Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Medical paranoia

Why is Egypt so far behind the rest of the world in both medical and scientific research, and the attitudes that enable an environment for both, asks Mohamed Salmawy

 

Every person involved in scientific research that I have spoken with recently is outraged by the bill of law introduced by the Egyptian Ministry of Health. It threatens to set scientific research in Egypt even further back than it already is, which is at such an embarrassingly pitiful level that we cannot even compete with the most underdeveloped nations in this domain.

The Egyptian constitution is explicit on the subject of scientific research. Freedom of scientific research is constitutionally guaranteed and the government is required to promote it and allocate no less than 10 per cent of GDP to education, health and scientific research. Unfortunately, the Health Ministry has chosen to contradict this and sponsor a bill that will introduce such heavy restrictions on scientific research as to stifle new experimentation and hamper our ability to catch up with the rest of the world. Moreover, the reason the ministry offers is incomprehensible. It argues that it is sponsoring the law in the name of “national security”.

One would think that national security would be better served by catching up and acquiring the ability to compete with the developed world, instead of walling ourselves into backwardness. Take a look at Israel. That parasitic state, which possesses nowhere near Egypt’s human resources and civilisational capacities, has attained rates of scientific progress that all Arab countries put together could not even dream of.

The eminent physician Dr Magdi Yacoub told me about a new branch of science called Precision Medicine that has evolved in tandem with inroads in molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and DNA mapping. The new medicine will put paid to the “one remedy fits all” approach to curing many diseases as it homes in on specific DNA tags or sequences. Since the DNA makeup of Middle Easterners differ from those of Europeans or South Americans, for example, the new medicines that will work for Europeans will not be as effective on Chinese, for example. It has recently been discovered that a well-known medicine that has been successfully used to treat breast cancer among European women has not had the same success rates in women from other parts of the world due to different genetic structures.

In fact, the search for more effective cancer treatments has been one of the main driving forces behind the recent expansion in DNA mapping for different human groups. Yet, while scientists have acquired extensive knowledge on European DNA composition, there remains a huge lack of knowledge with regard to other human groups, especially those from the Middle East. This is why I was flabbergasted at Health Minister Ahmed Emadeddin’s call for a ban on the removal of Egyptian genes from Egypt! He also said that all genetic analyses and experiments should require the approval of General Security. Foreign nations are smuggling out Egyptian genes preparatory to waging a biological war against us, he said, adding, in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, “anyone caught taking out human [genetic] samples without government approval will be sentenced to 10 to 15 years prison and a fine of LE 1 million.”

I find myself forced to make a confession to the minister. Last year, I sent a sample of my DNA abroad to have it analysed. I was in the process of writing my memoirs at the time. When I was very young, my father’s grandfather told me that we were descended from an Arab leader who had accompanied Amr Ibn Al-Aas on his conquest of Egypt. I was curious to find out, after many generations of interbreeding with families from other origins, whether that Arab component still prevailed in my genetic makeup. In my memoir, I published the results of the analysis sent to me by one of the famous laboratories in the US that perform these DNA analyses.

I hereby declare to Father Confessor, the minister of health, that I repent my sin! I had no idea at the time that my sample, which was actually a drop of spit, was going to be used in a biological war against the people of Egypt to whose service I have dedicated my entire life. Still, in my defence, I must add that, from practical experience, I know that there are no restrictions to such experiments abroad and that any person from anywhere has the right to send, as I did, a drop or two of spittle to a lab without fear of triggering a biological, chemical or other horrible war.

I have also come across a professional view that conflicts entirely with that of the minister. It was written by Dr Mohamed Abul-Ghar who did not seem all that worried about the biological war scenario that the health minister is so worked up about. In fact, he believes that the minister of health does not even have the authority to propose such bills as the “clinical experiments” bill, since this type of thing falls under the jurisdiction of the minister of scientific research. Abul-Ghar also warned that the proposed bill would spell the death of scientific research in Egypt. He added that experts in constitutional law pointed out that the bill is unconstitutional. Abul-Ghar, himself, was a member of the 50-member committee that drafted the current constitution.

Dr Mahmoud Al-Matini, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Ain Shams University, advocates the promulgation of a law regulating “clinical experiments”. But he, too, fears that the Health Ministry bill is seriously flawed. He also notes that it was not submitted to universities for consideration, even though these are the institutions foremost concerned with scientific research.

Perhaps we should consider some larger questions here. Why is it that we never study how other countries advance and what they do to do so? Why is it that we are so removed from the rest of a world? Why are we still in that weird space in which “national security” controls “clinical experiments”?

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