Published: Monday 15 April 1996

Are you sure?

Down To Earth is by now a rather well -established magazine, but occasionally I do get the impression that certain stories that are reported are not verified. One such report is the one on the anti-malarial herb used by- the Onges of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 16).

My first reaction on reading the article was to wonder about whether the plant being mentioned was Artemesia annua (a Chinese herb) which is being developed as an anti-malarial drug. If it is the case, I am quite surprised as to who could have tested the herb to establish its effectiveness against Plasmodiumfalciparum, one of the most dangerous malarial parasites. In vivo tests on this parasite in India are not possible as the only other known host apart from humans are the Aotus monkeys of South America. And the countries of Latin America have totally banned the export of these monkeys.

On the other hand, in vitro testing had been done at the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) and lately in the Malaria Research Centre of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), as well as in the department of parasitology at the Post Graduate Institute (PGI) in Chandigarh. Plant matter from the Andamans has indeed been tested for anti-malarial properties at PG1, Chandigarh, but the plants tested so far have not proven to be anti- malarial and these results have been checked with the ICMR. In the context of the above facts, the statement of Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology is quite strange. Unless the plant is identified (it may even turn out to be ust another source of Artemesia annua which is also growing abundantly in Vietnam) and the drug is developed, nobody is going to benefit from it.

A rediscovery of Artemesia annua has instilled the hopeof developing the anti-malarial drug. CDR1 involvement in the research started in 1988. The new drug development policy stipulates certain conditions. After each of the various stages of trial, the datagenerated has to have the drugs controller's approval before the research can proceed to the next stage. The four-stage process could take 10-12 years before the permission to market it could be obtained.

Former director,
Central Drug Research Institute,
Lucknow - 226 001

Sumita Dasgupta replies:
It has been confirmed by the PG1, Chandigarh, that this particular herb had tested positive. The name of the plant was being kept under wraps as it was feared that a deluge of prospectors might invade the Andaman Islands. Also, if the'ICMR was in doubt about the efficacy of the drug, why would the director of the Institute want to send a draft patent application for any future drug likely to be developed from the herb to the 1CMR headquarters in Delhi? Surely, the director would not have acted with such unseemly haste if it was going to be another case of mistaken identity....

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