A University of Cape Town academic has been temporarily suspended from his research duties and his laboratory closed after an international journal associated him with a herbal tonic touted as an HIV/Aids treatment.
"The University of Cape Town is aware of the report published in Nature Medicine. We regard the allegations in the report in a very serious light. However, (Professor Girish) Kotwal's suspension will not affect any normal teaching activities," said spokeswoman Skye Grove on Monday.
Allegations under investigation
She said allegations of possible professional misconduct in respect of Kotwal had been referred for investigation.
Grove confirmed that UCT had an "existing royalty agreement" with Secomet, the Stellenbosch-based manufacturers of the brew.
The royalties agreement means that UCT will receive money from the sale of the product, but the investigation will clarify this and Grove did not want to elaborate, saying more information would emerge as the inquiry proceeded.
"This (the agreement) will be reviewed after the completion of the preliminary investigation, which will determine whether or not disciplinary action will be taken," said Grove.
The preliminary investigation is being chaired by one of the university's vice-chancellors.
Kodwal linked to Aids tonic
Kotwal, principal investigator at the university's medical biotechnology department, was named in the publication as having links to Secomet V -a tonic allegedly sold at health shops and traditional healers as Ithemba Lesizwe (Hope of the Nation).
On Monday afternoon, Kotwal, who had been out of the country, met with members of the university's executive, including the dean of faculty of health sciences, Professor Marian Jacobs.
In a website article from the New York Academy of Sciences, Kotwal is named as the organiser of the First International Conference on Natural Products and Molecular Therapy, which drew some 150 scientists to South Africa, in January 2005.
The New York Academy of Sciences site said Kotwal and his team have been studying an extract from a plant of the Trifollium species Secomet-V ("V" for viral), which they have found stops HIV from entering and infecting new cells.
Appears to neutralise viruses
"Its precise mode of action is still unknown, but it appears to neutralise virus particles and render them non-infectious. In addition to testing the plant extract in the lab, Kotwal's group gave it to a small number of people with AIDS whose CD4 cell counts had declined steeply," according to the article.
It said the plant extract significantly reduced their viral loads within several months, and improved or reversed disease symptoms.
"Like ARVs, Secomet-V would not be a cure for AIDS, but a long-term treatment," it said.
The article suggested that researchers found the plant extract was also a "broad-spectrum antiviral" that could be used against bird-flu.
"In lab tests, Secomet-V has been effective against poxviruses, HIV, herpes, SARS corona, and flu viruses, including the H5N2 bird flu strain rendering them all inactive."
The article quotes Kotwal as saying this was exciting because there "is nothing else for Africa - no vaccine, no TAMIFLU. This research could be translated into a real impact on public health and preparedness against what people consider a pandemic flu."
It said Kotwal wanted funding to test Secomet-V in larger groups of people in a multicentre clinical trial.
His team was seeking to identify the extract's bioactive ingredient, and possibly produce a synthetic antiviral. – (Sapa)