chloroquine had ´a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.´
At a press conference on Monday, he continued to gush over the drug and related a tale about a patient for whom it had a Lazarus-like effect. ´They had given him the drug just a little while before, but he thought it was over. His family thought he was going to die. A number of hours later, he woke up, felt good.… He’s in good shape. And he’s very happy for this particular drug that we got approved in record-setting time. There’s never been anything even close to it.´ (Earlier that day Fox News had run a story about Rio Giardinieri, a Florida man who credited his recovery from COVID-19 to a variant of chloroquine.)”
Trump has lengthy experience in the media. He knows perfectly well the first rule of the game.
That rule: never, ever, under any circumstances, advertise a product for free. If somebody is drinking a Coca-Cola in a movie, Coke paid for the ad: period.
Trump broke the rule. If that doesn´t tell you something decisive, nothing will.
Does Trump, his daughter, Jared Kuchner or other associates have any financial interest in pharmaceutical companies producing anti-malaria drugs?
As with cascarilla-based medicine, the lead is definitely worth pursuing.