No, Tonic Water Isn't a Coronavirus Cure (But Gin and Tonics Are Delicious)

A gin and tonic in a glass on a slate cutting board surrounded by limes.Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

There is promising news that an antimalarial could help in the fight against the coronavirus. Tonic water contains an antimalarial compound, but stepping back a gallon will not cure COVID-19. We will explain why.

Antimalarial drugs and coronavirus

Antimalarials are suddenly a hot topic because they could be used as therapy to treat coronavirus infections.

the The FDA is currently investigating if chloroquine, a synthetic antimalarial discovered in the 1930s, is safe and effective to use as a treatment.

The drug is currently used to treat malaria (a disease caused by single-cell parasites transmitted by mosquitoes) and amebiasis (infections caused by a form of amoebae). Because it is a mild immunosuppressant, chloroquine also helps some patients with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Although the effectiveness of this treatment still requires extensive testing, the drug megacorp Bayer is donate millions of chloroquine tablets and support them for exercise.

What does tonic water have to do with it?

Soldiers from the British Hospital Corps.Public domain

So where exactly does tonic water come from?

If history is any indication of how quickly disinformation spreads, your Facebook feed is about to be blocked by people claiming that tonic water will protect you from coronavirus.

Why would anyone want to peddle such claims? And why the tonic water instead of, say, seltzer or sparkling water? This is because the tonic water contains quinine, an antimalarial.

Historically, toned water was considered a health tonic. During the 19th century, British authorities in India and other tropical regions took quinine powder to protect themselves from malaria. It was effective against malaria, but tasted so bitter that they naturally did what they could to make it less vile.

This involved mixing the powder with sparkling water and sugar to mask the flavor. The result was a carbonated drink sweet enough to balance the bitter and medicinal kick of quinine.

British soldiers and officers at the time also received a ration of gin. In a perfectly sensible British way, they added their gin and a touch of lime to the tonic water. And, thus, the classic gin and tonic was born.

Tonic water is not a remedy

If the United States government is studying antimalarial drugs and tonic water contains them, it makes perfect sense that sending back tonic water has a protective effect, right? Not so fast.

First, the specific research related to the issue focuses on chloroquine, not quinine. Evidence for the efficacy of chloroquine as a coronavirus removal tool is still under review. So it makes no sense to switch from an antimalarial that might work at the suggestion of another drug just as well (or not at all).

Second, even if quinine proves to be effective (which, to our knowledge, is not even considered at the moment), you will certainly not get a therapeutic dose from tonic water. In addition to being the flavoring agent of tonic water, quinine is a real medicine. As such, the FDA limits the amount of quinine manufacturers can put in their products. According to FDA regulations, tonic water can only contain 83 mg of quinine per liter of fluid.

The therapeutic dose to treat malaria is of course much higher than that. For an adult patient, the typical regimen is two 648 mg capsules of quinine sulfate every eight hours for seven days. Thus, the daily intake would be 3 888 mg.

However, quinine sulfate is more powerful than quinine. Each 100 mg of compound equals 121 mg of real quinine. Thus, this daily dose of actual drug would be (approximately) 4,705 mg of quinine if it was dosed with the original compound.

This means that if you are trying to treat yourself with standard tonic water for malaria, you will need to drink 56.7 liters per day. It’s just a sip or two shy 15 gallons of tonic water. To reach this level, you need to drink a two liter bottle and change it every hour of the day.

It’s not at all feasible; you would die from water poisoning. Although the phenomenon is well documented, a particularly tragic high-level case shows how impossible it is to drink 15 gallons of anything. In 2007, a woman died in a radio contest after drinking almost two gallons of water in three hours.

There is no evidence that quinine can prevent or treat coronavirus. Even if you tried to treat malaria with it (the disease for which it was originally used), you would be okay.

No matter what the same Facebook person says or the shared tweet, the tonic water will do nothing except calm your nerves a little, but only if you mix it with gin.

And why not? Let’s declare gin and tonic the official cocktail of the pandemic. It will not cure us, but it will surely take over.

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