In the 1960s, [Mao] 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.
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.
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