Magazine article New Internationalist

Manuel Patarroyo. Richard Swift Chats with a Third World Research Scientist Who Has Discovered a New Malaria Vaccine and Wants to Make Sure the Benefits of His Research Reach Those People Who Need It Most

Magazine article New Internationalist

Manuel Patarroyo. Richard Swift Chats with a Third World Research Scientist Who Has Discovered a New Malaria Vaccine and Wants to Make Sure the Benefits of His Research Reach Those People Who Need It Most

Article excerpt

CONFIDENCE IN THE BENEFICIAL EFFECTS of science is hard to come by these days. That is why Manuel Patarroyo is so refreshing. The Colombian research scientist's conversation is peppered with phrases like 'it's perfectly understandable' and 'it's very straightforward' as he tries to explain things that seem anything but.

He has a disarmingly casual style when dealing with complex questions of scientific method. But this style has a harder edge when he talks about the power of the Northern scientific establishment. Patarroyo claims that his work and the efforts of his Third World colleagues are often treated with a condescension bordering on racism by Northern scientists. He points out that it took his Bogota laboratory four years to develop the world's first safe and effective malaria vaccine, but six years to have it recognized. And while controversy lingers on there is now an increasing recognition that his new vaccine (the first against a parasite) could save over a million lives a year.

His explanation of the discovery seems simple enough: 'All previous vaccines [for other diseases] have been biological products. We tackled the problem in a completely different manner. We identified the molecules of the microbe or the parasite and reproduced in the chemical laboratory the same chemical structure the microbe produces in order to survive. This is what we inject. The body makes a defense against this natural structure and when the microbe arrive the body's defenses are already well-armed. That's the malaria vaccine.'

A typically clear explanation. But there is one problem. 'During the last 25 years,' says Patarroyo, 'pharmaceutical companies have invested, unsuccessfully, at least $500 million in trying to develop a malaria vaccine.' It's this heavy investment, he believes, that has fuelled the scepticism and often outright hostility that has greeted his discovery.

Most of my detractors are people who get support from the pharmaceutical companies and the Western scientific establishment. Once you realize who your critics are and who is behind them then things begin to fall into place.'

So far tests appear to support Patarroyo's discovery: 'The vaccine has been proven effective between 31 and 60 per cent of the time to people over one year old. This means that with only 31 per cent effectiveness you could protect 100 million people from malaria. …

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