Aids scam: Kenya had one too
This week’s accusation that the African National Congress has a 6% interest in Cyropreservation Technologies, the manufacturer of the industrial solvent and experimental Aids drug Virodene, sounds uncannily similar to a Kenyan Aids scandal.
Kenyan officials were accused in 1990 of rushing an unproven, experimental Aids drug on to the market to profit from the thousands of Kenyans who have Aids.
President Daniel arap Moi and his senior officials hailed the drug, called Kemron, as a “breakthrough” for African science. They claimed Kemron had “saved” the lives of 40 patients in tests conducted by the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
But Kemron was only alpha interferon administered under the tongue in very low dosages. Interferon was discovered more than 30 years ago, and used in extremely high doses as a cancer treatment.
The idea that it might work in low doses was odd enough, but that it should work when taken orally is even more unthinkable.
Interferon is a protein, and is destroyed by digestive enzymes.
The idea to use it as an Aids therapy came from a Texan veterinarian, Joseph Cummins, who noticed his cows produced alpha interferon in their nasal secretions as part of their immune response when they were sick.
The only doctor he could find who didn’t laugh at his idea of using it for Aids patients was Dr Davy Koech, at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi, which Cummins visited in 1990 to conduct research on diseases affecting Kenyan cattle.
Koech tried the drug on 40 people with Aids for six weeks, then reported that eight of his patients no longer tested HIV-positive, and all the patients’ immune systems had bounced back substantially, as measured by their heightened T-cell counts. Koech did not control the study with placebos.
The research project was soon hijacked by government officials, including Vice- President George Saitoti, apparently with the consent of Koech.
The speed with which Cummins’s idea turned into “Kemron”, the miracle drug marketed by the health ministry, was nothing if not suspicious.
It usually takes at least 12 years of carefully controlled trials in test tubes, animals and humans before a drug reaches the market. But scarcely a year elapsed between the day the veterinarian landed in Nairobi with a jar of powdered alpha interferon and Moi’s declaration that Kemron would soon be sold locally.
Since then, no one has been able to reproduce anything close to Koech’s results, though at least 13 tests have been conducted on low-dose alpha interferon in various countries.
The United States government’s National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, part of the prestigious National Institutes of Health, had considered testing Cummins’s idea on humans. But in light of the failures of other trials to reproduce Koech’s results, the institute decided against tests in 1992.
But the black American religious group, the Nation of Islam, which was the most vocal supporter of testing low-dose alpha interferon, sniffed out a scent of racism in the US government’s decision not to test the drug.
An African-American doctor affiliated to the Nation of Islam, Janet Mitchell from Harlem Hospital in New York City, claimed the reluctance to test alpha interferon stemmed from the fact that government scientists are “racists who want black people with Aids to die”, and who do not believe African scientists can produce valuable Aids research.
The Nation of Islam doctors were in turn profiting from low-dose alpha interferon in much the same way the Kenyan government was.
The organisation began selling Kemron to African-Americans through a “buyers’ club” - a semi-legal way that people with Aids can buy experimental drugs - at four times as much as other buyers’ clubs were selling the same drug. The Nation of Islam denied it was inflating the price, calling its accusers racists.
Meanwhile, back in Nairobi, when the Kenyan health ministry began trying to sell Kemron, it was drawn into a legal battle over patent rights with Cummins, who had already patented the therapy in case it amounted to anything.
As Cummins was their supplier of alpha interferon, the Kenyans then had to try to buy the drug from other manufacturers, but those deals fizzled out.
The health ministry announced it would set up a factory to make alpha interferon, but the equipment needed never materialised.