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The Role of PNG Institute Medical Research in Question: Focus on the issue of the Hahagai

August 31 2007 at 10:28 PM
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i'm still come to question the role of PNG Istitute of Medical Research in Papua New Guinea. To the present time, there is no tangible contribution from PNGIMR to the health and medical issues of the people of PNG.

Is PNGIMR is contributing to the welfare and medical improvement of the people of PNG, or for the interest for outside sources.

the issues of Hahagai people, is one of the very important issue and has to be taken seriously on. it all started with PNGIMR in the 1980s.

note: read the article published on the Weekend Column of The National


The Hagahai controversy

In part two of a three part article DOMINI SENGI* talks about the controversy that arose in 1996 following the scurry act by PNG-based United States scientists then attached with the Goroka-based PNG Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR) in whisking away by helicopter 'blood samples' drawn from a male Hagahai tribesman consigned for highly specialized genetic culture collection laboratories overseas.

The PNG Hagahai blood was somewhat of a novelty and enigma to geneticists, microbiologists and virologists alike. It had the chemical characteristics identified by science as HTLV-I (PNG-1). It was a retrovirus - viruses that cause slow death of its host over time. What further interests me was that it was a relative strain of the HIV/AIDS virus whose characteristic is known to science as HTLV-III. The symbol HTLV stands for Human T-cell Lymphotic Virus that lodge itself within the white blood cells and attack this blood producing cells of the human immune system.
I had by then inclined to think that given the relative similarities with the HTLV-III, certainly the Hagahai virus holds by all probability, some firm genetic or virological clues to solving the HIV/AIDs epidemic that was gripping the world of science and threatening human security around the world.
Furthermore, the Hagahai strain itself was isolated by none other than Dr Robert Gallo, who at that time was accused of scientific fraud by French scientists over claims he stole the HIV/AIDs virus and made it his own.
My search had indicated Dr Gallo, a noted virologists/microbiologist became what he is much to the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Dr Carlton Gajdusek who had a long association with the PNGIMR. Dr Gajdusek became world famous in the 1960s for discovering and isolating yet another PNG-based virus, the Kuru, a retrovirus of the brain that kills people slowly. Kuru is known for causing the 'laughing sickness' among the Fore tribe of the Eastern Highlands Province and other diseases of the brain.
I am of the firm belief that the Hagahai strain isolate and the mad rush to patent it without prior informed consent and knowledge of the Hagahai subject, the PNG Medical Research Council and Government had all the markings of bio-piracy by US scientific agents.
I had related the close connections and relations of the scientists and collaborating institutions to conspiracy theories doing their rounds in the Europe and the industrialized world in the early 80's relating HIV/AIDs virus as a biological warfare germ created at the Fort Detrick P4 Lab in 1977 thereabout as part of former US President Richard Nixon's Cold War weapons agenda.
An angle to this theory suggests the germ warfare was aimed at eliminating the black race off the surface of this earth through HIV/AIDS.
Retired East Berlin microbiologist Jacob Segal of Humbolt University wrote a report read throughout Eastern Europe and the West that claimed the AIDS virus was made at Fort Detrick from a deliberate mixture of visna and HTLV-I. Segal's assertion was publicly distributed at the 1986 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement for which PNG is a member which convened in September in Harare, Zimbabwe.
According to Segal, he has but refused to reveal documents proving that US prisoners were injected with various experimental combinations of visna and HTLV-I until a perfect lethal form. HIV, he claims was indeed the perfect lethal form. Visna is a retrovirus found in sheep.
The Segal notion that AIDS was the result of a sinister CIA plot found favour in many quarters, particularly in African countries that felt unjustly targeted and blamed by mainly American scientists as the origin of AIDS.
Also in the US at the same frame of time, Dr Robert Strecker from Los Angeles gained a large following for his claim that AIDS virus was manufactured by crossing Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV) and Visna virus from animals into man to make the AIDS virus and growing it human tissue culture and that's AIDS causing cancer.
For me, there was in the US no body alive and expert than Carlton Gajdusek and his student Robert Gallo who have the scientific insight into how human-based latent retroviruses could jump the species barrier.
Indeed it was Gajdusek's ground-breaking scientific discovery in the 60s involving the experimentation using the kuru virus with that of monkeys and chimpanzees that proved the linchpin in science that viruses could now jump the species barrier thus, creating for the world of science a molecular model for sophisticated forms of cloning and genetic engineering that would then follow. I remain unfazed by counter-claims that such basic models hadn't yet been invented in 1977.
Certainly and if I was President Nixon, I wouldn't have been looking too far than Fort Detrick, Drs Gajdusek and Gallo and the Kuru virus to start my cold war germ warfare programme.
The fundamental question arises whether beginning with Gajdusek's kuru and linchpin discovery, President Nixon's Cold War Biological Weapons project, the Segal AIDS conspiracy theory, and the subsequent mad rush to marginalize the AIDS-out-of-Fort Detrick claims by the US Government, was the scurry and helicopter ride of the Hagahai virus out of the jungles of PNG justified given the relative similarities in the chemo-geneology of the Hagahai virus and the AIDS? Did both our viral representatives - kuru and the Hagahai - collectively have been the cause and effect of solving America's and the world's most fatal epidemic? I will leave these questions for all to ponder over in the meantime.
According to US Patent Laws, the isolation of the virus involved a 'scientific process' and hence, scientists involved in the process by rights were required by the USPTO regulations to name themselves as 'inventors' of the cell line, hence are therefore assigned legal rights to the virus and holders of the subsequent patent had it been granted.
At this point I came to appreciate the rush. For geneticists especially, a homogenous, freely evolving and intra-breeding group of people, not interbreeding with those outside their homogeneity is a 'gold mine'.
The application for granting of the US patent number 5,397,696 was already in queue and I found myself up against time. Through the assistance of the late Francis Zabala, a close African friend of mine who was then UPNG Computer system manager, I contacted biotechnology experts with the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a non-governmental organization to assist with access to USPTO patent filing system using the US Freedom of Information Act for further data relating to the Hagahai virus patent application. PNG was late to lodge a formal protest during the preparatory stage of the patent application as there was no information before us.
Given the lack of much political and diplomatic will to maneuver toward seeking an advisory opinion at The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), mounting a global offensive against the US scientist and the USPTO using the RAFI network was the only option available.
Domestically, I took to the Fourth Estate issues such as prior informed consent accusing those involved for adopting primitive inducement techniques for securing such consent. This is to arouse public opinion and views to support the international NGOs.
I had also found that the US scientific team together with their PNG counterpart produced little evidence of formal prior informed consent, admitting in the process the use of primitive 'inducement' techniques in deriving such consent. The NGO network exploited this to the fullest.
Locally based scientists fled the country, not after one of them was stopped in the get-away trail to produce documentation wanted by government relating to the so called study of the Hagahais.
My research further established that this known scientist had been named as a 'co inventor' of the cell line patent without the intelligent knowledge of the PNG Government, including the PNG Medical Research Council at that time, that had direct fiduciary duty to protect the Hagahai person.

*The writer is a former Foreign Service Officer and currently General Secretary Peoples National Congress Party

Next week: My people, my blood, my revelation


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