By Obi Nwakanma
A Nigerian research scientist, and professor of Veterinary Medicine and Virology at the Michael Okpara University, Umudike, Umuahia, Dr. Maduike Ezeibe very recently stirred settled waters with his announcement of a discovery of a treatment and cure of the dreaded HIV infection using what he described as a therapy of “aluminum and magnesium silicate.” Dr. Ezeibe has claimed this discovery following a 19-year research into HIV behavior and pathology. He has also published his findings in journals in Britain and the United States.
Not unexpectedly, Dr. Ezeibe’s claims raised immediate interests and arrested some attention. It was not all celebration about such a news, as one should expect, that a cure has truly been discovered by a Nigerian scientist that would stem the tide of this scourge, this public health menace which has affected millions around the world, and which, if we should believe the statistics, is running rampage among the Nigerian population.
Dr. Ezeibe was not exactly embraced warmly for his feat, nor invited to dine at the tables of the Nigerian Academy of the Sciences, nor honored with the Akanu Ibiam Gold Medal for Achievements in Medical Research by that Academy (there’s of course no such thing yet). Rather, Dr. Ezeibe’s claims was met with a very healthy, one might even suggest, an unhealthy dose of scepticism. Well, of course, in matters like these, scepticism is good and not unexpected.
It is in fact better often to question the veracity of these claims of huge curative discoveries particularly because they go to the very roots of an existential hunger; a need to live by those who suffer affliction, and whose conditions make them very vulnerable to all kinds con. In the area of Medical discoveries, it is even more complicated because public health and Medicine are (a) a national security issue, and (b) huge and complicated business.
I will return to this presently, but let me quickly say that I do not think that Dr. Maduike Ezeibe’s claims of a cure should be dismissed as lightly or as cavalierly as the Minister for health, Dr. Isaac Adewole, himself a former Professor of Medicine, just did. The release last week of the Health Minister’s statement dismissing Ezeibe’s claims is hostile and adversarial. It is not even just simply sceptical, it is utterly dismissive.
The minister released a statement after the National Executive Council Meeting last Wednesday, and is reported to have said the following: “On the issue of the HIV cure claim, we are yet to have the final reports from the Director-General of the Nigerian 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.” Pending of course, full disclosure by the National Health Research committee, the Minister yet went ahead and dismissed the claims of cure by Dr. Ezeibe. The Minister’s statement was also bookended by another statement by the National Food and Drugs Administration (NAFDAC) equally dixing the claims, saying such claims are not “new.” Quite frankly, I find these statements not so much in defence of a “national” or “public” interest.” It is too quick to the draw.
I do certainly acknowledge that these institutional gatekeepers have an obligation to the public to do their jobs and provide adequate gatekeeping against flippant and fraudulent claims of scientific discovery. But what immediately struck me in the minister’s statement is that in dismissing Dr. Ezeibe’s claim he had (a) not yet obtained the full benefits of a scientific review or report on the claims in backing his scepticism, and (b) he stood more on the “illegality” of Ezeibe’s scientific process; the fact that the researcher had not sought and obtained “ethical approval” to experiment on human subjects.
None is based on the efficacy of his therapy or the veracity of its clinical results. I would be satisfied, were the minister a lot more supportive and meticulous and nuanced in his responses. He was too quick to subvert any claims of discovery made by this Nigerian scientist not because the alleged cure is ineffective; that’s not what we are hearing, but that Dr. Ezeibe allegedly did not, according to the minister, follow a possibly needless, top-down protocol of obtaining “ethical approval” from some central authority or clearing house – the Nigerian Medical Research Council.
The question should however be, is the scientific committee of the Faculty of Michael Okpara University where Dr. Ezeibe has apparently carried out his research not backed by enough institutional regulatory authority to regulate his process? A University’s research Committee one should think is empowered to provide the institutional coverage and regulation that should back Ezeibe’s research process, and each university, as far as one understands it, establishes its own review process with regards to experiments on human subjects to ensure that such subjects are accorded the dignity, and perhaps even the anonymity required of scientists conducting such research.
All evidence shows that the Michael Okpara University backs Ezeibe’s research claims and outcomes. From the scientific paper on the process published, an “Assessment of the anti-retroviral effect of a synthetic Aluminum-magnesium silicate” in the British Journal of Medical Research, it is very clear that Ezeibe conducted a very collaborative research within normal parameters with other peers whose work as scientists cannot easily be dismissed as the work of quackery.
It must startle us that Minister of Health’s treatment of Dr. Ezeibe’s work overlooks these basic facts. But it also reminds us of the treatment and dismissal of Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka’s work on HIV treatment and cure late in the 1990s. Abalaka’s story is equally riveting. In 1999 he announced his own discovery of a means of curing and vaccinating against the HIV virus. He sought a patent from NAFDAC for his alleged discovery and he was rapidly and systematically shut down.
It was a process rife with intrigue. First, Abalaka was not only dismissed as a quack and a fraud, his work was declared unfit for the treatment of patients. Abalaka did go to court and had his case revised by a declaration in 2015 by Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal Courts that he had the rights to administer his therapy on any patient willing to be treated by him at his Midcrest Hospital, in Abuja.
That judgement was of course accompanied by a statement by UNAIDS, using a so-called NGO, “Nigerians living with HIV” to warn against using Abalaka’s treatment. I was always fascinated by the Abalaka story, first because I saw him on National TV shoot HIV contaminated plasma into his veins! And the man does not seem to have been the worse for it to date!
There is also the rather important fact for me that neither Dr. Ezeibe nor Dr. Abalaka are quacks or lightweights by any draw. Dr. J. Abalaka is a highly trained Clinician – a well-trained doctor, both at ABU and the UCH Ibadan Medical School where he did Postgraduate work with distinction in Immunology, and the University of London, where he went to further his medical education.
Dr. Ezeibe is a highly trained Veterinary virologist with a PhD from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and is a Professor of the Sciences at the Michael Okpara University. It is foolhardy to simply dismiss them, especially given that there are too many special interests at play in the search for a HIV treatment.
The international Pharmaceutical cartel; the profiteers of misery and merchants of global diseases have all kinds of interests in these alleged discoveries, and it is incumbent on Nigerians and Nigerian authorities to verify who is the pied piper in these stories.
If I’m verging towards a little conspiracy narrative here, it is because there are indeed too many strange, and conspiratorial moves; much money involved in the HIV business, including “foreign funding” and jobs at risk if a cure is found. The minister for health must institute, and where he fails, the National Assembly must constitute its own oversight, by constituting an independent scientific board made up of a blind committee of Dr. Ezeibe’s peers to review the veracity of his claims of a discovery for an effective cure for HIV. We must not rely on Minister Adewole’s words alone because after all, there was once Dr. Augustine Njoku-Obi, whose discovery of a Cholera vaccine was equally subverted by the Nigerian government.