The tiny island nation of Comoros off Africa's east coast is being treated as a massive guinea pig experiment for Chinese scientists. More than 700,000 people have been given doses of an untested malaria drug that appears to be working. Regardless, critics are outraged by the approach.
Malaria is a serious problem for Comoros, where in some districts upwards of 90% of people carry the parasite. But as CBS News reports, a team of Chinese scientists, in partnership with the Comoran government, have apparently wiped the disease off the islands with a new, Chinese-made drug called Artequick. The unproven drug was given to everyone on the island across three waves of treatments — all 700,000 inhabitants — despite it not being approved for use in humans by any international health body.
The scientists say they're studying Artequick's efficacy, side effects, toxicity, and the feasibility of getting an entire nation to take the medication all at once. The drug — which works to eliminate the parasite in humans such that it can no longer be transmissible via mosquitoes — will only work when applied in this sweeping manner, say the scientists. The idea is to use Comoros as a model for other African nations.
And they're not making any apologies for their approach, saying that the ultimate plan is to "contribute to the elimination of malaria in the world."
The Comoran government says the massive drug experiment is bringing free medicine to its people, saving it $11 million each year in health care costs.
Artequick is a new medicine that has not been studied a lot and it is not widely available. For example, Artemisinin — an active ingredient in the drug — has been shown to be toxic to early stage embryos in animal studies, but there is no data available on use in pregnant women during the first trimester.
The World Health Organization is not disputing the claim from the Chinese scientists and the Comoran government that malaria has all but vanished on the islands since the Artequick "mass drug administration." But the howls of outrage have begun. As CBS reports:
[Andrea] Bosman, of the WHO's Global Malaria Program, is critical of how the Chinese experiment's managers are handling reported side effects from Artequick.
He says neither the scientists running the experiment nor the Comoran government have monitored side effects in a systematic way. That, in Bosman's view, not only risks harming the participating Comorans, it is also a missed opportunity to learn lessons from the project that might have helped other countries in the fight against malaria.
"You should probably monitor the population closely when doing these mass drug administrations, and this is very difficult. It's not an easy task. As far as we know, this is not being done during this mass drug administration," Bosman tells CBS News.
"As far as I know, they are looking at the clinics where the drug is being given and asking if there is increased reporting of side effects, but it is very insensitive. This approach is very crude," adds the WHO official.
Few locals told us they were warned of any side effects before taking Artequick. Villagers were also not informed about the risks of Primaquine, a powerful anti-malaria medicine the scientists use in combination with Artequick for this experiment. Primaquine can be lethal — causing red blood cells to rupture — but chief scientist Song Jianping says his team is using it at low, safe levels.
Another concern is that people got sick from the drug but did not report it. There's also the economic impact to keep in mind; some people spent 30,000 Comoran francs for treatments at the hospital after taking the malaria medicine (side effects include nausea and vomiting). There's also fear that the mass drug administration will deprive the population of its built-up immunity to malaria, creating conditions for an epidemic should the disease return to the islands.
But local officials are defending the project, citing the dire need to address a disease that kills more than half a million people around the world each year.
"This drug is safe and effective," shouted a Comoros doctor through a megaphone, "Some of you think you are being used as guinea pigs. You are not being used as guinea pigs. The WHO would not allow this administration to happen if you were being used as guinea pigs."
Read the entire article at CBS News.