Noam Raydan

No cure for pseudoscience

Egypt’s military “misusing science,” generating “false hopes,” says science writer

Mohammed Yahia, editor-in-chief of Nature Middle East.

In February 2014, Egyptian Army doctor Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdul Atti announced that his military institution achieved a breakthrough. He claimed that the army had developed a pair of devices, C-Fast and I-Fast, that can detect and almost completely cure prevalent viruses including the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Hepatitis C (HCV), which is a blood-borne vector that causes inflammation of the liver and is present at extremely high rates in Egypt.


Although science rarely makes headlines in the Arab world, the Egyptian “invention” went viral. Though it was dismissed as a sham by many experts, including a few Egyptian scientists and science journalists, their criticisms fell on deaf ears.  On March 23, the army’s research team issued a “registration form for Virus C and HIV/AIDS” for people who would like to receive treatment using the new device starting on July 1, 2014. C-Fast allegedly uses electromagnetic frequencies akin to those used in bomb detectors and radars to track down these viruses.  On April 13, a military officer was spotted on an Egyptian street carrying a device very similar to C-Fast , if not the device itself. When a journalist from Al-Masry al-Youm inquired about the nature of the device, the officer said: “This is a device for detecting explosives.”     


On March 21, Reuters reported that Gilead Sciences, Inc., a research-based biopharmaceutical company, had “finalized an agreement” for the introduction of its new Hepatitis C Sovaldi pills to Egypt at a “99 percent discount to the U.S. price,” reducing the bill from $84,000 for a 12-week treatment course in the United States to $900 in Egypt. Egyptian Health Minister Adel el-Adawi was cited as saying that his government had hammered out a deal with Gilead to buy a one-month supply of Sovaldi for $300. So if Egypt’s army has indeed invented a device that can cure Hepatitis C, why would the government continue to purchase the drug?


Mohammed Yahia, an Egyptian journalist and editor-in-chief of Nature Middle East, an online portal from Nature Publishing Group, explains the “false science” behind these devices and the mistakes that the Egyptian media committed while covering the news. He says that the army “misused science” and gave “false hopes” to many poor Egyptians suffering from HIV and Hepatitis C.    


NOW: What’s the story behind these devices and how do they work, based on what the army said? Can they cure viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis C?


Mohammed Yahia: There are supposedly two devices: the diagnostic device and the treatment one. At the beginning, people were confusing them as one. The diagnostic device has been seen in the media.  It is a handheld device with “an antenna” that supposedly points in the direction of a person carrying the virus. There is a patent for this device that was rejected because it was extremely vague. It claims that the device can work at a distance of 500 meters, which means that if I’m sitting in my apartment, I can use it to detect if someone seven streets away from me carries the Hepatitis C virus.  


NOW: Can this be accepted scientifically?


Yahia: This cannot be accepted scientifically. The research paper was published in the [World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology] journal, which is labeled as a predatory journal. It publishes pseudoscience and wrong research just to make money out of it.


It was disappointing to see how journalists in Egypt addressed this issue. They were excited and hailed the army’s discovery. The coverage was not critical. Even when certain scientists came out to speak against the “discovery,” such as Dr. Essam Heggy, a planetary scientist in the Radar Science Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Egyptian president’s scientific advisor, they were discredited. Some journalists slammed Dr. Heggy, saying that [because] he is a planetary scientist, this does not imply that he can be right about issues related to medical science.


NOW: What about the scientific community in Egypt? Why didn’t it stand up to defend Dr. Heggy?


Yahia: The problem is that the military tied itself to this device and right now it is inadvisable to stand up against the military institution. But Dr. Heggy did what any other scientist would have done.


Other Egyptians from the science community were not eager to embrace a similar stance after they saw what happened to Dr. Heggy. The only one who came out to condemn this was Dr. Islam Hussein from MIT, who made a YouTube video in which he explained the false science behind this politically-motivated scandal. We also heard statements from Professor Magdi Yaacoub, a cardiothoracic surgeon, and Dr. Ahmed Zewail, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999. But others remained silent. 


NOW: How can you strengthen the scientific community in Egypt?


Yahia: First, there should be a core group of renowned scientists who are eager to start forming a small nucleus for a stronger science society in Egypt and which can later expand to other Arab countries. Also, there is a need to have science journalists to support and empower this society.


NOW: Can such a science community flourish in non-democratic countries?


Yahia: We had the revolution that has failed, and we currently don’t have a democratic system. But this does not mean that people should give up. There are different options that can be adopted. For example, if you start building this entity [the scientific community] and if journalists are ready to back it, then it will become empowered and it will be able to play a role in solving many problems, which are usually addressed by the government only, such as water insecurity, energy insecurity, pollution, and climate change.  Policymakers usually ignore the science aspect in these problems. Such a science community can help push for a more democratic society.


NOW: Do you think that the announcement made by the Egyptian army was related to a political event, perhaps army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s decision to run for presidency? Was there an attempt to portray the military institution as the “savior” of the country?


Yahia: Absolutely. It was related to a political event. The military wants to position itself as the “savior” and the “only hope.” Former President Mohammed Morsi did a terrible job, but I don’t think that the army is the only “savior.” There are people who are calling for an alternative. 


NOW: Health Minister Adel el-Adawi said that his government had struck a deal with Gilead Sciences Inc. to buy the new Hepatitis C Sovaldi pills for $300 for a one-month box. How would you comment on this?


Yahia: The announcement of this deal proves that the whole “curing device” is a sham, and most probably just a political maneuver to gain short-term support. There is a serious problem of Hepatitis C in Egypt, and Sovaldi is the biggest breakthrough in many years to treat a disease that has taken a huge toll on the country.


I’m glad the Health Ministry has been smart enough to hammer this deal. Notice that this news [of the deal] didn’t even receive 1% of the coverage that the “device” received. Additionally, I believe that most doctors in the ministry are aware that the device is a sham – or at least I hope so. Their only problem is that the military has tied itself too closely to it. The supposed “discoverer” [Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdul Atti] of the miracle device always shows up in pictures with him wearing a military uniform.


A committee was formed and it is supposed to evaluate the device.  Leaked information says that the head of the committee told the “inventors” that “if they weren’t tied to the military he would’ve killed them” – but that committee has not announced its findings yet, and I doubt it will before the elections.


But I’m at least happy that this deal can bring the much-needed drug to Egypt. At the price it is available in the US, it would have never been affordable to 98 percent of Egyptians, and neither would the government have been able to provide it to the sick without going bankrupt, knowing that many people get Hepatitis C treatment for free here.


NOW: So, the “discovery” is nothing but propaganda?


Yahia: Absolutely. The military abused science to give false hopes to poor people suffering from HIV and Hepatitis C. They said that they would roll out this device to people by June 30, 2014, so from today on, millions of people who are waiting to be treated from these diseases that have ruined their lives are being given false hopes.  


NOW: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and science commentator, says: “The problem in society is not kids not knowing science. The problem is adults not knowing science. They outnumber kids five to one, they wield power, they write legislation. When you have scientifically-illiterate adults you have undermined the very fabric of what makes a nation wealthy and strong.” Do you agree with this statement? Do you think it applies to Egypt?


Yahia: I absolutely agree. The truth is that it heavily applies to Egypt. We have a lack of science culture in the country.  Science illiteracy is even present in the political realm.


Having a science culture influences the way you approach things. You become more critical in the way you think. It changes the way you build your argument. The lack of science culture has been building up due to many reasons, including bad education systems. Nowadays, we have problems with the old generation that is scientifically illiterate.  


Moreover, science coverage in Egypt is very mediocre, and that’s why people are not interested in reading low-quality and often uninteresting reports. So it is important to create that interest. For example, we are suffering in Egypt from power outages, and it is up to science journalists to frame this problem in a scientific way to make people understand it and also understand the solutions, including technologies that can be used to alleviate the problem. We in Nature Middle East were able to cover the [Egyptian] revolution from a scientific point of view. We had to come up with stories from the [Tahrir] Square that are related to science.  We had several stories about the makeshift hospitals, tear gas that was being used [against protesters] and its effects, and others. We tried to make science relevant to people.


This interview has been condensed and edited for style.  

Mohammed Yahia, an activist calling for better science and science journalism in Egypt. (Image courtesy of scidev.net)

"The announcement of this deal proves that the whole 'curing device' is a sham, and most probably just a political maneuver to gain short-term support."

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