The route to T.A. Majeed’s house in Kerala, in the coastal region of southern India, takes you past a ramshackle assortment of fruit stalls, tea stands and billboards shouting the latest cell phone offers. As the potholed road bends toward his home, half-developed land plots appear like scars on the landscape. And then, suddenly, a blinding marble palace arises, shimmering amid the hot, damp air. The name of Majeed’s estate is set in brass on the polished black plaque on a driveway gate. In loud, 5-inch letters, it reads: VIRUS.
The house has rosewood walls and teak details. The 11 bedrooms sprawl over three floors. The Kashmiri silk carpets are exquisite. The pool, steam room, game room and home movie theater could belong to any three-car-garage mansion in Bethesda or Brentwood. At the top of Majeed’s grand staircase, a 50-square-foot marble mural inlaid with semiprecious stones spells out religious benedictions. Majeed paid the craftsmen who maintain the Taj Mahal to work on the mural for one year; the house took three to complete.
So why is Majeed, 69, so sad? He rubs his eyes under his bifocals and sighs.
“Nobody wants a medicine for AIDS,” he says. “For 14 years, I’ve been fighting a lone battle.” Since 1993, Majeed has pushed for the right to sell Immuno-QR, his self-proclaimed cure for AIDS. And now the Indian courts have stopped him, at least temporarily. Overweight, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair, Majeed leans quietly into his custom-made furniture. “I’m not frustrated.” Majeed pauses for dramatic effect, his grandchildren (he has seven) squealing in the background. “I’m really sad.”
“It’s not the money,” he adds. “Frankly, people are dying. AIDS is a terrible death. They choke to death on their own coughing,” he says. “An AIDS patient never smiles.”
Majeed says he has treated—and cured—more than 160,000 patients since 1993. Yet when pressed to produce one, he demurs. Majeed’s assertion is a curious claim for a mining engineer with no medical background. Defending himself, Majeed asks: “Can I fool that many people? If I fool that many people, I should get the Nobel Prize for cheating.”
Indeed, Majeed is famous. In clinics from his home state of Kerala to Chennai, on the opposite side of southern India, and to New Delhi and Amritsar in the north, patients and health workers alike know of “Majeed medicine” or ”Kerala medicine.”
Part of his success springs from a widespread faith in the ancient tradition of Ayurvedic, or indigenous Indian, medicines. Majeed likes to tell a story about how his younger sister was cured of polio by an Ayurvedic doctor when all the Western doctors had given up hope. But health officials are quick to point out the difference between proven forms of indigenous treatments and the offerings of people like Majeed, who lays claim to a cure for AIDS (“It kills the virus within three days, undoubtably,” he says) in either pill or syrup form.
“[Ayurvedic] medicine has been used in India for thousands of years,” says Dr. Suniti Solomon, the director of YRG CARE, India’s largest private clinic treating AIDS patients. “But I object to these fellows coming and saying I have a cure for AIDS.” YRG CARE conducts long-term studies on optimal drug treatment regimens in conjunction with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Brown University.
Dr. Tokugha Yepthomi, an HIV/AIDS clinician and research associate at YRG CARE, says at least 50 percent of the 9,000 patients the clinic sees have been exposed to different kinds of indigenous medicine before coming to the clinic, usually when the disease is in its advanced stages.
“There is no scientific data at all,” Dr. Solomon says of the various Ayurvedic and other such approaches to HIV. “[The practitioners] don’t want to reveal what is inside their powders. We want to do studies; and they say that if we give you the names, you will prepare it yourself and make money out of it.”
Majeed says his Immuno-QR compound contains 23 different herbs, and while he is terse in describing how he discovered the exact formulation (“it was given by God”), he can and will speak for hours about what he contends is the combined, coordinated effort of multinational corporations, the World Health Organization, the Indian government and private physicians to thwart his enterprise.
“People are only talking about vaccination, and they don’t want a medicine that can kill the virus,” Majeed says. “The medical world has become a thriving industry.”
India is home to the world’s largest population of HIV-positive people, numbering around 5.7 million (a distinction long held by South Africa until last year). Of those Indians, around 800,000 have developed AIDS and require daily drug therapy to fend off tuberculosis and other deadly diseases that prey upon their weak immune systems. About 80 percent of the population still live on less than US$2 a day. Between that poverty and the stigma of AIDS, many people would rather hand over all their earnings to Majeed—or one of many other similar cure merchants—than begin a lifelong regimen of more expensive antiretrovirals. (Immuo-QR sells for anywhere from US$200 to US$300 for the entire 100-day maintenance treatment.)
Rail-thin Laxman, 39, shivers under a blanket in New Delhi’s massive, labyrinthine, foul-smelling top teaching hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. After doctors in the district hospital in his home state of Bihar told him that they lacked the AIDS drugs to help him, Laxman traveled 1,000 kilo-meters to New Delhi in a third-class train, sleeping overnight on its rickety wooden benches. There is not a single government AIDS clinic in Bihar, so once a month, he will have to make this journey to receive antiretroviral drug therapy. Such desperation feeds the market for people like Majeed.
But on January 3 of this year, India’s Supreme Court issued a decree—without holding a hearing—halting distribution of Immuno-QR. The ruling overturned the regional court in his home state of Kerala, which has been more favorable to his practice over the years. The Kerala court had even set aside the license suspensions issued by the state’s drug controller’s office.
Majeed first gained his license to manu-facture Immuno-QR—as a general health booster, not an AIDS cure—in 1993. Three years later, when the drug became a sensation, he issued a press release saying that it also offered a cure for HIV. In 1997, the drug controller of Kerala suspended his license. Majeed appealed, and in 1998, the government of Kerala said it would reconsider the matter after a committee it appointed conducted clinical trials on Immuno-QR. But the committee never got a chance to investigate the substance at all: Majeed was slow to supply a product sample. That delay, coupled with the snail-like Indian court system, allowed Majeed to work openly and successfully until just recently.
In 2000, a legal aid group in India, Lawyers Collective, together with a network of HIV-positive people in Mumbai, filed a petition in the Mumbai high court that resulted in Majeed’s being barred from advertising a cure for AIDS. “It is high time the Indian government get its act together on this,” says Anand Grover, the head of Lawyers Collective in Mumbai, who has been spearheading the effort to permanently revoke Majeed’s operating license.
The Supreme Court decision in January forced Majeed to stop manufacturing, marketing, selling and distributing Immuno-QR, but allowed him to continue selling other remedies. It also ordered the Kerala High Court to hear the case against Majeed, supposedly within three months. But as of early June, no hearing had occurred. Lawyers working on the case now expect one, and then a final judgment, by late summer.
Among the dozen-odd patients I spoke to across India who had once taken Majeed’s medicine but were now on government-supplied antiretroviral drugs (all claim to be feeling much better), none expressed a strong desire to pursue legal action against Majeed, wishing to hide their status.
Meanwhile, questionable AIDS remedies “are mushrooming all over India,” says Vineeta Gupta, director of the Stop HIV/AIDS in India Initiative in Washington, DC, which provided medical services in India’s cities and countryside for 15 years. “In rural as well as urban areas,” Gupta says, “lack of affordable and efficient state-run health care structures results in these [remedies] being the only option for people in low socioeconomic strata. No political party wants to mess up with them, for fear of having an effect on their votes.”
When the Indian government began opening free antiretroviral centers in 2004, it projected that patient enrollment would exceed 100,000 by early 2006. A year and a half later, those centers are barely serving half that number, despite no shortage of functionaries or funding.
Dr. Rakesh Bharti operates a clinic in northern India, near the border of Pakistan, which follows about 400 families with at least one HIV-infected member. The clinic raised the issue of Majeed at a conference with India’s health minister in Bangkok, but no further action was taken. “In countries like India,” Bharti says, “where you can get any medicine over the counter and where prescriptions carry no weight, anything that can be imagined can be practiced.”
Consider the G.P. Institute, in Hyderabad, India’s sixth largest city and a hub for its booming information technology industry. Medical officials there (with bona fide medical licenses) said that for $6,000, they would give me a cure for the virus. The cure is sold on a sliding scale; Western patients get charged more. One G.P.
clinician, Dr. P.S.V. Satyanarayana, says the institute distills its cure from many herbs and then extracts from them a very small amount of chemicals. He spreads his arms wide and then brings his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart to illustrate the difference.
Dr. Satyanarayana, decked in gold-rimmed glasses, gold necklaces and rings, further elaborates by performing an abdominal exam on me, poking me four times around my navel. He says that if I were HIV positive (I am not), I would likely experience some pain during such an examination.
But after taking his magnificent medicine, the doctor promises, I would not feel any discomfort at all.