As Egypt’s military plays an increasingly active role in the country’s public life, army scientists made a shocking announcement on February 23, claiming to find a miracle cure for AIDS, among other diseases. Their boasts produced anger, disbelief, and lots of mockery.
The outlandish claims startled the scientific community in Egypt and abroad. Experts reacted with deep skepticism, suggesting that the announcement had more to do with the military’s PR campaign for Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s expected presidential bid than any real science.
The scientists showed off their inventions at an official army press conference. They revealed two devices, named C-Fast and I-Fast, that supposedly detect hepatitis C, HPV, and HIV, using electromagnetic waves. A third system, called Complete Cure, is meant to cure patients of AIDS and hepatitis C. The C-Fast devices are hand-held and resemble electric egg beaters with long metal dowsing rods.
While the scientists claimed to have obtained a 100 percent cure rate for HIV, and more than a 95 percent rate for hepatitis C, criticism of the announcement was swift and damning. "These sound more like the results we used see in presidential elections in (Hosni) Mubarak's day than hard science,” Shereen el Feki, former Vice Chair of the United Nations' Global Commission on HIV and the Law, told VICE News in an email.
“Decades of the world's leading scientists bringing their ideas, energies, and billions of dollars to bear on HIV have yet to find a cure, but these approaches are grounded in sound science, not ‘miracle’ machines based on improbable methods,” she continued. The U.S. government spends $2.9 billion a year on research alone.
Doctor Gamal Shiha, an independent principal investigator from Mansoura University, told VICE News that he believed the the C-Fast device could detect hepatitis C. “But the story about the treatment of AIDS, it’s not accepted by scientists,” he said. “The (press) conference was mixing everything.”
Video from the official press conference.
Islam Hussein, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, prepared a detailed presentation disputing both claims. Doctor Essam Heggy, an advisor to Adly Mansour, Egypt’s interim president, told Al Watan that the episode was a “scandal for Egypt,” that “hurts the image of scientists and science” in the country. And the Egyptian army’s claims have not been published in any international journals.
Then the Libyan Youth Movement, a citizen organization created after the Egyptian revolution in 2011, pointed out that the medical devices bore a very strong resemblance to fake bomb detectors sold to Iraq in the late 2000s. This scam, created by British man James McCormick, allegedly made as much as $85 million when the hoax machines were bought by the Iraqi government. As reported by Mashable, McCormick was later jailed for 10 years for his role in the hoax.
Some experts saw the claims as irresponsible for mangling proper discussion of a serious health problem in Egypt, where nearly 20 percent of population are infected with hepatitis C, according to the Ministry of Health.
“Most Egyptians are not tested for hepatitis C, do not know if they have the disease and may unwittingly infect their family and friends,” said Hassan Azzazy, a co-founder of the D-Kimia start-up, which is developing a range of devices to detect the disease. “Widespread testing has been limited due to the high cost and complexity of the test and limited awareness,” he said.
Yet the comment that generated the most humor and sarcasm was when a government advisor compared the treatment to feeding the patient kofta, a Middle Eastern ground meat dish.
“I will take the AIDS from the patient, and I will nourish the patient with AIDS treatment,” Abdel Atti, a scientific adviser to the president, said. “I will give it to him like a skewer of kofta to feed him. I will take it away from him as a disease and give it back to him in the form of a cure. This is the greatest form of scientific miracle.” On Twitter #koftagate went viral. And Atti has threatened to sue satirical comedian Bassem Youseff who mocked him on Egyptian TV.
Abdel Atti compares the AIDS treatment to feeding the patient kofta.
Many observers believed the announcement had a political basis, and Field Marshal al Sisi was indeed mentioned at the press conference.
“I thank Marshal [Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] for being like a stick [for scientific discovery],” said spokesman Mohamed Ahmed Aly. “He said we are at the tail of the queue and we need to jump to the front and win against the whole world in finding these cures.”
Khaled el Gharabawy, a doctor involved in the clinical trials, told VICE News that the army scientists first began the “top secret” trials on patients 15 months ago, after testing the devices on blood samples and chimpanzees.
And el Gharabawy, a doctor with Egypt’s Ministry of Health before joining the army’s research trials, stands by the treatment.
“I was taking care of patients since the first day they volunteered for the treatment. They came in a really bad condition, with all the symptoms,” he recalled. “And when they started taking capsules and put on the device for cleaning their blood, there was huge progress.”
According el Gharabawy, the HIV volunteers required one hour of treatment per day and only between 16 to 20 hours in total. “By the end of the treatment, they because healthy as normal people,” he said.
The local state-run media used the discovery to demonstrate their patriotism, which has been on the rise since the military-backed ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July.
State-run Channel One TV channel showed Aly Mones, a prominent Egyptian liver specialist, claiming the army’s discovery is a “national security matter” that should be guarded from foreigners. “Once they will know about that invention they will evolve it,” he said.
It is not standard medical practice to make bold claims, without following international scientific procedures, at an army conference. “This is not a usual way to present scientific discoveries in Egypt,” said Shiha. “It is more do with media.”
And this supposed PR coup has turned into an international embarrassment for the army, reminding citizens that Egypt’s most powerful institution is not always apt at handling global media.
The episode was less about Egypt’s scientific prowess as the military’s flair for showmanship, revealing the army’s growing role in Egyptian life, and the media’s unwavering loyalty to the military.
“The AIDS cure nonsense was a truly revealing moment for Egypt and a serious indictment of leadership, media and society,” tweeted Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.