Thank-You

I’m writing this article on a flight bound for Miami. The airport code is KMIA—my fertile imagination jumps to Killed: Missing in Action—the standard US armed forces acronym for some very bad shit. Still, WTF believes in acronyms…

I haven’t been to the land of the free for a couple of years now—in the Florida of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, the killing fields of COVID play out as a conspiracy of Democrats. Unvaxed conservatives grab the hospital beds and medical emergency resources—including doctors—that are needed for other patients.

During the pandemic panic panoply, other killer diseases have been left on the shelf—and I’m not just talking about the ‘Western’ diseases—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These three monsters have two things in common: they are lifestyle problems linked to obesity, tobacco, and alcohol, and they’re (almost) never caused by microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria—”we have met the enemy, and he is us“.

In the West, we neglect the killers that exist in many parts of the world—cholera, dysentery, and the worst of all, cerebral malaria—because they’re someone else’s problem. These three, and many more, share the opposite qualities to the afflictions that worry westerners—they are endemic, rather than lifestyle, and they’re all caused by bugs.

Malaria has been eradicated in both Europe and the US, but this is a recent development. From the rice paddies in southern Iberia to the court of the kings of France, malaria was rife all over Europe; this was also the case in the swamps of Florida and in many other parts of North America.

Stagnant waters were drained, and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was merrily sprayed into the environment until scientists found out that one day the birds would stop singing.

In early 1496, the Portuguese fleet captained by Vasco da Gama was smitten with mal aria—bad air—on the African east coast. That and the scurvy on the way back from India killed two thirds of the crew, including the captain-general’s brother Paulo.

The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese were greatly affected by malaria—one of the costs of empire-building. The upper class Brits have a tradition of sending their kids to boarding school—a guy I know saw a young school friend die from malaria—the English medics had no idea what it was.

In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Ho Chi Minh asked Premier Zhou Enlai for help with the endemic drug-resistant malaria in his country—more Vietcong were dying of the fevers than from American bullets. It was the summer of love—in January, the Doors released their first album; in February, Jefferson Airplane came out with Surrealistic Pillow; in March, the Grateful Dead launched their eponymous first album; in May, Jimi Hendrix asked ‘Are You Experienced’; and in June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper.

How appropriate then, that at the height of flower power, a Chinese pharmacist called Tú Yōuyōu was placed in charge of project 523, which led to the discovery of a magic herbal substance called qīnghāosù.

It took a few years—the power of the sweet wormwood Artemisia annua was only established at the beginning of the 1970’s, when Yōuyōu isolated the compound artemisin.

Nowadays, young researchers often end up ‘re-discovering’ concepts and methods because they are unfamiliar with papers published decades before the creation of ‘Google University’—that’s just poor scholarship.

Tú Yōuyōu—who reminds me of my mother, the rabbit physicist—did exactly what a researcher should do. She reviewed a vast collection of texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and finally sweet wormwood popped up in a sixteen hundred year old book on herbal remedies.

But wait! boil Artemisia, and the healing properties vanish—so the Chinese Nobel Prize winner tapped into another book, written by Hong Ge, which explains a cold infusion is needed—and then she hit the jackpot—or in this case, the yak pot. Nowadays, we know that extraction with a solvent such as alcohol or acetic acid also works.

Tú Yōuyōu (屠呦呦), a great scientist who helped millions in developing countries through her discovery of a non-patentable malaria cure.

Big pharma is often uninterested in simple potions, particularly when there is no patent to be registered and money to be made. The drugs commonly used to prevent and combat cerebral malaria—Lariam (Mefloquin in the EU) and Malarone—are much profitable.

Never mind the side-effects: Canadian special forces were given Lariam weekly during the Somalian war in the nineties—that weekday was known to soldiers as psycho Tuesday.

The Chinese scientist was the first woman from the Middle Kingdom to bag the Nobel—all the more wondrous because she is a three-without-scientist. Descriptions of this kind are common in China: the three things she is without are: a postgrad degree (no such thing in China when she was at uni), a postdoc abroad (duh, if she didn’t get a doctorate), and membership of one of the prestigious Chinese academies.

I love a good bit of serendipity—Artemisia is called qinghao in Putonghua, hao for short. The eminent Chinese scientist’s given name is youyou—that’s a deer call in an ancient Chinese poem.

Youyou is the sound the deer make when they’re eating the hao.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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