(MENAFN- The Post) ROMA – FIVE scientists working on a drug that could potentially cure Covid-19 are locked in a bitter fight that has stalled the project.
The National University of Lesotho (NUL) scientists are fighting over potential earnings if the drug is approved. Central to the dispute is how much each of the academics contributed to the research and how their contribution translates into shareholding in the company under which the project was started.
The group is now splintered, amid allegations of greed, conflict of interest and squabbles over the weight of the intellectual contribution of each member of the team.
Oriel Hlokoane, a medicinal chemist, left the group just as the dispute was starting.
This left Dr Lerato Seleteng-Kose (Botanist), Professor Mosotho George (Analytical Chemist), Dr Liteboho Maduna (Medical Microbiologist), and Motiki Beleme (Chemical Technologist).
The four are now in an intense fight over who contributed what to the research that started in January 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was gripping the world.
Although tensions have been simmering since mid-2020 matters appear to have come to a head after the concoction was tested by the NUL's pharmacy department and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa.
The results, according to the CSIR report seen by thepost, showed that the concoction had shown some potential to work against Covid-19.
The report said the samples“were active against the two coronaviruses tested and did not show toxicity in vitro”.
“We would recommend that those extracts be tested in animals before human clinical trials,” the report said.
Put simply, the results showed that the concoction had the potential to cure Covid-19 but more trials were needed to prove its safety and efficacy.
It is that CSIR report showing the potential of the drug that seems to be the main source of the squabbles that have rocked the team.
Yet, even before those results, the team was already fighting over the ownership of the project.
By December 2020 the fight had attracted the attention of Professor Kananelo Mosito, the then acting Vice-Chancellor, who suggested that they meet to resolve their differences.
thepost has seen the minutes of the meeting held on December 10, 2020, at Prof Mosito's instructions.
Present were Dr Seleteng-Kose, Prof George and Dr Maduna while Beleme joined telephonically.
The minutes show that the group had been working informally since January 2020 and there were no minutes of their discussions.
They show that Dr Seleteng-Kose, who chaired the meeting, narrated the background of the project.
“This was narrated because there was never a clear briefing when different members joined at different stages of the project,” the minutes said.
“In addition, there were no minutes taken during the different meetings held previously.”
“Therefore, it became apparent that a lot of mistakes and assumptions have been made, as a result, the current meeting was taken as a formal setting to clear misunderstandings and map the way forward.”
The minutes also show that after a lengthy discussion the meeting made five resolutions.
The first was that the project, known as the Covid-19 Medicinal Plants Project, would be managed by Optimum Med (Pty) Ltd, which is a company registered under the NUL Innovation Hub.
Optimum Med is jointly owned by Beleme and Dr Seleteng-Kose.
The meeting then turned to the agenda, which was the contribution to the project and the shareholding in the company.
The minutes show that there was an agreement to recognise the contribution of Prof George and Dr Maduna“in the production of the Covid-19 medicinal product (registered under World Health Organisation as Opticov), and will be given shareholding in the Project”.
“However, the shares are yet to be discussed and agreed upon before discussing the way forward. Mr Beleme was requested to make a proposal in this regard and tabulate it before the rest of the team for deliberations as soon as possible.”
The third resolution was that Dr Thimothy Thamae, Hlokoane and other people who contributed to the Project, as well as those who will contribute in future, will be rewarded accordingly.
“Similarly, investors are likely to join the project and want a share depending on their contribution. Consequently, this may end up diluting the shares of the individual shareholders,” the minutes said.
Other recommendations were that Prof George would draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with input from the team and that the rest of the issues would be discussed once members had agreed on the shareholding and signed the MoU.
That meeting was supposed to resolve the dispute but events that followed proved otherwise.
The animosity played out in another meeting held on April 16, 2016.
Chairing the meeting was Dr Thamae, the coordinator of the university's Research and Innovations Committee.
Beleme joined telephonically again.
According to the minutes, Dr Thamae told the meeting that he had been instructed by Prof Mosito to“facilitate negotiations regarding the conclusion of the shareholding agreement for commercialisation” of the Covid-19 remedy“which had successfully passed the initial laboratory tests”.
Dr Thamae said their negotiation on the shareholding agreement should be guided by the university's Intellectual Property Policy.
The policy states that“in any case of a commercialisable product, if the creators were unable to come to an agreement in terms of relative shareholdings, all parties claiming to be creators would be allocated equal shares”.
He said since the question of whether they were all creators or not was settled during the December 2020 meeting,“the team was advised to do all in its power to come to an agreement”.
Matters however appear to have degenerated from that point, with Beleme disputing the contribution of Dr Maduna and Prof George.
“Dr Seleteng-Kose indicated what transpired in the meetings that Mr Beleme is the one who came up with formulation, and also she was given the four samples which were taken to Mr Hlokoane at the NUL Pharmacy Department for toxicity and microbial analysis,” the minutes said.
“She also indicated that in the former meeting Mr Hlokoane agreed to have received the samples which he was told were coming from Mr Beleme”.
“Mr Beleme indicated that he no longer wanted to be part of the people who claim his product theirs and also he did not trust some of those people for reasons that had been discussed in a number of previous meetings and also because he said he is the creator of the Covid-19 remedy not anyone else who is claiming to be creators.”
“Therefore, he cannot work with people who claim they have developed or created Covid-19 remedy but which is not true. Hence was withdrawing from working with Ntate Maduna and Ntate George who claim to have contributed to the development of the product without evidence of their contribution with immediate effect.”
Beleme also said he was withdrawing his samples because none of the members had contributed to its development.
Dr Thamae then asked Dr Seleteng-Kose's views about the distribution of the shares.
Dr Seleteng-Kose said she too was withdrawing because Dr Maduna and Prof George were claiming“what is not theirs but Mr Beleme's Covid-19 remedy product”.
She also claimed that some members of the team were harassing her.
She then left the meeting, leaving Dr Maduna and Prof George who told Dr Thamae they wanted to continue with the project“because Covid-19 was the largest public health threat, and its treatment was an urgent public health priority”.
“In light of the developments, and based on the fact that the main reason was for the negotiations to be between the four parties, the chair encouraged the two remaining members to deliberate on the shareholding on their own as they did not seem to have any dispute between them that would warrant an outside intervention,” the minutes said.
Beleme, who works for a local pharmaceutical company, told thepost this week that neither Prof George nor Dr Maduna contributed to the project.
He says only Dr Seleteng-Kose was a legitimate partner in the project.
“The other two contributed nothing and should not be claiming to be part of the project,” says Beleme, who also claims to be a traditional healer.
“The truth is that this is not their work and we don't need them. If they say they contributed they should bring the evidence of their work”.
Beleme says he is the one who mixed the four plant samples that were first tested by the pharmacy department at NUL and CSIR. Two were for respiratory ailments and two for Covid-19.
Beleme says it was only after the CSIR report that Prof George and Dr Maduna“started getting very interested in being part of the project”.
He says before that he had always insisted that the two had not contributed to the research.
“I suspected something was not right when I saw them being mentioned as part of the research team working on the project under NUL's Innovation Hub,” he says, adding that he immediately asked Dr Seleteng-Kose about their involvement.
“She (Dr Seleteng-Kose) said she had brought them in because she thought we would need their expertise later in the research. I didn't agree and I said so in the subsequent meetings we had as a group,” he says.
Dr Seleteng-Kose said when the Innovation Hub invited her to a photoshoot with some of the team members, she didn't know that it would give them the impression that they were part of the project.
She said the problem is with people who“lack understanding regarding where, how and when we (myself and Beleme) started the project, and to know when one's expertise becomes relevant in the whole process”.
“In addition, there is currently a conflict of interest, particularly because some of the people that we anticipated to incorporate in our project are also involved in a parallel Covid-19 project which is being facilitated by the Department of Science, under the Ministry of Communications,” Dr Seleteng-Kose said.
“This does not derail me, even though it poses a threat to my safety as a woman being fought by men.”
She said university authorities had tried to intervene but to no avail.
“I have also declared publicly that I cannot work with such people at all going forward, particularly looking at how they behave even before being directly involved in the project.”
Dr Seleteng-Kose said she was unaware that there were problems until May 2020 when different scientists from NUL were given a platform at the National Covid-19 Command Centre to present their strategies in the fight against Covid-19.
“One of them sabotaged my presentation. Thereafter, things became worse until today,” she said, without mentioning names.
“We will go our separate ways and each should focus on their own projects.”
Dr Seleteng-Kose said she and Beleme had financed the project since inception.
“These include payment for toxicity tests at Pharmacy Department of NUL (M6 420) and CSIR tests (R100 000), as well as production costs.”
“It is only recently that potential investors have started coming forward, and finally there is light at the end of the dark tunnel.”
“Fights are only observed in external forces that have no stake in the product, but are only ambitious to claim what does not belong to them only because they see that something good might result from this initiative.”
Dr Maduna said the project belongs to the NUL, the government of Lesotho and South Africa as bilateral partners.
“If I can claim it is mine, I would be deceiving you,” Dr Maduna said.
“We will follow up this person defaming our names.”
Prof George said he is not comfortable discussing the issues.
“It's now up to the university to deal with it because I don't really know where the squabbles came from,” Prof George said.
Hlokoane said he pulled out of the project when there was a discussion about what each team member had contributed to the research.
“I realised that there was an indication that I was among those who had contributed the least, so I decided to withdraw,” Hlokoane said.
“My interest from the onset was the research side of the project. I was not thinking about the commercial side.”
Lefa Thamae, the Director of Science and Technology at the Ministry of Communications said Dr Seleteng-Kose was chosen by the members to lead the project.
“Unfortunately, she withheld the information and they got angry. I suspect that's where the problem arose,” Thamae said.
Thamae confirmed that“indeed there is a serious problem”.
“The issue is being dealt with by the Ministries of Health, Education, the university as well as the Science and Technology Department.”
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