Monday, July 03, 2006
South Africa's papers report today that a herbal tonic promoted by Girish Kotwal, a senior biomedical scientist at the University of Cape Town may have led to deaths of patients who stopped simultaneously taking their antiretroviral drugs. The university suspended the scientist in question. The university reportedly stated that 'the remedy had not been properly tested for safety and efficacy and the limited patient research conducted had not been approved by the university'. The potion sells in South African shops for about 200 ZAR (a bit less than 20 GBP), and according to the newspaper reports the university earns royalties from its sale.
Kotwal organised a conference on traditional African remedies in the end of 2005 that attracted - unsurprisingly to South African observers, the South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who stated the following: It provides an opportunity to reclaim our scientific and socio-cultural heritage, which was stigmatised and discredited as primitive rituals and witchcraft during many years of colonialism and apartheid ... This forum should expose the false dichotomy that had arisen between natural medicine and allopathic medicine, a division fostered by the need to make money from patented drugs through discrediting the use of natural products. Of course, as usual with Russia trained doctor Tshabalala-Msimang, she got it ever so slightly wrong. The issue has nothing whatsoever to do with patents but with drugs that have been tested in methodologically sound scientific clinical trials vs concoctions the supposed efficacy relies on hear-say. Nothing would prevent anyone from running clinical trials with any number of traditional African concoctions. Those that pass succcessfully the hurdles of phase 1 to 3 clinical trials would eventually get patented and join the ranks of other clinical proven medicines. Tshabalala-Msimang's African nationalism (again) readily sacrifices the survival interests of African people for the sake of a cheap propaganda exercise. - What's new you might ask. Very little indeed.
Update: 05 July 2006: Here are further details about the case from the Cape Times newspaper, including statements about the negative health consequences AIDS patients suffered who took the potion Kotwal advertised, as well as some verbatim comments from Nature, the leading science journal that first broke the story.