To Contain Ebola, Government Must Fund Research – Iwu
Maurice Iwu, a professor of pharmacognosy, is one of the brightest and globally rated scientists out of Africa on tropical medicine. Fifteen years ago, specifically in 1999, he and his team of scientists in the United States clinically narrowed a possible cure of Ebola to bitter kola (Garcinia kola). Their finding unfortunately remained a test tube success at a time some African nations were being ravaged by the disease. Between then and now, many people – some out of ignorance, others raw mischief – have taken turns to pooh-pooh the scientific work of the professor. However, in the wake of the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and its ‘importation’ into Nigeria by American Patrick Sawyer, Iwu came out to demystify the viral disease as well as explain what he and his team did. He also plotted a link between government’s inability and unwillingness to fund scientific research and the current devastating strides of Ebola. He spoke on AIT Kaakaki programme. Excerpts.
Your Earlier Research on Ebola
We went into the lab and realised there’s a compound called Kolaviron and when you put Kolaviron in the test tube with some of the things that cause these diseases, they just die. So we now started looking at it closely; we challenged the rats with a very deep poison. The poison was prevented from killing the rats by Kolaviron. That particular activity we traced to its ability to work on the liver, and since that time, 78 other publications by other scientists had pointed to the same direction. I reported that work in a journal called Experientia, it’s a journal used for short publications; news breakers and then 78 others have followed suit. I owe a lot of wealth of thanks to the University of Ibadan; Prof. Farounbi and his group have done tremendous work after me on that.
In 1999 that’s when the real story of Ebola came up and then I was working at the US Army State Laboratory and part of our work was to look at emerging diseases, not only Ebola because there’re so many other things that you don’t know that are lurking out there and our job was to find possible treatment for such things. Remember before then there was this outbreak in Kikwit, Congo, it was really a disaster what happened there. Then the US Army started a screening program and that was how we found out that this particular compound from Garcinia kola (Bitter Kola) can arrest the replication of the Ebola virus; and for me as a scientist, I have done my job because that is what we call the discovery stage of drug development; what happened beyond then, remember it was a commissioned research; someone was paying. That laboratory breakthrough for Ebola was my end of the story.
The US Army has a very fantastic program for the development of drugs for Ebola, Lassa fever, Marburg fever virus and others. My approach has been to be able to link our environment with human health, as long as we live in the tropics there’re going to be diseases that we’ve never heard about because as we encroach into the environment we’re going to come across things that are fighting us but not really be able to kill us because we’re part of the environmental system, so that has been our approach, looking at the cutting edge. It’s a difficult task; it’s like hunting out there when others are at home sleeping; so this was 15 years ago.
Garcina Test Tube Stage
That is one area I can’t tell you because we have a procedure; there’s a minister of health. We should actually see the minister of health as our doctor; he should decide what we should or shouldn’t take. The health organisation is his priority. So we have a reporting sequence where things are not really as hopeless as people are thinking, we report to him and then he makes public what he chooses to make public because he’s the doctor; a professor of medicine. I’m not a medical doctor so he’s the one that will tell me what or what not to take.
Progress at getting out of the test tube stage
Yes we have gone beyond the test tube stage for other indications of Garcinia kola. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a common cold and taken bitter kola, it resolves the common cold faster because of its anti-viral property. There are two ways to attack virus; either you go head on about replication which we call anti-viral. The other aspect is to look at the body’s own immune system defence mechanism; things that make you stronger, if it strengthens you, most people will recover.
It is not true that Ebola kills everybody that it affects. Looking at the Kikwit study again, it is about 60 per cent death and some people recovered; those whose immune systems are stronger tend to survive. We actually have a capsule in the market and it’s called Garcinia IHP, which my group has put in place before even Ebola came to be announced. What happened is that when the Ebola scare became so high the demand for the product became so high that we couldn’t even meet up. That’s why I didn’t want to come up so it won’t seem I’m trying to promote our company. That’s what we do for a living; we have several products that are based on natural products.
Where is faith in all this?
Like I said it’s not faith at all; it’s based on solid science. In 1994 I wrote an African medicinal plant handbook which I got a copy for you to look at. After the book came out there was nothing in between; nobody wrote anything and the publishers now contacted me to issue a second edition which just came out early this year. The point I’m making is that here’s a country that is enormously endowed, there’s nothing we cannot solve as a country but we have to have confidence in ourselves. My daughter tells me that if Nigeria had been an individual it will be suffering from severe case of low self-esteem because this is a country with so many scientists and research centres; can you imagine what could have happened if we funded the National Institute for Medical Research?
Nigeria and research capacity
That is the problem, there’s a missing link out there because what is happening here is that the ZMapp project that I’m very familiar with, the company that makes it have been funded heavily by the American government for years and they have not made profit. We have a private research laboratory at Nsukka where we do cutting edge science for the past 25 years.
The issue there is that people have to realise what they can do. The ZMapp has never been tested before and it is even speculative, the fact that those people got cured, from scientific point of view does not really mean that they were cured by ZMapp because from a scientific point of view it is not possible to do what we call phase three trial on Ebola drugs because they’re not enough candidates to make it statistically valid that it is effective. The fact that we have those two people that were cured, from our own point of view they’re anecdotal.
There was a Spanish missionary that died. But there has to be a national consciousness, looking at the case of unemployment, why can’t we train young people on how to add value to such simple things? Right now if you Google African bush mango you’ll find out that it is the number one selling drug for obesity overseas which is our local Ogbono. They’re so simplistic and that makes them unbelievable. But much of science is that simple.
US showing enough support
Yes the US is showing enough support. Forget what you read in the social media, if you do that you get distracted. Last night I was in communication with the National Institute of Health, they’re prepared to do some testing for us. I’m only making the point to debunk the issue that the US is not showing support. Imagine a situation where ZMapp, a drug that has not been tested on a human being was tested on Nigerians and then the person dies there will be public outcry that an untested drug was used on Africa because they’re helpless.
They needed to have that caution and I don’t think that our Ministry of Health would have allowed that easily because remember the WHO blanket ruling came after the Americans had tested it on their own citizens; it is one thing to use it on Americans and get away with it. Frankly if you do it here and there’s a mistake there will be public outcry. Remember the children that died in Kano when they were testing Trovan and that issue is still there. It is not as simplistic as that and as I said, whatever happens, our ministry of health is perfectly in order.
The Nano Silver issue, it could well be a fantastic medicine but it has to go through a procedure, the same thing as Garcinia kola (bitter kola), the important thing is that there’s a procedure and that is why we never made any claim about bitter kola curing Ebola. People just dug up the 1999 research and very cleverly removed the date; it was done on August 4, 1999 and they wrote August 4th without the year and it came on the news and one of these people that believe that there is a primordial world; that in Nigeria everything is politics had to now go and abuse me thoroughly, but I was laughing because I’m so focused on the fact that we have a mission that we’re living in a tropical country and there are issues that will come and we know they will come, so I’m very busy with looking for cures for diseases that you never thought of. People are getting older so I’m also looking at aging; the complications of aging. Those are the cutting edge research I’m doing; how do you get old and still remain able to do things you should do?
Experimental animals and Ebola
We do that. Unfortunately for Ebola, rats, rodents and small animals we normally use for it are resistant to it, so there are Ebola viruses that are adapted for that particular experiment. Once it is worse there are levels of laboratory scrutiny that you need to do for Ebola virus beyond just the test tube. They’re called Bio-safety Level 4 laboratories and we don’t have any in the whole country. So for someone to sit down and say how did we perform the test tube experiment? It was even done with a facility we don’t even have here. I have confidence that since the government has started in the right direction by setting up a research group; a research management team that will involve so many other people who are in that field that will be able to help us.
How soon can we expect something?
We’re going very far. In my own research group we have since it happened reactivated some networks, we’ve started talking to the National Institute of Health and our colleagues in the University of Ife, Ibadan and Jos who are our natural affiliates.
The Kolaviron anti-viral properties were again published in 2000 and I challenged the West in 2000 together with my colleague from Senegal in their own journal called Lancet that this whole idea of looking at medicine from disease point of view has to stop. They asked us to talk in terms of the holism of it, that if the body is intact then you’ll be able to fight disease better and that’s where Kolaviron comes in. The idea here is very simple; if you’re being attacked by an armed robber; and your defence is to go and acquire more weapon than the armed robber; you don’t know how many weapons he has, he can go and call other people to come and help him fight you, but if you fortify your house by putting bullet proof doors in your house the chances of your surviving is better. So we now took a different approach to medicine which is not yet popular but it is a situation where you’re talking about healing rather than just treatment; that is a whole new different ball game.
Diabetes and obesity had the same problem and the WHO has now accepted that obesity itself is a disease. It’s not that if you’re fat then you can be ill, the fact that you’re fat is an illness, those are the different aspects of thinking and we did that in May 2000. What we are worrying about today we foresaw 15 years ago. If America did not invest in the technology as it did in those years, there wouldn’t have been any ZMapp. If we didn’t do the research we did in 1999 we wouldn’t be here. So we had a research group specifically that had to do with developing medicine and bitter kola is just one of the many products that we have.
The Garcinia IHP is out there in the Pharmacy shop as we speak. The issue here is that it doesn’t have to be ours. Let us have some confidence in ourselves, eat well, and exercise; half of the diseases will go away.
Excessive eating of bitter kola
There is a major side effect of Garcinia Kola. It treats everything that is not within you as a poison and also the works of Professor Farounbi and co has shown that whatever it sees that is coming inside you that is not natural it will fight it. People who are on certain kind of medication should consult their doctor before they take it; it’s just like a drug; it is a fighter that whenever it goes into anything even as ordinary as alcohol, if you drink alcohol and take bitter Kola you find that within a short time the alcohol clears from your system. There are so many of these things that we don’t know what they can do, even ordinary Okra. It is not by chance that women cut off the head of Okra because the head has spermicidal effects (kills sperm), so when you cut it off you don’t have that side effect, so we have to study all these things but the good news is that we’re better off than the West when it comes to this life style management.
How can Africans manage Ebola information?
I think for once they should look inwards. Nigeria has done well and the whole world acclaimed at the way it is being managed. They utilised co-centric approach; namely this is the epicentre. People who had contact with Mr. Sawyer were put under surveillance and those who had contact with these people were also contacted. I think the ministry of health has to be given kudos for this. I think they learnt a lot from what happened in Congo; we had access to how they managed it and I’m sure our neighbouring countries have to learn from us.
For such a viral disease the approach had to be prevention and containment; trying to limit those who are having it. You put it right that Africans tend to distrust and panic and a society where there’s no trust, such society will collapse. They don’t believe that their people are doing a good job and that’s where the communication is important but so far the Lagos State government has to be commended tremendously for what they have done; it’s really an A-performance and then the Federal Government also.
How do we use Garcinia IHP?
There are actually two ways you can use Garcinia IHP; as a preventive measure where you’re using it to strengthen your immune system, then if you have things you don’t know how to manage; like cold, infection etc. you take it at least two capsules twice a day for ten days.
When I see these diseases I don’t see diseases at all, I now see the issue of how do you now strengthen the body to manage those things. Lucky for us Kolaviron inhibits a lot of multi signal. The compound of Kolaviron has structures; it is a cocktail of four drugs. But the development of the Kolaviron beyond what I did which was test tube work, that is where the experts and the younger scientists will have to take it from there. Interestingly it is only Garcinia Kola that has those compounds in nature so far. That is part of the problem we had with Nano Silver; but it is a physical treatment of silver and once you reduce that molecule into that Nano level it becomes very active and it can also be dangerous. You can unwittingly weaponise Ebola, so there are so many unknowns and I think that was why the ministry became cautious.
Nano Silver is just a particle; it is silver that has been reduced into a very small particular size. It can become a war head and drag the Ebola that is not communicated through the air; that is why we say it is hypothesis until we check. In my discipline there is what we call ‘weigh the fish’; it is a statement made by a particular European monarch who was challenging scientists and asked why is it that dead fish weigh more than living ones, but nobody really bothered to check whether the dead fish weigh more than the living one. So people can easily say Kolaviron doesn’t work, but weigh the fish. If you cannot disprove a hypothesis you better shut up.
Containing research trial/ ideas
We did it on our own but that’s what makes it sustainable; we’ve been in business now for 25 years and our net asset worth is over N3 billion; that’s investment in scientific equipment. Our laboratory in Nsukka is well known within our field. The issue there is that if people have such a thing, there are universities all over the place that they can approach their scientists. But for a group like mine there will be no need for us to invest in Ebola beyond the test tube; it doesn’t make economic sense whatsoever.
If I’m the chairman of a group and somebody brings a cure for Ebola I’ll not touch it; this is a disease that comes once in a while. We have for example one of the drugs from our colleagues from University of Jos; a contraceptive that works once a year. If you sell it to a woman she will not come again until the following year, so how are you going to recover your money? Those strategic researches can only be done by the government. Everywhere in the world, no pharmaceutical company has done work on Ebola, Lassa fever and Marburg without direct grant from the government.
What is happening is that we have a facility at Nsukka, we’re building a new factory in Imo State and there are other groups that do that. What makes us happy is that we’re employing a lot of people and we are proving that having a knowledge-based enterprise is sustainable; that you can just live on your intellectual property. Even when I was in INEC the group was working, so it didn’t disrupt anything and my sitting in INEC didn’t even in anyway affect their work.
The Youth and Job Creation
They need help because here you have the raw materials and trained people. All they need is a little support from the government. We have made proposal to almost all the 36 state governments that you can reduce unemployment and help the national economy by engaging the young people. Cashew is a very good case in point; some of the Cashew plantations have been abandoned because nobody is interested in processing them. One of the most insulting things that happen is even with Shea butter; Nigerian Shea butter is bought raw, sent to Europe and all that is done is to melt it and remove the debris and bottle it; that’s all, there’s no other science and here people are jobless. There’s no state in Nigeria that does not have what we’ve just described. Look at Guava; the leaves are the best anti-diarrhoea preparations that people take, yet apart from the fruits, nothing happens to the leaves. As a scientist all I can do is to publish books like that. We have also approached the SURE- P to see the possibility of giving young people small amounts of money. Nigeria’s beniseed fetches lower price outside the country because of contamination we call Aflatoxin and this arises because it is not dry. So you can combine it, but the scientists’ job stops at just saying you can do this; the other aspect is business and governance.
What should people know?
What they should know is that they should just watch the minister of health; he is our doctor, whatever he says, we do. So far what they tell us is the best approach is to wash our hands; good personal hygiene and then be vigilant; if you see anybody that has fever and thinks it’s malaria, ask the person to go and see a doctor; then they should also know that in a country of over 160 million people, we have scientists who are busy having sleepless nights finding cure. That Nigerians are not just lazy people, partying and talking about politics all the time; there are people who are immune to those things and have devoted their time doing serious research in University of Ibadan, University of Ife, University of Jos, University of Nigeria Nsukka etc. These are people at least that I have direct contact with.
Our colleagues overseas; the Americans have been of tremendous help. These past days we were emailing each other trying to know the products they’re having. They have something they want to do on clinical trials and we’re saying we can speed up the time for the trials, so there’s a lot of dialogue going on, so the issue of hopelessness shouldn’t arise. Yes it’s an unfortunate thing happening to us but the usual blame game of the country not doing enough is uncalled for. But I think for this particular case the country is doing very well.