What you need to know:
- Clinical trials financed by WHO in five African countries later found that the dramatic benefits that Dr Koech and Dr Obel had reported were minimal.
- Kemri has come of age, and recently celebrated 40 years of existence. It has made some dramatic research and contributed a lot to the world of medicine.
A country can, indeed, be taken for a ride, and in June 1990 we did exactly that with the story of Kemron.
It was six years after Kenya had reported its first case of HIV infection and the world was struggling to understand the intriguing pandemic that had no cure. In the US, the disease was ravaging African-American neighbourhoods.
Out of the blue, and during his June 1, 1990 Madaraka Day address, President Daniel Moi surprised the world when he announced that Kenya had discovered a solution to the raging HIV-Aids pandemic: a drug known as Kemron, developed by the then 10-year-old Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).
If there ever was a hoax we sold to the world, this was it. Later, President Moi launched the drug with a lot of fanfare, flanked by the Kemri director, Dr Davy Koech, a budding immunologist who had in the previous year replaced Dr Mutuma Mugambi as the boss.
At 29, Dr Koech was among the scientists who had managed to convince President Moi on the need to set up a medical research institute in 1979, when the Clinical Research Centre (CRC) was set up. At the time, Koech was a doctoral student in immunology at the University of Nairobi.
Before he was removed from Kemri in 2007, Dr Koech had run the institution for a record 18 years as chief executive and had been with the institution for more than two decades.
Today, the story of Kemron does not feature in the history of Kemri and is only mentioned in passing. There is a reason for that.
Kemron was unveiled as part of the achievements of the Moi regime, alongside the development of the Nyayo Pioneer Car by the University of Nairobi.
But while Kemri managed to survive the Kemron saga, the two Nyayo Pioneer car prototypes are still hidden in a godown at the Numerical Machining Complex, the successor to the Nyayo Car Project.
It has never been clear whether Moi jumped the gun or had been misadvised by Dr Koech — who had published peer-reviewed scientific papers on tropical and infectious diseases — and Kemri’s chief research officer, the University of London-trained Dr Arthur Obel, who would later claim to have found a cure for Aids in a concoction that he called Pearl Omega, and which was selling for Sh30,000 in the 1990s.
It now appears that some mistakes happened, and we could learn from them as we combat Covid-19.
Two scientific papers on the ‘wonder drug’ made Dr Koech an instant global celebrity, especially among African-Americans, who thought the US Food and Drug Administration was deliberately dragging its feet in approving an Aids cure.
For instance, the Capital Spotlight, published in Washington, DC, ran several stories on Dr Koech’s work and how he had rescued Black families from apocalypse.
Patti Rose’s book, In Search of Serenity, advised African-American families that only a community-based action plan would work “in the face of increasing community ignorance and government apathy”, while African researchers argued that the Western media had “underreported” the findings on Kemron in order to protect the status quo of more expensive drugs prescribed for Aids patients.
It would later emerge that Kemron’s clinical trial was flawed, and that the claim that the low-dose oral alpha interferon improved the health of Aids patients could not be ascertained.
Actually, HIV scientists were sceptical of the drug, although it was promoted as a wonder drug in the US.
Some Harlem-based radio stations sent their reporters to Nairobi, among them Barbara Justice of WLIB-AM, who accused the US government of ignoring Kemri’s drug.
The saga, mired in race politics, was aptly captured in the Newsweek story “Angry Politics of Kemron”:
“By ignoring the Kemron outcry, the government would only harden the suspicion that it is suppressing a treatment that works. In purely scientific terms, there may be more promising drugs to investigate. But where Aids is concerned, science has to accommodate the world.”
Western publications claim that the original idea that oral alpha interferon could benefit Aids patients was conceived by a Texas veterinarian, Dr Joseph Cummins, who had used it to treat respiratory infections in cattle.
Award-winning journalist Larry Krotz, in his 2012 book Piecing the Puzzle: The Genesis of Aids Research in Africa, claimed that Dr Cummins had given Kemri the powdered version of the drug.
“Cummins started sending a new powdered form of the drug to Koech, who had his patients ingest a daily dose of it by eating it on wafers. He gave the product the trade name Kemron and within months declared the treatment a success,” wrote Krotz.
Some of Dr Koech’s published reports, co-authored with Dr Cummins, claimed that 99 out of 101 patients had become healthy after ingesting the drug. Some, they claimed, had also turned HIV-negative.
Dr Koech, a fast-rising immunologist, had previously been working with Joan Kreiss on a research project among sex workers in Nairobi.
They, among other scientists, published a ground-breaking paper in the New England Journal of Medicine on their work.
It was during this period that Dr Koech announced that his patients had made remarkable recovery and Moi announced the breakthrough.
While most doctors and researchers felt Dr Koech had jumped the gun, the Kemri newsletter still described his work as a “miracle drug” that the world was apparently waiting for.
“The only side effect reported during the 10-month study was an increased appetite in the majority of patients,” said the newsletter.
After this scientific breakthrough, Finance minister George Saitoti announced that a manufacturing plant for the drug would be set up in Kenya.
Then the World Health Organisation entered the fray and Dr Koech flew to Geneva to defend his results.
Clinical trials financed by WHO in five African countries later found that the dramatic benefits that Dr Koech and Dr Obel had reported were minimal.
“In light of the evidence available to date,” the WHO said in a press release, “the meeting concluded that low-dose interferon alpha remains an experimental drug of as yet unproved benefit for HIV infection or Aids.”
The WHO called for “controlled studies” before any conclusions could be reached. The US Congress discussed the matter and initiated its own study of Kemron through the National Institutes of Health’s Aids Research Advisory Committee.
In the final report, Gerald Medoff, a former director of infectious diseases and one of the first US physicians to establish an Aids clinic, told Congress that Kemron was “ineffective” as a treatment for HIV infection and “strongly” recommended that patients then receiving the drug seek alternative treatment.
Before WHO’s bombshell that the drug was of no value, the then director of medical services, Dr Joseph Oliech, had said that Kemron would be made available at designated provincial hospitals, priced at Sh74 a tablet.
But even before the drug was taken to the market, patent wars erupted. Kemri had claimed that it owned the patent but Dr Cummin’s Amarillo Cell Culture Company claimed to have originally developed oral alpha interferon and had it manufactured by Hayashibara Biochemical Laboratories of Okayama, Japan. That was the powder given to Dr Koech, it said.
“There is no Kenya invention involved in this technology,” Dr Cummins asserted in a letter to Dr Koech, and which was quoted by the New York Times.
Soon, counterfeit Kemron drugs appeared in Uganda and there was rolling business by merchants.
One of the appointed distributors of Kemron in Uganda, Ms Casey Burns, told wire news agency Agence France-Presse that she had heard of doctors making huge profits by selling the drug.
In Parliament, the Kemron saga became the best way to embarrass the Moi regime. As later as 1994, the Ministry of Health was still lying that Kemron was effective.
“With regard to Kemron, clinical trials done in Kenya and 10 other countries, under the auspices of WHO, have shown that the drug has some clinical benefits to most of the HIV/Aids patients. It is after these positive and encouraging results that Kemron was registered as a drug against HIV infection in Kenya,” said a ministerial statement.
Today, Kemron is long forgotten, but it is still, perhaps, our best attempt yet to find a cure for HIV/Aids.
Kemri has come of age, and recently celebrated 40 years of existence. It has made some dramatic research and contributed a lot to the world of medicine.
Dr Koech rose to become a distinguished scholar in his own right, while his counterpart is still selling herbal medicine in Loresho, Nairobi. Such is life.