Rejoinder to: Maurice Iwu and the Sale of Nigeria's Collective Inheritance

by Maurice Iwu

Dear Dr. Okujagu.

Please accept my compliments and many thanks for calling my attention to the new set of sponsored attacks on me. As you are well aware many things have been written about me in both local and international press as part of an elaborate hate campaign, most of which are sponsored falsehood aimed at destroying my reputation. I have maintained a policy of not replying to the rubbish or mounting any defense since I am convinced that all the media attacks are politically motivated. I am a firm believer in the doctrine that truth will ultimately prevail over propaganda no matter how heavily funded and I am certain that Nigerians will eventually come to appreciate my modest contribution in serving our country at a most difficult period in its history. Leadership, I was taught, has its prize and exerts its price.

On the issue, which you kindly called my attention to, I have yielded to responding to the article not because of any attempt to mitigate the intended damage to my integrity and reputation, as a lot of people now earn their living in Iwu-bashing and some have become prominent in this thriving industry but because of the potential effect the article could have on younger scientists who may be misled into believing that it is wrong to conduct research on natural products and patent the products of such research.

The second related reason is that at molecular level, natural products study is opening a new vista in medicine and health care, as Dr. Eric Gbodossou and I predicted more than a decade ago in a Lancet article (2000), this will require a new strategic approach to natural products study in Africa that calls for more detailed look into primary metabolites, as well as location-specific induced secondary metabolites and such efforts may be unwittingly negated by misguided articles like that of Ms Chika Ezeanya. The writer seems to have confused scientific patents, ownership assignments and intellectual property rights and benefit sharing.

I hold about 8 patents jointly with other scientists in the course of our studies on biochemical investigations, isolation, structure elucidation, molecular modelling and evidence based biological activity of natural products for the treatment of tropical diseases and the so-called ‘orphan diseases’. I have written books and technical papers on the subject. I have been in the fore-front in the development of the IPR regime used by most countries (e.g. see Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge by Laird and Iwu). The Handbook on African Medicinal Plants, which I wrote in 1993 remains the authoritative reference on the subject. I can reasonably claim some expert knowledge in this area that if the intention of Ms Ezeanya was not to engage in sponsored Internet mud-throwing she would have seen by contributions in the protection of the African traditional knowledge.

Although we have patents for the treatment of many tropical diseases, unfortunately no western drug manufacturing company is ready to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars required to develop these products into the much needed new drugs for the treatment of diseases that are of interest to the poor in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Even with the reasonable support from the WHO’s Tropical Diseases Research unit and similar UN initiatives no ‘new’ molecule has been introduced for the treatment of these diseases since a quarter of a century. I have NOT sold any such patent as was alluded to by the writer.

On the other hand, our in-process benefits to the nation has been significant and available in the literature, which the author carefully avoided. It is interesting that the author mentioned that I was a member of Board of the Fund for Integrated Rural Development and Traditional Medicine (FIRD-TM) but she did not know that the organization was specifically established by us to handle the in-process benefit from our biological research projects. The Nigerian government and civil society were represented in the Board. The Federal Ministries of Science and Technology, Environment, and Health can testify to our contribution in the transfer of technical-know-how to Nigeria, the material and intellectual support we have attracted to this sector of our national life are well documented.

Through our international collaborations, we have trained many Ph.D. and Masters degree holders in relevant disciplines, we established the first independent non-government funded private research laboratory complex, which was highly regarded internationally that we had joint projects with Nigerian government institutions, South African CSIR, US-NIH, US Smithsonian Institution, US National Science Foundation and several others. Indeed our model has been applauded by many commentators as worthy of emulation. The Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme (BDCP), Bioresources Institute of Nigeria, and the International Centre for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (InterCEDD) are successful institutions we established to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable utilization of natural products through our fundamental concept in natural resources management: ‘Use it or Lose it’ which calls for adding value and protecting biodiversity through sustainable utilization.

Our use of plant resources does not and cannot deny Ms Chika Ezeanya or any other Nigerian from its use. It is not a finite resource or zero-sum game. Since when is it a crime to conduct research and protect such invention in Nigeria or any where in the world? Since when has it become wrong for scientists in Nigeria to attract grant for scientific research?

The writer cited the agreement reached in the settlement of the dispute between Pfizer, South African government and the San Community of South Africa as an example of a model arrangement without making any effort to find out how much in real terms the San tribe got from the deal and how it compares with the agreement between Nigerian institutions and their foreign counterparts in the event of a drug discovery.

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) project funded jointly by the US-NSF, USDA and USAID which I headed (while at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research Washington DC) had 64 scientists in seven institutions from Nigeria, Cameroon and U.S. and the CRADA was vetted and approved by relevant agencies of the collaborating countries and contained generous benefit sharing provisions and commendable IPR regime. Nigeria and Cameroon derived significant benefits from that collaboration in the form of transfer of technical know-how, material support and job creation through the support of local industries.

It may interest the author of that article that many lives probably would have been lost in Nigeria if not for the work at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research that lifted artemisinin isolated from Artemisia annua from a little known Chinese weed used in folk medicine to a modern drug for the treatment of drug resistant malaria in Nigeria. She may also like to know that nearly all antimalarial drugs were derived from the structural modification or pharmacophore modeling of active compounds isolated from other people’s (non-African) traditional medicines and medicinal plants. She may like to know that it was such ‘treacherous’ scientists at Walter Reed and University of Ibadan’s college of medicine that isolated ‘our common inheritance’ in the form of drug-resistant clones of Plasmodium falciparium parasite called D-6 and W-2 that made it possible for new antimalarial agents to be on the pipeline as candidate drugs.

The malicious article has afforded me the opportunity to call attention to the paucity of new leads for the development of drugs in this area of health-care that concerns third world countries, especially Africa. Nobody will invest in this area without a patent protection of the active molecules responsible for the claimed activity. The issue is so serious and deadly that I will not only continue to support research that will lead to patents for su

ch compounds but I will also contribute in financing the pre-clinical development of any new lead from anywhere in the world for the treatment of tropical diseases, viral infections and multi-drug resistant bacteria and fungi.

Ms Chika Ezeanya underscored the difficulty of this work when she scornfully informed her readers that we invested millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to develop a single drug for opportunistic AIDS infection through the establishment of Shaman Pharmaceuticals in California. Perhaps, unknown to her, science and technology advance not only from the few success stories but also from countless failures such as that of Shaman Pharmaceuticals Inc. She must have missed the comments in the international media that the Phase 3 clinical trial failure and the inability of the company to attract the additional venture funds it needed was because of a certain Nigerian scientist who was a scientific adviser to the company, at the peak of his career abandoned the group to help his country achieve its first ever civilian-government to civilian government democratic transition.

Ms Chika Ezeanya will also like to know that all the formulated products which I produced as the Vice-President (R&D) at Toms of Maine that are still on sale in shops and pharmacies in the U.S. were formulated not from African plants but derived from European plants. She may also like to know that it is NOT possible to patent natural occurring plants, traditional knowledge or folk medicine. Patents are only for inventions and are internationally acknowledged recognition for specific achievements; and politically motivated hate campaigns cannot erase that.

Again, thanks for calling my attention to this article. It is indeed shocking how far some Nigerians can go in their relentless hate campaign and petty envy.

With best regards.

Maurice M. Iwu, Ph.D., D.Litt.

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