CAIRO, Egypt– According to some of Egypt’s highest ranking military leaders, Feb. 25, 2014 should mark a special place on the timeline of global health innovation and usher in an era of unprecedented progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
On that day, Major General Taher Abdullah announced that, following over two decades of a research intensive “secret project,” the Egyptian military had successfully developed a foolproof diagnostic tool and treatment that cured virtually all AIDS patients and over 95% of Hepatitis C cases.
The big reveal, a presentation by Abdullah to senior military officials, was broadcast to a nation suffering from epidemic levels of Hepatitis C and a lengthy battle with AIDS (15% of Egyptians test positive for HCV, the Hepatitis C virus; Egypt’s first AIDS case occurred in 1986).
Major General Ibrahim Abdel-Atti, the team’s chief engineer, attributed the “miraculous” cure to a combination of military excellence and divine intervention, claiming that “defeating the virus is a very easy process, but God grants wisdom to whoever he wants.”
C-FAST: Military Technology Made Medical
The diagnostic device that is part and parcel of Abdel-Atti’s claims is, essentially, a modified bomb detector that looks like “an antenna affixed to the handle of a blender.” Dubbed C-FAST (or I-FAST for HIV), the tool uses electromagnetic frequencies to detect viral infections in a patient’s blood. Patients with HCV trigger a swinging movement in the rod (indicative of a positive diagnosis for Hepatitis C), which otherwise remains still for virus-free patients.
The technology builds upon 2009 Nobel Prize winner (and HIV discoverer) Luc Montagnier’s claim that DNA molecules induce electromagnetic waves in blood plasma. His unorthodox work was generally ignored by the scientific community, in large part due to “unwritten social codes of science.”
Abdel-Atti assured that the device underwent thorough testing in over 2,000 cases nationwide, “without ever returning a false negative result.” Dr. Gamal Shiha, a respected hepatologist and head of the Association for Liver Patients Care, confirmed that extensive testing had been performed on the revolutionary, though clumsy-looking, device.
C-FAST testing results have yet to be published in a “reputable” scientific journal.
The Complete Cure Device
The appropriately named Complete Cure Device (CCD) functions like a dialyzer, drawing blood from a patient’s body, “cleaning” it of virus and recirculating it to the patient’s bloodstream. The entire purification process purportedly requires only 16 hours of treatment time and was documented in a short film shown at the February 25 presentation.
In one leaked portion of the film, Abdel-Atti delivers good news to a patient: “All the results are great, showing you had AIDS but you were cured. Thank God.” His patient then also gives thanks to God.
Abdel-Atti revealed a bizarre post-treatment regimen at another press conference the following day. Following blood treatment, he and his team “nourish” patients with a “skewer of AIDS kofta” (a meatball kebab).
Neither the treatment nor post-treatment diet has been approved for publication in a scientific journal.
Following Announcement, Immediate Skepticism
Despite glowing headlines across a variety of state-owned newspapers, Egyptian and international medical authorities alike expressed skepticism regarding the sudden claims.
London’s Massimo Pinzani, director of University College London’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, witnessed C-FAST in action but could not support the technology as he was unable to test the device himself. After going to bat for C-FAST’s applications for Hepatitis C diagnoses, Egypt’s own Dr. Shiha dismissed I-FAST’s HIV detection capability and CCD’s HIV cure as unfounded and “hasty” claims.
Wahid Doss, head of the National Liver Institute, urged the scientific community to heed these warnings and regard all three devices (C-FAST, I-FAST and CCD) as “potential fraud” until Abdel-Atti’s team reveals a “convincing” scientific and technical foundation for each.
Political Undertones Cause for Concern, Ridicule
Egyptians have lived in unrest since the February 2011 ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Since that time, the nation has seen two presidents, numerous drafts of constitutions, a slew of cabinet member replacements and increased violence due to the nation’s erratic political trajectory.
Egypt’s game of political hot potato continued on February 24 (mere hours before the reveal of Egypt’s medical marvels), when Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi and his cabinet suddenly resigned. Less than two days later, Ibrahim Mehleb assumed the post and appointed likely presidential candidate and military chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as Minister of Defense.
Notably, Al-Sisi was in the audience for Abdel-Atti’s presentation of C-FAST, I-FAST and CCD the next day, with a front row seat to the engineer’s glowing review of the Egyptian army’s contributions to medical science.
The fortuitous timing of Egypt’s cure announcement has been criticized by many as yet another attempt to win political support for Al-Sisi and boost morale among voters in anticipation of the spring 2014 presidential election.
Egyptian surgeon and hepatologist Dr. Gamal el-Ebaidy counts himself among the skeptics and expressed concern that the discoveries were revealed “for the sake of the elections.”
Public Health Ramifications of Political PR
Although the 2012 Global AIDS Response Progress Report classifies Egypt as a nation with “low HIV prevalence among the general population,” annual incidence has increased since 1990. While increased participation in voluntary testing may be behind the upward trend, the Report identifies behavioral risk factors such as lack of familiarity with HIV, needle sharing and low condom use as causes of more infections.
Though HIV and Hepatitis C share transmission routes and often strike similar segments of the population, Egypt’s Hepatitis C epidemic is far from under control. Nearly 15% of the entire population is HCV-positive and approximately 165,000 new cases accrue annually.
The necessity of an action plan to curb HCV transmission and identify effective preventative measures is unequivocal across the scientific community.
Despite their revolutionary potential, Egypt’s as-yet unproven treatments fall into a dangerous category of remedies. Sick individuals receiving unproven treatments allot financial resources to fruitless procedures, are at heightened risk of infection and may be misled to believe in an inflated prognosis.
HIV and HCV-positive individuals under the impression of having been “cured” of their illnesses pose a serious threat to public health and may engage in risky behaviors, transmitting the virus to any number of healthy people.
Incurable, highly stigmatized illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C not only render patients “easy prey to promises of cures,” but also have historically inspired governments to promote counterfeit cures to boost morale or improve public relations.
A 2008 article in Global Health explored this phenomenon as it occurred with respect to AIDS cures in Gambia, Iran and South Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. In each case, a short-term expression of “benevolence” or “indigenous” innovation by the government has resulted in zero progress for patients.
International Action Needed?
Article 19 of the World Health Organization Constitution provides the World Health Assembly with the “authority” to ensure the safety, accuracy, potency and purity of all pharmaceutical products. The international medical community has an obligation to intervene where regional and national governments fail to “fulfill their mandates to protect from harm” those living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
In Egypt’s case, it appears that a grassroots intervention may preclude the necessity of WHO sanctions.
Dr. Essam Heggy, adviser to Egypt’s interim president, urged Egyptians not to put stock into “illusionary solutions to real world problems.” Voters who remember that “medicine has nothing to do with politics” will have an opportunity to speak out against political opportunism at the polls in coming months.
A changing of the guard may signal a healthier future for this nation in transition.
Sources: Al-Ahram Weekly, BBC News, Daily News Egypt, Global Health, The Guardian, Luc Montagnier.org, Muslim Village, Royal Society of Chemistry, The New York Times, UNAIDS, World Health Organization
Photo: Today Online