'Hoax' Aids cure makes a fortune for Kenyan coterie

David Orr in Nairobi reports on scientific clashes over the mystery 'miracle' drug for HIV

It has both been hailed as a miracle cure for Aids and dismissed as a worthless hoax. The man behind the product, a University of London- educated doctor with influential connections in the Kenyan government, is variously known as a brilliant scientist or a commercial opportunist. What is certain is that his compound is making a fortune for a small coterie of people able to flout the law with impunity.

Pearl Omega first hit the Kenyan headlines earlier this year with claims by Professor Arthur Obel, a high-ranking government employee, that he had discovered a cure for Aids. He said the drug had restored the health of seven Aids patients since trials began in 1991.

However, having produced no scientific data to back up his assertions, the doctor, aged 56, soon found himself under attack from Kenya's medical establishment. Even President Daniel arap Moi intervened to say there was no known cure for the epidemic.

More recently, Professor Obel has attracted attention by dismissing as useless AZT, the foremost Aids management drug, and by claiming that condoms being exported from Britain were laced with the HIV virus. "Pearl Omega is still at an experimental stage," Professor Obel told the Independent in a telephone interview. "But it has had no untoward effects on anyone and the government has validated it.

"I have patients from all around the world, including the UK. The problem is that Pearl Omega is being sold on the black market by unscrupulous doctors.

"I'm even having difficulties with medical colleagues. I give them samples to analyse and they sell it to people without my permission."

What Professor Obel failed to say was that he himself has illegally been selling the product. Under Kenyan law, any new drug must be analysed and approved by the ministry of health before it can be put on the market. Yet, despite the fact that no licence has been issued for the sale and distribution of Pearl Omega, bottles of the herbal potion are being sold at the professor's International Medical Foundation and at the government- sponsored Biodiversity Centre in the capital, Nairobi. Professor Obel says his discovery will be registered today.

Professor Obel and Pearl Omega have received the fullest backing of the Kenyan government. The Biodiversity Centre which produces Pearl Omega has received substantial government money to produce the compound. Professor Obel, who goes by the title of chief government scientist in the Office of the President, is at all times accompanied by armed government security guards.

A carton of the product contains 12 bottles and retails for 30,000 Kenyan shillings (pounds 350). Professor Obel says it is being produced in large quantities and has been used to treat many patients infected with HIV.

An International Medical Foundation employee told the Independent that Pearl Omega was a "guaranteed" Aids cure. She added that, if a person had been sick for a long time, two doses would be required.

Further attempts to get information about the concoction have proved difficult. Professor Obel, who had agreed to meet the Independent, failed to turn up at the appointed venue. He later said he had received "directives" not to give interviews.

Kenya's medical establishment has also had difficulties in acquiring information on Pearl Omega. Professor Obel has consistently refused to produce the scientific data needed to verify what he calls the "astounding" properties of his agent. Neither has he come forward with samples for analysis. Protocol demands the samples be submitted directly by the producer.

"Obel has not succeeded in convincing us as to the efficacy of Pearl Omega," said Professor Peter Odhiambo, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Nairobi University and a former colleague of the professor.

"We have a right to know what procedures were followed during research but so far we've seen no evidence."

Professor Odhiambo said one bottle of Pearl Omega shown to him had smelt strongly of alcohol while another had smelt strongly herbal. He said a considerable amount of the compound was in circulation because Aids patients were dying before they could finish the 12-bottle course.

"Pearl Omega has not been certified by the government," said Dr Richard Barasa, chairman of the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board, Kenya's professional licensing board. "If it's being used, it's being prescribed illegally."

So incensed has the board become with Professor Obel's behaviour that it is looking at deregistering him. If it does, Professor Obel will no longer be allowed to practise medicine in Kenya.

"This man is bringing the medical profession into disrepute," said Dr Barasa. "And it is not for the first time."

Professor Obel was involved with the development of Kemron, another supposedly miraculous Aids management drug, in the late 1980s.

Much touted at the time, the product was later discredited. Professor Obel is believed to have made considerable profits from its sale. His detractors say his development of Pearl Omega is likely to bring similar riches.

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