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Scientific discovery and its enemies

By Douglas Anele

Sometime ago, I was ironing my clothes hurriedly in preparation for work because power supply might go off at anytime and simultaneously watching the Cable News Network (CNN) morning news entitled CNN Newsroom. As usual, after about ten minutes I switched over to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), and the interview segment of the programme, Good Morning Nigeria, was running, anchored by Kingsley Osadolor and, if I am not mistaken, Claire Abdulrazak.

They were interviewing a certain Prof. Maduike Ezeibe who claimed that he has discovered a biochemical substance that decimates the highly dreaded Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Prof. Ezeibe, in thick Igbo-accented English, described the mechanics of how the new substance he and his co-researchers synthesised in the laboratory, aluminum-magnesium silicate, was able to penetrate any cell in the body where HIV might be hiding and destroy it.

His descriptions were vivid, compelling and sincere. Prof. Ezeibe said he had presented his research findings in Britain and the United States, details of which have been published in the highly-regarded British Journal of Medical Research. According to him, he has spent nineteen years researching the pathology and behavior of HIV, and the substance he and his collaborators had invented kills the virus effectively.

Immediately after Ezeibe’s interview, three medical scientists, I presume, were invited to assess his claims. I do not remember their names and the government agencies they headed, but I can recall that one of them was a Professor of Medicine and former Chief Medical Director, University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital. Probably, the men were from the National Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) and Nigerian Medical Research Council (NMRC).

They questioned Prof. Ezeibe’s claims, arguing that his research methodology was flawed and unethical, that he did not follow established protocols before making his claims public. Their cavalier, hubristic and negative response to a putative medical discovery that, if conclusively confirmed, should earn Ezeibe a Noble Prize in Medicine, is in tandem with the hasty and adversarial release by health minister, Prof. Isaac Adewale, part of which states that “On the issue of the HIV cure claim, we are yet to have the final reports from the Director-General of the National Institute of Medical Research.

But what is clear is that those activities were carried out without a valid ethical approval. As you might be aware, nobody is allowed to carry out any experiment or research on a human being without ethical approval. At the National Health Research Committee level, there is no evidence that this researcher sought and obtained ethical approval.”

What can one make of this? Why is it that the health minister and the three people interviewed after Ezeibe’s presentation did not even consider the possibility that the latter’s claim might be right, even if he and his co-researchers might not have followed strictly the protocols for carrying out experiments on humans as stipulated by the relevant authorities?

Would they have reacted in the same manner if a white Professor from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford or Harvard had done precisely what Prof. Ezeibe did? Will Prof. Ezeibe end up in the blizzard of obscurity like Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka who, in 1999, claimed that he had discovered a therapy that can cure and immunise people against AIDS and was silenced by certain powerful vested interests pretending to protect people living with AIDS?

Before I answer those questions I want to make a few remarks about scientific discovery, which should help researchers to respond appropriately to claims of discovery by their colleagues. First, as Karl Popper has eloquently argued, criticism is fundamental in scientific research, because valid criticism makes rational discussion and error elimination possible.

In the area of medical research, the need for adherence to rules guiding trial drug tests with humans together with rigorous peer review of new therapeutic claims is even more pressing considering the probability of death or severe physical and mental impairment in case the purported discovery is mistaken or fraudulent.

Therefore, demand for rigorous institutional vetting mechanisms for medical discovery claims cannot be ignored without grave consequences for public health. Of course, for every disease there had been unsubstantiated claims of new methods and drugs for treating it.

AIDS is one of the most dreadful health conditions threatening humanity at this time, although some progress has been made in understanding its aetiology and management. Moreover, because of huge financial rewards that await anyone who discovers a cure or effective vaccination against AIDS and the pharmaceutical companies that would manufacture the relevant drugs, it is important that claims of discovery relating to HIV must be thoroughly scrutinised.

But criticism can be taken too far, especially if it is insincere, malicious or hasty. Genuine scientific discoveries that solve important problems are difficult to make; so, scientists should show some restraint in criticising potential innovators, particularly if such criticism is based on trivialities, not on the real substance of the case.

Again, it takes time and a lot of effort to fully assess a discovery, and even when such a claim turns out to be wrong, the lesson learned can be epistemologically beneficial to scientists working in that discipline.

Now, the health minister and the three men interviewed by Osadolor acted in bad faith given their flippant, discouraging and disparaging remarks about Prof. Ezeibe’s claims. First, Prof. Ezeibe is a well trained veterinary virologist, with a doctorate degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has been working in his area of research engagement for over two decades, which means that he is a veteran in research.

I am convinced that Ezeibe must have subjected his research findings to the institutional peer review mechanisms of his school, Michael Okpara University, Umudike, Umuahia, and the senate of that university would have set up a committee of experts to review his work given its importance to public health. In addition, Prof. Ezeibe did not work alone: from his comments on the NTA programme we referred to earlier, he carried out a collaborative research with other competent researchers largely in consonance with the standards that guide such collaborative work.

Second, it appears that Prof. Adewale and top officials of NAFDAC, NIMR and NHRC really wished that Prof. Ezeibe did not make the discovery at all or, worse, that his claim is completely false simply because he did not get an “ethical approval” first before testing his new treatment on humans. None of them seemed interested in awaiting the verdict of any fact-finding team that might have visited Prof. Ezeibe and his collaborators to see firsthand how the new treatment works.

There was no attempt to give him benefit of the doubt based on his research experience and the expertise of his collaborators together with the institutional backing provided by his university, or even concede the possibility that the researchers might be on the right track in the quest for cure against HIV and AIDS.

Thus, Prof. Adewale and others can be plausibly accused of intellectual snobbery and of doing a hatchet job for those who want the AIDS situation to remain as it is, especially, multinational pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the cocktail of drugs currently used for treating HIV and the opportunistic diseases that accompany it, and for non-governmental organisations currently benefitting from the huge funds made available annually by foreign governments and donors for procuring the drugs supplied to Third World countries.

In my opinion, given our ridiculous preference of anything foreign, I suspect that Prof. Adewale and others would not have dismissed Prof. Ezeibe’s claims so disrespectfully with alacrity if he were a Prof. Whitehead or Prof. Johnbull from any of the top universities in Europe or North America.

Many of us, despite our academic degrees and accomplishments, tend to believe without solid evidence that anything from Europe and America is better than ours, despite the fact that Nigerians have sometimes outperformed the very best in foreign countries.

It will be disheartening if Prof. Ezeibe’s case ends like Dr. Abalaka’s: authorities of Michael Okpara University and well-meaning Nigerians should help Ezeibe prove doubting Thomases wrong by funding his research adequately. Traducers of Prof. Maduike do not realise that even if eventually his research findings are falsified, something positive can still come out of that: experts would then realise that his mode of treatment does not work, so nobody would waste valuable time and resources on it again.



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