For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America


One half of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to Tu Youyou for her discovery of the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Many of us who do research in the biological sciences have felt that this award was long overdue.

The discovery of artemisinin has saved the lives of millions. And so the Nobel is proper recognition for Dr. Tu, for China and for the advancing role of women in science here and around the world.

There is an interesting and illuminating back story to Dr. Tu’s discovery. India’s The Hindu relates the story here:

(In the 1960s North Vietnam and the Vietcong were were at war with the U.S. which had launched a massive invasion, and malaria was rampant in the region. jw) Struggling to deal with a malaria-ridden army, Vietnamese Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh requested Chairman Mao to establish a secret military research programme to look for a cure for malaria within the traditional Chinese medicine. Project 523 (as it began on May 23) began its search for a cure in 1967. It was officially shut down in 1981.

Mao’s prompting led to Tu’s discovery

For nearly two millennia, Chinese healers were using leaves from the sweet wormwood plant to cure fevers. Tu’s team collected 2,000 recipes from 640 herbs, which Tu narrowed down to a few promising candidates. The project resulted in the discovery of the anti-malarial drug, artemisinin, which is one of the most successful transformations of traditional therapy into modern medicine.

“Within a couple of years, hundreds of scientists had tested thousands of synthetic compounds without success, and it was common knowledge that a similar programme in the U.S. had drawn a blank too,” notes a report in New Scientist, published on Monday soon after the announcement of the prize. “With no synthetic drugs forthcoming, attention turned to China’s traditional medicines. The government asked the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing to appoint one of its researchers to scour China’s herb garden for a cure. The academy chose Tu, a mid-career scientist who had studied both Chinese and western medicine and knew enough about both to realise it would not be an easy job.” Tu followed instructions in a 1600-year-old text titled ‘Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve.’ The text stated that the sweet wormwood herb must be soaked in water and the juice consumed.

“The researchers tested the potion on monkeys and mice and found it to be 100 per cent effective,” Tu is quoted in the New Scientist report as saying. “We had just cured drug-resistant malaria,” Tu says. “We were very excited.”

Now consider what the United States was doing at the very same time. The US was engaged in an illegal and criminal war on Vietnam based on the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the claim that a Vietnamese gunboat had fired on a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. By the end of the U.S. invasion at least two million Southeast Asians had been killed, according to Robert McNamara, the war’s principal technical architect, appointed by JFK. Even more Asians were injured and displaced –casualties that dwarf the deaths of 50,000 Americans, no less tragic for their lesser numbers.

To win this guerilla war by the Vietnamese the U.S. was dumping untold tons of Agent Orange on the jungles and on the population, definitely a massive war crime. This caused grievous illnesses and birth defects by the hundreds of thousands, a legacy still being borne by the Vietnamese. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds thousands, of US soldiers were also exposed.*

But the contrast could not be starker. China worked to develop artemisinin as the U.S. Empire was dumping Agent Orange on Vietnam. Each country had its priorities and a chemical to match.

Clearly nothing fundamental has changed today – the scene of imperial killing fields simply moved to the Middle East for a while and it is scheduled to shift back to East Asia with Japan as US cat’s paw this time. If the bloodthirsty Hillary becomes president, then Vietnam and Iraq are likely to look like a child’s playground by comparison with the damage to be inflicted and lives lost in her pivot to East Asia.

Perhaps we should learn that it is time to move past opposition to simply one war or another and recognize the evil of Empire. Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie had it right when they joined other founders of the Anti-Imperialist League to oppose the US war on the Philippines. Antiwar is no longer enough. Where is our Anti-Imperialist League for the 21st Century?

Notes on the New York Times coverage of Dr. Tu.

Generally, the science section of the New York Times is fairly objective, providing legitimacy for a newspaper that is truth challenged and spin crazed in its international news and political coverage. But even in the science coverage the NYT cannot resist a few swipes at official enemies like China.

For example, when the Times reports the achievements of Dr. Tu, it notes:

But Dr. Tu had been denied a place as an academician in China’s highest honorary body for scientists, apparently because of her lack of foreign training and a doctoral degree, other commentators noted.

Perhaps that is true and perhaps not, but this situation is not unique to China. In the U.S. the National Academy of Sciences has failed to elect outstanding scientists as members – and then it scrambled to admit them when they surprised the establishment and win the Nobel. I have known two such Nobel Laureates personally who were admitted “late” and very quickly to the National Academy.

And then there is this in the same NYT piece:

She said she was “very lucky” to go to university as a woman, according to a blog post by Songshuhui, a nongovernmental organization focused on writing about science.

But here we are left without historical context. Dr. Tu was born in 1930 and she was old enough to go to University before Liberation in 1949. In those days pre-Liberation days women had few rights and were second class citizens to say the least. Then with Liberation and Mao’s declaration that women “hold up half the sky,” women’s status advanced by a giant step in just a few years time. But of course there can be no acknowledgement of any achievement of the Chinese Communist Party in America’s paper of record.

Finally, there are two great reasons why the U.S. has so much more than its share of Laureates.   First the US has great wealth – although where that wealth came from goes beyond our purpose here. It takes money and a lot of it to do most science. The U.S. has that wealth. Second we scientists go where the money is so that we can do our work, which is number one for us. Hence, foreign scientists come to the U.S. if they can. All too many U.S. laureates were educated in other countries and are products of other educational systems and cultures. The U.S. essentially bought these investigators.

Of course such distortion by the New York Times is just a jot compared to the whoppers penned almost on a daily basis by the likes of Michael R. Gordon and his partners in crime on the front pages.

*A note on antimalarial development. It is reported that the U.S. also had a program to develop antimalarials at the time of its war on Vietnam. But despite the vastly greater resources of the U.S., it failed where China succeeded. Given the willingness of the U.S. to expose its own soldiers to Agent Orange, one wonders how serious it was (and is) about protecting them. And given that, perhaps the U.S. did not make a very serious effort to develop antimalarials. This question perhaps deserves looking into.

More articles by:

John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com. He is a founding member of “ComeHomeAmerica.US”.

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