On a related note, I have a bridge for sale on the East River in New York City. Act now while supplies last!
Of all the odd things to come out of Egypt, this has to be one of the oddest. When all the best researchers in the world – with their fancy laboratories, millions of dollars in funding, and network of scandalously expensive universities – failed to find a cure for AIDS after more than three decades of attempts, a hapless military regime in a country that has not led the world in scientific research since the Middle Ages has managed to succeed where all others have failed! Not only that, but they have also cured Hepatitis C at the same time!
In a press conference last Saturday, with Defense Minister (and presidential hopeful) Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (pronounced “see see”, not to be confused with the English word “sissy”) in attendance, the head of Egypt’s Cancer Treatment and Screening Center, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdel-Atti, announced to the world the creation of the cleverly named Complete Cure Device (CCD). After all, why bother with fancy medical terminology when you can just call it exactly what it is?
“I defeated AIDS with the grace of my God at the rate of 100%. And I defeated hepatitis C,” Abdel-Atti said. “I will take the AIDS from the patient and I will nourish the patient on the AIDS treatment. I will give it to him like a skewer of Kofta to nourish him.” (“Kofta” is a kind of meat dish.) Abdel-Atti was also good enough to praise El-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian military.
How exactly does the device work? Apparently, it is designed to “extract the disease and break it into amino acids”. Dr. Ihsan Hanfy Hussein, a member of the research team that worked on the project, confirmed that the CCD “draws blood from a patient, breaks down the disease and returns the purified blood back to the body”. She added that the cure can be completed in as little as 16 hours.
An official press release put out by the Egyptian State Information Service on February 23 read, “The Armed Forces personnel achieved a scientific breakthrough by inventing systems for diagnosing Hepatitis and AIDS without any need to take a sample of blood from the patient. The invention was registered in the name of the Engineering corps of the Armed Forces and was authorized by the Ministry of Health.” (Even as I read the statement, I was somewhat amused to see a headline scrolling across the top of the web page that said “Egypt on Democratic Track”, as if I needed this reassurance.)
If you are thinking that it seems hard to believe that a government incapable of forming a parliament or a maintaining a Constitution for more than a few months would be able to achieve a medical discovery that has eluded some of the world’s brightest minds, and all with a device that sounds like it could have been invented by a fourth grader, then you are not alone.
The BBC had Emma Thomson, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Glasgow (not the famous actress, whose surname is spelled “Thompson”), take a look at an international patent application that was submitted by Egypt back in 2011 and appears to be either the same device or one very similar to what was revealed at the press conference. “I can find no evidence to support the claims that this device detects hepatitis C or any other viruses as mentioned in the patent, nor any clear theoretical rationale for how it would work,” Thomson said.
The British are not the only ones who have their doubts. Essam Heggy, the scientific adviser to Egypt’s current President Adly Mansour, called the announcement “a scientific scandal”. “An issue this sensitive, in my personal opinion, could hurt the image of the state,” Heggy told the newspaper Al-Watan. He also insisted that neither President Mansour nor Minister El-Sisi were aware of the content of the press conference in advance and were “surprised” by what they heard.
I find that last claim somewhat dubious given that similar reports of a cure device were making the rounds a year ago, as described by the BBC.
‘Around this time last year, a story surfaced in Egypt of an exciting new tool in the fight against AIDS and hepatitis. The new “device” promised to revolutionise the detection of the diseases – instead of a blood test, patients would just need to be zapped with something that looked like the controller for a radio-controlled car and was said to be adapted from a device for detecting bombs. The device was supposed to work by detecting electromagnetic waves “emanating from” the virus.’
Well, if that description isn’t weird, then I don’t know what is. (To clarify, Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper contained the following descriptions of the two devices in question: “The devices to diagnose Hepatitis C and HIV using electromagnetic waves are called C-Fast and I-Fast, while the device to treat HIV and Hepatitis C, as well [as] psoriasis, is called the Complete Cure Device (CCD).”)
Dr. Gamal Shiha, a liver specialist who is helping to conduct an evaluation of a Hepatitis C cure device submitted last year by the Egyptian military (apparently the same one mentioned by the BBC), told CNN, “What has been said is not scientifically disciplined. There is nothing published, and there is nothing in medical conferences, and there is no single eminent professor around the project.” He makes a good point, but I still think we should not rule out the possibility that Dr. Shiha is just jealous that he did not discover the cure first.
Certainly, some will suggest that this “medical breakthrough” has been perfectly timed to coincide with the dismissal of Egypt’s Cabinet in preparation for presidential elections. It is widely rumored that El-Sisi plans to run, and if he is identified with such an amazing development as a cure for AIDS and Hepatitis C, he could be a hard man to beat. However, you would have to be pretty cynical to develop such a theory. After all, in order for it to work, the military would have to avoid making the device available to other scientists around the world to test, and it would need to wait for at least a few months before actually trying it out on Egyptian patients, who might be tempted to blab to their friends if it does not work.
But what do we have here? “Major-General Abdullah Taher, the head of the army’s engineering authority, told Al-Ahram Arabic news website that the devices would not be exported abroad in order to protect them from ‘the mafia’ of big pharmaceutical companies and nations that control the pharmaceutical industry.” That seems highly convenient. “The CCD will supposedly be used publicly in Egypt by June 2014.” That is even more convenient, and knowing how Egyptian bureaucratic scheduling usually works, I’d say the more likely reveal date is sometime around October…or even later.
Oh, Egypt! What will you come up with next? The fact is that these diseases are no laughing matter. Egypt actually has the world’s highest prevalence of Hepatitis C: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the rate at around 10% of the population. While AIDS may not be quite as serious of a scourge in Egypt, I hardly need to mention what a tragedy it has been for Africa as a whole.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is no possibility that what the Egyptian military is describing is really capable of curing (or possibly even detecting) these diseases. Whether or not the scientists involved actually believe in what they are saying is a matter for debate, but surely those at the top know that this is all for some kind of propaganda purpose. It is sad that when Egypt has so many real problems, including serious health issues, that the military regime would pull this stunt out of some kind of misplaced hope that it will help to distract from the terrible job they are doing of running the country.
This kind of story has the makings of comedy gold: I can only imagine what Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef would do with this story on his popular television show Al-Bernameg (similar to The Daily Show here in the U.S.) had his show not been shut down a few months back. However, I do not find myself laughing. Instead of having one more reason for me to roll my eyes and say, “Those crazy Egyptians!”, I simply find myself feeling disappointed that yet again we are getting distracted from the real issue.
A country of 80 million people, most of them poor, many of them with little education, and all of them without a properly functioning government – that is something very sad indeed. I actually wish that this cure announcement was true so that it could give them some good news for once. Unfortunately, I think that yet again they are going to be left with nothing but a bunch of broken promises.