Inside the mad scientist's lab

A suspended University of Cape Town (UCT) professor, who was involved in researching an unregistered potion marketed as an ‘anti-HIV treatment”, was keeping highly infectious viruses in his laboratory without following correct biosafety procedures.

Professor Girish Kotwal, head of UCT’s Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine, was suspended for six months and his laboratory closed earlier this month after international magazine Nature exposed his role in testing Secomet V, sold in South Africa since 2002 as an ‘anti-HIV treatment”.

Secomet International, a bio-pharmaceutical firm based in Stellenbosch, manufactures Secomet V.
Its founder and major shareholder is botanist Steven Lievers, who is listed as a research collaborator on the UCT institute’s website.

Marketed through doctors, traditional healers and health shops, Secomet V is taken by about 1 500 people. The liquid is sold for R200 in white, plastic 500ml bottles as Ithemba Lesizwe (Hope of the Nation).

The Mail & Guardian has learned that India-born Kotwal, recruited to UCT in 2000 with a reputation as one of the world’s top virologists, researched the ‘antiviral activity” of Secomet V on HIV and contagious pox viruses at his lab at UCT without following correct procedures.

‘Some of the students working with the viruses were not inoculated as required. Various other breaches of scientific protocol have also emerged,” said a source.

It has emerged that Kotwal also worked with the deadly corona virus, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), at another laboratory in Tygerberg that had a P4 rating—the highest level of biosecurity. UCT’s laboratories have a P3 rating.

This week, Skye Grove, UCT’s manager of marketing communications, said the issue of Kotwal’s breach of procedure at his laboratory was one of several that were discussed at the university’s preliminary investigation, which began on Wednesday. She added that Kotwal was unavailable for comment to the media.

The investigation centres on whether Kotwal failed to adhere to internationally accepted scientific ethics and protocols. Also to be investigated is the royalty agreement between Secomet and UCT.

According to Professor Greg Hussey, Kotwal’s immediate superior, Kotwal’s research on Secomet V was ‘done in his personal capacity”.

After the Nature article appeared, the Treatment Action Campaign’s Nathan Geffen pointed out to Kotwal that no phase III clinical trials had been conducted on Secomet V, and that it would be unethical to promote it ‘in popular magazines, websites and adverts until it has been registered for the treatment of HIV by a reputable regulatory authority”.

A glowing story on the HIV/Aids benefits of Secomet V appeared in You/Huisgenoot last November, quoting Kotwal as saying that his research supported claims of miraculous recoveries.

Kotwal told Geffen he was an ‘independent evaluator” who had no financial relations or close association with Secomet. He denied research subjects had not given informed consent; said he did not endorse the remedy; and that he had asked Secomet to remove the magazine articles from their website.

However, an article by Kotwal, Lievers and others, published last November in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, claims the plant extract Secomet V had been investigated and found to have antiviral activity.

‘We have asked whether, in submitting the article, Kotwal revealed his conflict of interest and provided proof of approval from the university’s ethics research committee,” said a UCT source.

Lievers told the M&G that the product had been registered with the Medicines Control Council (MCC) as a complementary therapy and could therefore be sold legally. However, Jonathan Berger of the Wits Aids Law Project challenged this. ‘If claims are being made that the substance is for the treatment of a disease, it is a medicine and it must be registered and subjected to the proper clinical trials,” said Berger.

Last year, two patients at the Aids Hospice in Stellenbosch, who were taking Secomet V in preference to anti-retroviral drugs, died after sudden liver failure. Lisa Hellstrom, a clinician at the hospice, told Nature she was concerned that Secomet V might be responsible. This week, she said the MCC had requested profiles of the patients and an investigation was under way.

It is understood that Kotwal did not report the deaths to the MCC’s ethics committee, which is standard procedure in drug trials. It is believed his own lab tests found Secomet V to be toxic and carcinogenic in animals, and that it could trigger mutations.

What is Secomet V?

The key extract in the potion is derived from the plant Trifollium pratense, commonly known as red clover. The plant is traditionally used to treat a variety of conditions, from high blood pressure to high cholesterol and diabetes.

According to the website Alternative Nature Online Herbal, the plant originated in the United Kingdom but is now grown almost everywhere. It is easily cultivated and requires little attention.

In an article last November in You/Huisgenoot, botanist Steven Lievers is quoted as saying: ‘I didn’t discover the remedy, it discovered me. I was at a braai, having a few beers and thinking about all this stuff. I asked myself logical questions like: How come vines will get a fungus but the weeds beneath them won’t? The same with viruses that attack a plant’s leaves but not its stem. It occurred to me that’s where the muti must be.”

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