The Nigerian Academy of Science is being sued by a doctor after casting doubt on his unproven claims to have invented a vaccine for HIV.
And although The Lancet reported that the Nigerian government banned the unauthorised vaccine in 2000, the doctor confirmed this month that he is continuing to provide the treatment.
In 2004 Jeremiah Abalaka — owner of the Medicrest Specialist Hospital, a private clinic in Gwagwalada, north of the Nigerian capital Abuja — had his unproven claim published in the journal Vaccine. He continues to cite the article as evidence of his legitimacy.
"I have HIV prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines for prevention and treatment of HIV infection respectively. Both are made from the blood of HIV-infected patients. They are just human blood components," Abalaka alleged in an email.
The vaccines cost 5000 Nigerian Naira (around US$40) per injection. The patient decides on the dose and how many injections to receive. Abalaka claims that the illegal vaccine "has literally no side effects'' and refers further enquiries to his Vaccine paper.
Abalaka is thought to have injected a minimum of 4000 patients and he claims, himself with ''treated'' HIV positive blood.
''This man was having a lot of patients coming to him and was making a lot of money,'' said Akin Adubifa, executive secretary of the Lagos-based Nigerian Academy of Science.
''The academy wanted to verify his claim and made arrangements to visit his clinic. The findings of the representatives were that his claim could not be scientifically verified,'' Adubifa told SciDev.Net.
The academy subsequently issued a critical report to the Nigerian Ministry of Health. After the report was published in newspapers, Abalaka sued the academy and its representatives on the grounds that they have damaged his business.
Abalaka has claimed in several media reports, without providing evidence, that he is the victim of an international conspiracy to rob him of profits from the vaccine. Although all the profits appear to go to his clinic, he claims that testing the vaccine will undermine his intellectual property rights.
''Abalaka hasn't even got the facilities in the lab to produce any vaccine. His lab is virtually bare,'' Olusegun Oke, vice-president of the Nigerian Academy of Science and former vice-chancellor of the University of Technology in Ogbomoso, told SciDev.Net.
Oke confirmed that a court case had been underway for three years and was currently pending in the High Court in Abuja. He said the 30-year-old Academy "was not coping with the legal costs".
Akin Jimoh of Development Communications Network, a media training and monitoring organisation based in Lagos, was critical of the fact that the Nigerian Ministry of Health has not yet acted against Abalaka, and that it took some time for the academy to investigate him.
''It took so long for the authorities to investigate that Abalaka had already won over public opinion in the media. It was a lost opportunity,'' said Jimoh.
He noted that Abalaka had also tried to sue Diran Onifade, the Nigerian broadcast executive who is vice-president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, on similar claims. Onifade says the case was dropped without explanation.
There are no HIV vaccines in use at present, although a number of trials are planned. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative has confirmed that Abalaka has no link with any known vaccine research teams.
Farouk Auwalu, the only surviving member of 30 Nigerian peacekeeping soldiers sent to Abalaka's clinic by the army for treatment, denied reports that Abalaka was overseas or had stopped offering the illegal vaccine.
A SciDev.Net reporter who travelled to the clinic confirmed in discussions with staff that the unauthorised vaccine is still being dispensed.
Ray Spier, editor of Vaccine, declined to comment on Abalaka continuing to provide an untested vaccine in exchange for cash or if he now regrets publishing the paper.At the time, Spier wrote an editorial saying Abalaka's study was published as a report and not as a peer-reviewed research paper, a distinction that Abalaka has not emphasised. Spier's editorial said "desperate situations call for desperate measures" and said it would be "churlish" to push aside "a mass of data".