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HerbalEGram Volume 17, Issue 5, May 2020


Musings on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

By Steven King, PhD

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I am offering this short essay as message of gratitude and support to the Earth, the source of many essential medicines, and to the first peoples of the Earth — indigenous communities who are, in many places, guardians of our planet’s ecosystems. I would also like reflect on our work at Jaguar, indigenous survival strategies, conservation, climate change, reducing the emergence of future infectious disease (like COVID-19), and safeguarding of sources of new drugs that have yet to be discovered and developed.

Global pandemics are in no way new; the people who benefit from taking our plant-derived drug for HIV-associated diarrhea, Mytesi® (Napo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; San Francisco, CA), for example, are all too familiar with a virus that has devastated people around the world. Quarantines also are not new to human populations. In 1348, during a bubonic plague pandemic, ships arriving to the port of Venice, Italy, were required to remain docked on islands outside of Venice for quaranta dias (“40 days” in Italian) — not based on any scientific or medical knowledge but linked to the biblical “40 day and 40 nights.” The idea was to protect the population of Venice from further impact of the Black Death.

Fast forward to 1492: The Italian navigator and explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World and unleashed a torrent of devasting diseases, such as smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and influenza, among others, that ravaged and reduced the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere by an estimated 90%.1 Smallpox was the most devastating, but others also decimated indigenous communities in South, Central, and North America, due to a lack of previous exposure and immunity to these diseases.

During their previous experiences with outside diseases, indigenous communities have sought to protect themselves via self-imposed states of quarantine, often heading deeper into tropical forest areas to isolate themselves. Many indigenous peoples are once again trying to do this in the Amazon rainforest, at times literally seeking to block entrance to their territories to keep COVID-19 from infecting their populations. However, gold miners, illegal timber harvesters, and land speculators are continuing to work near indigenous communities, potentially spreading the virus. Reports of COVID-19 deaths among the Yanomami tribe members have already been documented. There are still isolated indigenous communities who are extremely vulnerable to many infectious diseases because of their lack of immunity to these diseases. On this Earth Day, many people around the world now share a fear of exposure to an infectious disease and are sheltering in place, linking our “new” experience to what indigenous and local communities have done to protect themselves for centuries.

The role of intact tropical forests’ absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere is well known and creates another link among human populations, emerging infectious diseases, and climate change. We need these living breathing ecosystems to help maintain the earth’s climate and temperature. Our planet, like many of our fellow humans, has a fever and it is a symptom of our illness on both global and human scale.

Unfortunately, the rate of deforestation has been accelerating in the Amazon region. In 2019, Brazilian Amazonian deforestation reached its highest level in the past decade, with 9,762 sq. kilometers cut down.2 The pace of deforestation in indigenous protected areas is also rapidly increasing, without the permission of the people who live in these reserves. That is not only terrible for the people and wildlife, but this destruction of large ecosystems has and can lead to the spread of disease and the emergence of new infectious diseases. The destruction and burning of tropical forests creates pathways for diseases and the organisms that help spread them (e.g., mosquitos, fleas, ticks, and animals) to “bloom” and expand into more densely packed human settlements, including frontier cities.

Diseases such as COVID-19, Zika, malaria, SARS, lyme disease, and ebola are zoonotic, meaning that they evolved in animals but can and do “jump” to humans when the ecological conditions allow for it. It is estimated that nearly 60% of infectious disease are in fact zoonotic in origin.3 As humans continue to destroy global forest and marine habitats, we are increasing the probability of unleashing new zoonotic infectious diseases that can transform the planet in a matter of months.

Ironically, some of the ways to treat and manage such infectious diseases and their symptoms have been found historically in the same forest ecosystems that we are destroying. One of those diseases is of course malaria. Quinine from the bark of the Cinchona officinalis (Rubiaceae) tree has helped entire nations in the past manage this mosquito-borne disease and is still used in some places. We at Jaguar and Napo are working to develop another drug, lechlemer, from Croton lechleri to help manage the devastating impact of dehydration caused by another highly deadly infectious disease, cholera.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, perhaps more than any other time before, we all understand that the health of ourselves, global forests, oceans, wildlife, and future generations are interdependent. It is time to pay homage to the interconnected, magical, delicate, and mysterious web of life on our planet. This is an opportunity to reassess our relationship to the natural world that always has and always will be the foundation of our wellbeing and future.

Steven King, PhD, is the executive vice president of sustainable supply, ethnobotanical research, and intellectual property at Jaguar Health, Inc./Napo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.


  1. Koch A, Brierley C, Maslin MM, Lewis SL. Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492. Quaternary Science Reviews. 2019;207(1):13-36. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277379118307261#bib126. Accessed May 21, 2020.
  2. PRODES Amazon. Monitoring deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon Forest by satellite. Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais website. Available at: www.obt.inpe.br/OBT/assuntos/programas/amazonia/prodes/. Accesed May 21, 2020.
  3. Jones KE, Patel NG, Levy MA, et al. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature. 2008;451(7181):990-993. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18288193/. Accessed May 21, 2020.