We are now living in the strangest of times thanks to the infamous COVID-19 virus, which despite its diminutive size has managed to paralyse entire countries and forced them to take extreme measures to prevent the virus from claiming more lives.
At present, there are no signs of a remission in contagion rates, perhaps except for the countries in which it first reared its ugly head, and the suffering and uncertainty at both the family and community level is increasing. Many governments have declared a state of alarm and a national emergency and we are following a series of mandates, such as not leaving home except under exceptional circumstances, for necessities and, for lucky dog owners, the occasional dog walk. We are therefore in the unusual position of suddenly having a lot of time on our hands, which will inevitably lead to some of us reassessing our lives at both the individual and collective level, but also questioning what it means to be human. But that, my friends, is a huge topic for another occasion and for greater minds than mine. What is abundantly clear for all to see is that our confinement at home has greatly increased our online communication with friends, with the online community we have established among watch enthusiasts no exception to this.
One message that particularly captured my interest was a recommendation to drink tonic water as a preventative measure to ward off the evils of the coronavirus. For years, this is a beverage that I have enjoyed simply for its taste alone and for its contribution to the classic gin and tonic. Again, the preparation of this wonder is a world of its own and there is a certain art in the balancing of ingredients so as to create a refreshing beverage rather than something closer to “eau de parfum”. That initial sweetness giving way to a tingling bubbling taste and culminating in a bitter taste on the tongue is for many, pure heaven in a glass. But, back to the point, what does all of this have to do with watches? To answer this question, I beg readers to have a little more patience.
One of the ingredients of tonic water is quinine, which is what gives it its bitter taste. It was used years ago by shamans and healers in South America as it was renowned for its curative properties in effectively treating fevers and stomach aches. The indigenous name that the village of Quechua used for it was “quk-quin”. There are two main theories about its origin. The first theory recounts the story of how a cinchona tree was struck by lightning and fell into the water where the natives collected their water supply. At first, they only noticed the strong bitter taste of the water, yet they soon began to observe that people with fevers who drank the water began to get better. The second theory was that the natives noticed that there were certain animals that ate the bark of the cinchona tree, so they started to use it to better understand its properties.
As early as 1590, various chronicles started reporting the curative benefits of quinine which was being used by the Spanish on American soils. In 1640, a Spaniard called Juan de la Vega, who was the doctor to Viceroy Luis Jerónimo Fernández of Cabrera and Bobadilla, the fourth Count of Chinchón, had witnessed the cure and introduced it to Europe. It was also being used at that time by Jesuit priests doing missionary work and was known as Jesuits’ powder.
In 1655, King Charles II of England fell ill and suffered high fevers while Europe was suffering from a great epidemic of malaria. Although quinine was the only known effective treatment, the King, as a firm Protestant, was hesitant to use it due to its Catholic roots. It was therefore up to Robert Talbot to save his life by providing a “Protestant” treatment instead. This led Robert Talbot to amass a fortune by curing the monarchs of many different European nationalities. He eventually agreed to sell his treatment under the condition that his secret formulation was to be revealed only upon his death. In 1661, when the formula was finally revealed, it was none other than Jesuits’ powder.
It was during the 18th century that quinine cultivation grew and a very profitable monopoly in Peru and Bolivia was created, converting quinine into the third source of income of these countries, behind that of gold and silver. Such was its importance that its image was incorporated as a symbol on the national flag.
The following important role in our story is played by a German watch maker based in Geneva, called Joham Jacob Schweppe. Although there is barely any horological information about him, it is understood that he did not particularly enjoy his original line of work. This is, of course, something that any watch enthusiast will find hard to understand and one must presume that this strange anomaly could be due to the fact that his love of science and his commercial success took him down a different path in life: he was the first producer and seller of carbonated drinks.
Jacob Schweppe carried on from the work of Joseph Priestley, who had accidentally invented carbonated water in 1767 when he discovered a way of infusing water with carbon dioxide after suspending a bowl of water above a beer vat at a brewery in Leeds, UK. Schweppe was an amateur scientist and had the means to finance his hobby and he started experimenting with mineralised and carbonated waters to make “medicated waters”. He continued Priestley’s investigations, producing carbon dioxide artificially by chemical means, using sulphuric acid and calcium carbonate. This gas was then infused into agitated water which provoked an effervescent reaction.
Jacob Schweppe simplified the process further by using two compounds: sodium bicarbonate and tartar acid. Using this process, in 1783, and under the brand name of Schweppes, these waters were sold for medicinal purposes for treating digestive discomfort. In 1792, the company was transferred to 141 Drury Lane in London, where he continued with his work until he retired in 1798, leaving the business ready for future expansion under the trademark of J. Schweppe & Co. The sodas had only modest success until an admirer of the drink, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, increased its popularity.
In the first half of the 19th century, King William IV of England sponsored the drink and Schweppes was able to use the famous epigraph of “By Appointment to His Majesty”. Moreover, one of the greatest successes of the brand was to win rights to officially supply refreshments at the first International Fair of its kind, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, celebrated in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London in 1851.
Later, William Cunnington, an Englishman who was in India on an archaeological dig, observed that the locals there had a natural concoction with stimulant and digestive qualities. Its main ingredients were quassia amara and quinine. When he returned home to London, he created a soft drink with these characteristics, giving birth to what we now know as tonic water.
It was around the 1870s when the Schweppes company started to commercialise its own version of tonic water and it was used in India by the British army as a preventative measure against malaria.
And, as this is a website dedicated to watches, the relevance of the picture below should be obvious. It shows an image, from the period in question (around 1879), of British soldiers on campaign in Afghanistan. You can clearly see one of the officers proudly wearing a wristwatch.
Moving forward in time, in April 1912, Walter James Hawksford from Kingston in England, was on his way to New York on board the Titanic to become the first head of export sales for Schweppes. Although he survived the doomed voyage, the bottles that he took with him sank along with the ship. However, to the amazement of all, in 2012, during an expedition to the Titanic, one of the original Schweppes bottles was found in perfect condition, even though it had been at the bottom of the ocean until that moment.
Moving to the present day and the crisis that the world is facing, it is not surprising that, in the desperate search for an effective cure for COVID-19, a whole variety of ideas about possible vaccines and remedies has emerged, including chloroquine. But what is the evidence? Is it possible that chloroquine, used to treat malaria, could be just as effective in treating coronavirus?
Firstly, there is, unfortunately, no evidence to suggest that drinking gin and tonic will keep you safe from this virus. Although, to date, there are at least two studies that have shown that chloroquine could have a positive effect in combination with other medicines, unlike quinine we must note that chloroquine is a synthetic drug and it is not produced from quinine. In fact, it was used as a substitute for quinine in the second half of the last century.
An article was published by Chinese investigators on the 19th of February, at the height of their coronavirus outbreak, reporting the results of a trial showing that treatment with chloroquine phosphate was more effective than the control group in containing the development of pneumonia, improving lung health and enabling patients to test negative for the virus and shortening the duration of the illness. The study was carried out in ten hospitals across Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai and included more than 100 patients.
Even more recently, the director of the Mediterranean Institute of Infections in Marseille in France, Didier Raoult, also reported the results of a study indicating that chloroquine was effective in treating COVID-19. He reported that chloroquine seems to prevent, to some extent, the fusion of the virus in the cells, or put another way, it modifies the cell in such a way that the virus cannot enter. These preliminary results are positive when considering the fact that the purpose of clinical studies is to try to find a way to slow down the progression of the infection, shortening the length of time a person tests positive for the virus and can infect other people.
Having said this, and according to Jean Paul Giraud, a recognised specialist in pharmacology and a member of the National Academy of French Medicine, chloroquine is not without its risks. It can cause side effects such as immune system illnesses, gastro-intestinal illnesses, nausea, vomiting and hepatic problems. In fact, it has the power to be a very dangerous compound if the wrong doses are administered, potentially leading to death.
On the 21st of March, various Spanish hospitals started clinical trials with patients to demonstrate the effectiveness of Remdesivir, a new drug developed by the American pharmaceutical Gilead Sciences to treat ebola, although it remains in clinical trial. However, although chloroquine is being tested by some specialists across hospitals in Spain, it does not seem the drug of choice for the health authorities.
It appears that in the United States similar studies are being carried out. On paper, chloroquine will be used with patients presenting with the illness in its early stages or used for non-serious cases, or even as a preventative measure to block the virus. However, for serious cases, Remdesivir will be tested.
Germany can also be added to the list of countries that are experimenting with the use of chloroquine to beat off the pandemic. The country has acquired large amounts of chloroquine and Peter Kremsner, the director of the Tropical Institute of Medicine at Tübingen, has announced that they will also be using this medicine against the virus in the weeks to come, in light of its success with many patients with COVID-19 in China and Italy.
Regardless of the treatment that is used, the world is united in hoping that we will soon be able to walk away from this nightmare and return to our normal lives, our jobs, and above all, be with our love ones. Meanwhile, we owe much gratitude to the people who are on the front lines tirelessly fighting this disease.
So let us raise a toast and as we say in Spain “salud”, to your health.