India’s Hydroxychloroquine Machine Was Built to Fight Colonialism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The British — not any pandemic — were the targets of the firm that launched India's pharma industry.
When Prafulla Chandra Ray put his meager savings — all of Rs 700 ($10) — into starting India’s first pharmaceutical company in 1892, he wasn’t looking to save the world from a pandemic.
Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited (BCPL) is today India’s only state-owned firm that manufactures the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. And for the period in April when U.S. President Donald Trump was convinced that the drug — often referred to by the shorter HCQ — helps cure COVID-19, the company found itself in the midst of geopolitical tensions.
Trump dialed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and demanded that he allow the U.S. to buy HCQ (India produces 70 percent of the world’s supply of the drug), threatening consequences if New Delhi didn’t agree. BCPL, which used to mainly manufacture chloroquine, overnight received a license to produce HCQ. India has since sold millions of doses of HCQ to the U.S., though a growing body of research suggests both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine can hurt coronavirus patients.
But it was to fight a different enemy that Ray — often referred to as the father of modern Indian chemistry — set up the firm, say historians. It was meant to serve as a model private firm that other Indian entrepreneurs could emulate, with the aim of providing an employment alternative to the country’s middle-class youth who otherwise had to depend on jobs in the British colonial government.
Ray, a professor of chemistry at the prestigious Presidency College in Kolkata at the time, also wanted an “adjustment” between the best of India’s ayurvedic medical system and allopathy, says historian Amit Bhattacharyya, a former professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He was keen on using indigenous plants to make chemical components.
Ray … dedicated his life to rediscovering the scientific geniuses of ancient India.
Sekhar Bandopadhyay, historian
It was a sentiment of self-dependence — or Swadeshi in Hindi — that would sweep the nation, especially after British Viceroy Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal effectively along religious lines in 1905. Bengal, the most populous province and economic engine of British India, was also the heartland of protests against colonial rule. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal at the time had two key elements, says Sekhar Bandopadhyay, head of the history program at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. The plan involved locally manufacturing consumer goods that were otherwise coming from England, and to develop a national education system distinct from the one imposed by the British in India.
“Ray was involved with both and was, in fact, one of the pioneers who had dedicated his life to rediscovering the scientific geniuses of ancient India,” says Bandopadhyay.
By that time, Bengal already had a prominent place in the global production of quinine — the main anti-malarial drug that came before chloroquine. An alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona plant, quinine was first isolated in Paris in 1820. Cinchona plants and seeds were transported from the Andean forests in South America, where they were native, to colonial plantations in Dutch Java (currently Indonesia) and British India in the 1850s and 1860s, says Rohan Deb Roy, lecturer in South Asian history at the University of Reading and author of the recently released book Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820-1909. Northern Bengal was one of two locations in India where the British set up cinchona plantations.
But by the early 20th century, north Bengal’s quinine fortunes were in decline, as the Dutch production in Java gained a global monopoly. “In response to this Dutch monopoly, other political powers began funding studies that would yield a synthetic anti-malarial drug” that wouldn’t depend on the cinchona plantations in Indonesia, says Deb Roy.
Enter chloroquine, discovered by chemist Johann Andersag while he was working for German pharma giant Bayer in 1934. HCQ emerged during World War II, as an alternative anti-malaria drug with fewer side effects. By then, Bengal Chemicals was independently also producing chloroquine, documents from the time show, says Bhattacharyya, though it’s unclear whether the firm had its own product patent or process patent for the drug it was manufacturing.
When Ray — who remained a bachelor all his life — died in 1944, it started what appeared to be a death spiral for Bengal Chemicals, recording continuous losses. In 1977, it was taken over by the Indian government, but it continued to bleed money.
Then, in 2016-17, it finally showed a profit that has since grown in the past two years, as the company introduced what it described as better cost-management practices. After Trump’s call — Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro also sought HCQ from India — Bengal Chemicals said it could produce up to 1.1 million of the drug’s tablets per day.
Sure, the company’s global moment might have passed for now. A recent study by Harvard University showed that the condition of COVID-19 patients deteriorated when they were given HCQ. Clinical trials led by the WHO, the Wellcome Trust, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are still in progress. Even Trump doesn’t talk about the drug anymore.
But the temporary spotlight it enjoyed in recent weeks points to the “continuing relevance of provincial, public-funded institutions like Bengal Chemicals,” says Deb Roy, “in producing cheap and accessible drugs for a local market.” Trump might have moved on. But even if HCQ isn’t effective in mitigating the coronavirus crisis, India, Deb Roy says, must not give up on Ray’s labor of love.