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FIA probe to Hepatitis researchers

A Pakistani health worker gives a hepatiLAHORE: Instead of expediting the process of bringing an indigenously produced hepatitis medicine to the market, the ministry of science and technology has referred to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) the case of scientists who have cloned 18 human pharmaceutical protein genes, including low-cost interferon injection.

According to sources, the ministry referred the case to the FIA on Dec 8, alleging that the drug prepared by the researchers was not up to the standard and accusing the researchers of corruption.

An official told this correspondent that an inquiry conducted by the ministry had found embezzlement of hundreds of millions of rupees committed by some scientists.

The case was referred to the FIA after Dawn carried a report last month about an inordinate delay on the part of the ministries of health and science in allowing marketing of the cheap local drug.

On a petition, the Supreme Court also sought a reply from the quarters concerned why the drug had not been tried and marketed.

The Chairman of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Health, Nadeem Ehsan, said he had come to know about the investigation a couple of days ago at a meeting of a sub-committee looking into the interferon issue.

Expressing concern at FIA’s involvement, he said the standing committee would take up the matter after Muharram. He said scientists and intellectuals should be rewarded for their efforts.

The health ministry had not only approved the CEMB interferon but also sanctioned funds for the purpose.

The standing committee had constituted the sub-committee to identify officials creating hurdles in the clinical trial.

The drug was produced with a slogan: “Nobody will die in Pakistan for want of interferon.”

The research work was undertaken four years ago at the Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB) of the Centre of Applied Molecular Biology (CAMB) and the Allama Iqbal Medical College (AIMC), where interferon was replicated to reduce the cost of treatment of hepatitis.

The scientists expressed dismay at the unexpected development.

“Prepare yourself for a trial and you will have to complete your research on interferon behind the bars,” Dr Riazuddin, one of the researchers, quoted a senior officer of the ministry of science and technology as having said.

He said the researchers who had invented some 80 types of interferon injections throughout the world were being “treated as heroes and saviours, while we are facing trials”.

The chairman of study group on interferon, Prof Javed Akram, termed the case an attempt to block the local production of the drug whose availability at an affordable price of about Rs40 per three million units could have eased the sufferings and saved lives of around 25 million hepatitis patients in the country.

He said the production had been approved by the federal health ministry and validated by West Germany.

In a phase-I trial, 10 volunteer medical students were injected the drug without any serious adverse effect.

“Not a single patient has been treated with the locally produced interferon, while permission for the clinical trial has bee pending with the health ministry for 13 months,” Prof Akram said.

He said Dr Riazuddin had produced 70 PhDs and published over 150 research papers in international journals with a cumulative impact factor of over 700 — the highest among biology institutes in the country.

He said the whole batch of interferon from which thousands of patients of hepatitis C could have benefited had expired.

The Ministry of Science and Technology’s Joint Adviser Shaharyar Khan said the case had been referred to the FIA with the approval of Secretary Irfan Nadeem and Joint Secretary Khalid Saddiq and Finance and Accounts Officer Naghmana Ashfaq remained in touch with the inquiry.

The ‘accused’ scientists were, however, not aware of the inquiry. Punjab FIA Director General Zafar Qureshi said the case had so far not been referred to him by the headquarters.

FIA DG Waseem Ahmad did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking his comments.

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