"[Communist Chinese dictator] Mao’s role [in the development of a particular malaria treatment] was simple.
In the 1960s, he got an appeal from North Vietnam: Its fighters were dying because local malaria had become resistant to all known drugs. He ordered his top scientists to help.
But it wasn’t easy. The Cultural Revolution was reeling out of control, and intellectuals, including scientists, were being publicly humiliated, forced to labor on collective farms or even driven to suicide. However, because the order came from Mao himself and he put the army in charge, the project was sheltered. Over the next 14 years, 500 scientists from 60 military and civilian institutes flocked to it.
Meanwhile, thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam were also getting malaria, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research began its own drug hunt. That effort ultimately produced mefloquine, later sold under the brand name Lariam.
While powerful, mefloquine has serious drawbacks, including nightmares and paranoia. In 2003, dozens of American Marines in Liberia got malaria after refusing to take pills because of military scuttlebutt that several Special Forces soldiers who killed their wives after returning home from Afghanistan in 2002 had been driven insane by the drug.
China’s effort formally began at a meeting on May 23, 1967, and was code-named Project 523, for the date.
Researchers pursued two paths. One group screened 40,000 known chemicals. The second searched the traditional medicine literature and sent envoys into rural villages to ask herbal healers for their secret fever cures.
One herb, qinghao, was mentioned on tomb carvings as far back as 168 B.C. and praised on medical scrolls through the centuries, up to the 1798 Book of Seasonal Fevers. Rural healers identified qinghao as what the West calls Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, a spiky-leafed weed with yellow flowers.
In the 1950s, officials in parts of rural China had fought malaria outbreaks with qinghao tea, but investigating it scientifically was new. It also had at least nine rivals from traditional medicine with some anti-malarial effects, including a pepper.
In the lab, qinghao extracts killed malaria parasites in mice. Researchers tried to find exactly which chemical worked, which plants had the most, whether it could cross the blood-brain barrier to fight cerebral malaria, and whether it worked in oral, intravenous and suppository forms.
Outmoded equipment slowed research. But by the 1970s it was known that the lethal chemical, first called qinghaosu and now artemisinin, had a structure never seen before in nature: In chemical terms, it is a sesquiterpene lactone with a peroxide bridge. Trials in 2,000 patients showed that it killed parasites remarkably rapidly.
However, the body eliminated it so fast that any parasites it missed made a comeback. So scientists began mixing it with slower but more persistent drugs, creating what is now called artemisinin combination therapy. (One new combination includes mefloquine.)"