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A travesty of Science - I
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Murli Manohar Joshi’s crude attempt to confer scientific dignity on cow urine does not serve medical science

M. Zeyaul HaqueAn affront to science, when it comes from the minister of science and technology himself, is particularly galling. After all, a minister of science should know better than to throw all protocol out of the window before making a public announcement about the pharmaceutical properties of a totally untested substance -- "pure cow urine," in the urine promoters’ language.

Before making the announcement on July 4, 2002, in New Delhi, that "pure cow urine" distillate acts as a catalyst to boost the effect of antibiotics like Rifampicin and anti-cancer drugs like Taxol, should have given a thought to the irresponsible conduct he was encouraging. He has given a tacit encouragement to hundreds of thousands of quacks in this country to try this totally unreliable, untested, uncaliberated potion on unsuspecting patients with lethal consequences.

Joshi, who himself is a physicist, should know that scientific discoveries are not tomtomed prematurely, and in such a crude way. One is amazed at the extent of the media’s ignorance and credulity. The newspapers carried this piece of information, producing uncritically the unsubstantiated claims of a bunch of government scientists and VHP functionaries, the sole claim of their credibility coming from a patent registered in the United States.

The minister and his scientists and group of believers should have known that a patent does not confer any "scientific validity" on any product or process. It comes after years of hard work, progressive tests for tolerance threshold, dosage, liver toxicity and a whole range of other criteria -- on guinea pigs (rats) and primates before selective, approved trials on humans. Even then there is no guarantee of scientific approval.

All this can take 10 to 15 years if we are lucky. In the case of cow urine, there is no guarantee that even the pharmaceutical giants -- SmithKline and Beecham, Glaxo, Pfizer, May & Baker or Hoechst, for instance -- would be able to turn cow urine into a pharmaceutical product in the next ten years.

The way Mr Joshi has done it is an affront to science. Using the Sangh’s strategy of exploiting public gullibility, he has tomtomed this gimmick as approved by the American scientific establishment. It is not the US Patent Office which will decide whether cow urine can be turned into a pharmaceutical product even in a 100 years. The patent office only registers your claim. The "approval" would come only after peer review of your trial studies, which would take a decade, if you are lucky.

And who told Joshi and his scientists and bunch of believers that patent registration means "scientific approval" in America? They (at least the scientists and the minister) must be knowing that any such "approval" would have to come from none else but the extremely conscientious US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA is known to have rejected even those drugs approved for use by its British and German counterparts. Invariably, FDA’s scrupulousness has benefited science and saved millions of lives.

A Thalidomide child

A celebrated case in point is that of a drug called Thalidomide, which was approved in Germany, Britain and France for use as a sedative (to calm anxiety). The pharmaceutical giant, which had developed this drug in early 60s of last century, put tremendous pressure on the FDA chief to recognise it for use as a sedative. The manufacturer’s case seemed rather strong as it was used extensively in Europe. However, the FDA chief resisted pressure (pharmaceutical giants can wield great clout) till reports of devastating unintended effects began to come in from Europe, first in trickles, then in torrents.

It turned out that expectant mothers taking the drug to calm anxiety were giving birth to babies with missing limbs -- some had arms missing, others had small stumps for legs, others had no ears, yet others no lips. It was a great devastation. A lot of the women were doctors’ wives.

In his last days, President John F Kennedy conferred a special honour on the FDA chief as a mark of the nation’s gratitude. This is how a responsible leadership behaves. For Indian scientists the FDA chief should be an example of integrity.

We are told that cow urine is mixed in quite a few ayurvedic formulations to improve their healing properties. There is nothing wrong with this practice, but mixing cow urine with modern pharmaceutical products (which are made on quite different principles) like Rifampicin and Taxol can be deadly. It will be like mixing water with fire.

Our advice to our minister and his bunch of believers: don’t mix science with belief, and don’t announce "scientific achievements" till the proper time, which means 10 years or so, if at all we are lucky.

A word to our scientists: concentrate on research and tell the people that a pharmaceutical product worthy of mixing with Rifampicin and Taxol is at least 10 years away, if at all it is possible. Kindly caution quacks (possibly by publishing ads) that nobody should ever try to mix Rifampicin and Taxol with cow urine distillate to use it on cancer and TB patients. If we don’t do it in public interest, quacks can do great harm to suffering people, emboldened as they are by the minister’s declaration. 

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