The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Hepatitis C
A New Generation of Arab Innovation

I have managed what seemed nearly impossible to me these days and written a positive story from the middle east. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, I take a look at Arab researchers who -- quite against the odds -- have made discoveries or managed to bring inventive products to the market. The article is behind a pay wall but here is a bit of the section on American University in Cairo chemist Hassan Azzazy, who has developed a better test for Hepatitis C (one that is based on verifiable science, unlike some other recently announced inventions). 

The new test, which relies on gold nanoparticles that change color on contact with the virus, could be on the market in a year. It should cost about $8, a tenth of the cost of the two-step test currently available.

Establishing a start-up company to commercialize his breakthrough has been "a big, long journey," says Mr. Azzazy. He had to persuade his university’s administration to create the infrastructure to support his project. It took the American University in Cairo nearly two years to figure out the legal and logistical framework to create the spinoff, something no one at the university—and, its administration says, no one anywhere else in Egypt—had done before.

In 2013, Mr. Azzazy finally incorporated his company, D-Kimia, and raised about $500,000 from private investors. D-Kimia now is developing tests for other diseases, including tuberculosis and bladder cancer.

The American University in Cairo’s technology-transfer office, which was created in 2010, requests 50 percent of royalties on any product developed by professors and has filed eight patents based on Mr. Azzazy’s work; D-Kimia is developing three of them, he says.

Aside from improving Egyptians’ health, Mr. Azzazy views job creation as the other main purpose of his research. He gets visibly agitated at the thought of all the students who emerge from universities in Egypt every year with a diploma and no job prospects. 

"As an educator, I owe it to my students to empower them to earn a living," he says.  


At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters -- the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based. 

Egypt has quite low rates of AIDS but the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world (due to a botched bilharzia inoculation campaign in the 1980s, in which needles were not properly sterilized). The disease affects an estimated 15% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases every year. 

At the event announcing the invention -- with Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and interim prime minister Adly Mansour sitting in the front row -- an army officer announced the country had “vanquished” the diseases and promised the new cure would be available in military hospitals starting June 30. In a 14-minute documentary broadcast on state TV, a doctor tells a patient: “You had AIDS, but now it’s gone.” 

The video that aired on State TV

General Ibrahim Abdel Atti , the seeming inventor of the devices (although when, where and how they were developed remains murky) has turned out to be quite a character. He said he had been offered $2 billion to sell his treatment but declined when the buyers refused to specify that it was the work of “an Arab Muslim scientist;” he also said he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian intelligence services (he seemed to take this as a compliment). He acquired instant fame by explaining the way his device supposedly cleans the blood of the patient of disease and turns it into nutrients, by saying it is as if  “I take AIDS from the patient, and give him back a kofta (ground meat) skewer.” 

General Kofta

The incident has been labelled Kofta-Gate on the Egyptian web. Egyptian newspapers have dug into Abdel Atti’s past. His military title turns out to be a recent honorific. His speciality is in alternative medicine. Two clinics he ran were closed by the authorities; several of his past patients have accused him of chicanery; and he has been prosecuted for impersonating a doctor. This has not prevented many from rushing to his defense, saying doubts cast on his work are part of a conspiracy by Western pharmaceutical companies. (The army has said it will not share its secret cure with the West). 

One of the president’s science advisors, Essam Haggy -- a young Egyptian currently working at NASA -- has called the announcement a scandal. 

The army has not responded to the skepticism surrounding its invention or to the allegations against Abdel Atti -- let alone to the question of how someone with his background could have ended up in a senior scientific positions in the army.

The announcement, which was clearly intended to reflect positively on the army and on General El Sisi (who is still predicted to announce his presidential run any day now) has had the opposite effect, making the institution look delusional and inept. It is truly terrifying to think that this is the level of scientific knowledge, critical thinking and political judgment in those running the country. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef has promised to bring the issue up on every segment of his satirical news show until there is an official response that proves the authorities aren't the ones "kidding around."

Egyptian commentators have drawn parallels between Kofta-Gate and the fanciful announcements, back in the 1960s, that Egypt had built the first Arab-made airplane and developed missiles that could reach the moon. Others have noted that Egypt joins a long list of African countries whose leaders have at one point or another -- often with devastating effect on public health-- claimed to have a “cure” for AIDS. 

From a Muslim Brotherhood Facebook Page, an image from a recent protest. Will the authorities outlaw meat skewers now? 

From a Muslim Brotherhood Facebook Page, an image from a recent protest. Will the authorities outlaw meat skewers now?