A project to manufacture Interferon locally for the treatment of Hepatitis C patients at a fraction of the cost of importing the medicine has suffered a further setback as the funds that were to be used to start production have been withdrawn, The Express Tribune has learnt.
A group of researchers led by Prof Riazuddin Shaikh made Interferon at the Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB), a part of the Centre of Applied Molecular Biology (CAMB) at Punjab University, in 2008. The product was declared by a German laboratory as meeting World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.
Prof Sheikh sought permission from the Ministry of Science and Technology to start clinical trials, following which the drug could be produced on a commercial scale. The CEMB had generated Rs500 million through various lab services and the money was to be used to start the project.
But the ministry did not grant permission and the funds for the project – some Rs500 million generated by the CEMB through various lab services – were frozen in November 2010 when the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) began investigating misappropriation allegations against Prof Shaikh.
In October 2012, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. On January 31, 2013, former governor and Interferon Projects and Interferon Policy Guidance Committee Chairman Shahid Hamid chaired a meeting at CEMB which decided that the Rs500million would be used to start production of Interferon. He had also said at the meeting that the Ministry of Science and Technology would fix responsibility for false complaints against Prof Shaikh that delayed the project.
“Three days ago, a BS-21 official from the Ministry of Science and Technology and a BS-18 official got a Rs500 million draft made from the CEMB accounts. These were the frozen funds and were to be used for the local manufacture of interferon. With the money gone, I don’t see how production will be possible,” a senior official at CEMB told The Express Tribune.
Yasmeen Rehman, a former MNA who convened the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) sub-committee on Interferon, wrote to the new Science and Technology Minister Zahid Hamid earlier this month asking him to expedite Interferon production.
“I briefed him about the whole situation, about how some people had managed to stop the project for a few years and how we took it up in the PAC. I also told him about the CEMB’s frozen funds which were to be used for Interferon production. But rather than giving funds to start production, the ministry officials have withdrawn the money, which was locally generated and cannot be used by the government,” she said.
“The bureaucracy is misguiding him (the minister) on this issue. They say a PC-1 (planning document) should be prepared and approved for the project, but that will take another two years and more patients will die meanwhile. Everything is in place and the scientists should just be allowed to work,” Rehman added.
Imported Interferon injections cost between Rs1,500 and Rs2,500. The CEMB estimated that locally-produced Interferon could be sold for Rs70. A Hepatitis C patient requires around 100 injections.
Prof Shaikh said if given a free hand, he could generate enough Interferon for Pakistani patients within two years. He said there were some 20 million hepatitis patients in Pakistan.
“I have time and again said I don’t need any money or perks. I have even told the secretary that some Pakistani-American scientists are willing to donate $0.5 million (Rs50 million) for the local production of Interferon,” he told The Express Tribune.
Former Allama Iqbal Medical College principal Dr Javed Akram, who worked on the clinical side of the Interferon project, said that some 100,000 injections had been produced in 2008. “We were set to go ahead with clinical trials when some pharmaceutical mafias emerged on the scene. Hundreds of lives could have been saved by now if the local production of the drug had been allowed to start,” he said.
Science and Technology Minister Zahid Hamid and Secretary Akhlaq Ahmad Tarar were not available for comment on the phone. They did not respond to emails sent to their offices either.
Zaheer Hussain, assistant scientific adviser at the Ministry of Science and Technology, confirmed that the frozen funds had been transferred to the federal treasury, on the directions of the Public Account Committee and the Federal Audit and with the approval of the CEMB Board of Governors and CAMB Executive Committee.
He said that the transfer would not affect the project. “The action of the MoST to transfer frozen funds of CAMB will have no effect on the proposed local production of Interferon. In fact, the Interferon at laboratory scale was developed by the financial support of the MoST through the Public Sector Development Programme. Similar support will be extended to the project director for Interferon production when the PC-1 is submitted to the MoST. During the recent joint meeting of the CEMB Board of Governors and CAMB Executive Committee, the designated project director committed to submitting the PC-1 within two months, i.e., before August 2, 2013. The same will be immediately processed by the MoST for reviewing and funding through the Planning Commission,” he stated.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2013.