NAIROBI, KENYA, JULY 27 -- The Kenyan government today officially began to market and mass produce a controversial new prescription drug here that its producers say is successful in alleviating some of the effects of AIDS, a usually fatal disease rapidly becoming the greatest scourge of sub-Saharan Africa.
The product, called Kemron, is a dosage of alpha interferon, a drug developed in the United States and used for some infectious diseases. Kemron was produced over the last year by scientists from Kenya's medical research institute working with private biomedical researchers from the United States and Japan.
The drug has triggered great interest among physicians, government officials and the public in East Africa, but it has prompted criticism from scientists and skeptics in other countries who claim it is overrated and has not been tested in a properly controlled trial.
Earlier reports from Kenya about Kemron have met with great skepticism. One reason is that the doses of alpha interferon -- the principal ingredient -- are implausibly small, thousands of times less than amounts needed to be effective against any of the other, less virulent diseases it is used to treat, such as genital warts or hairy cell leukemia.
Perhaps most critically, the testing of Kemron has not included a control group, which, scientists said, has made it impossible to determine whether improvement in the condition of patients who have taken Kemron was due to the drug or to some other factor.
The World Health Organization is funding and overseeing testing of Kemron in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Zaire and Congo, nations heavily hit by the spread of AIDS. No conclusive results from the current round of tests are yet available.
According to the World Health Organization, Africa suffers the most severe AIDS problem of any region in the world, primarily because of the severe lack of medical and educational resources to contend with the rapidly growing number of cases.
Some estimates of Africa's present population infected by the virus range as high as 10 million, more than 2 percent of all Africans. The greatest number of cases is in Africa's urban areas, where estimates of those infected range as high as 40 percent.
Kemron, whose distribution will be tightly controlled by the Kenyan government, was officially unveiled by President Daniel arap Moi at a downtown ceremony that seemed to combine elements of a medical school lecture and a patriotic rally.
Choirs sang praises to Kenyan ingenuity, doctors spoke of white blood cell counts and politicians scolded skeptical Westerners for disbelieving Africa's ability to confront and solve difficult scientific problems.
Dr. Davy Koech, the Kenyan researcher who supervised the drug's development, protested the "outright skepticism, disbelief, suspicion and rejection" with which the announcement of Kemron's creation was greeted in the West several months ago. Koech compared the skepticism to that which met Galileo's theory that the planets revolve around the sun and Edward Jenner's development of the smallpox vaccine.
For his part, Moi used the occasion to warn the West to stop spending time criticizing the governments of Africa and to "start attacking our terrible diseases." The reference was to recent protests raised in Europe and the United States over Moi's bloody crackdown earlier this month on opponents of one-party rule here.
Named after KEMRI, the initials of the government-funded research institute, Kemron contains alpha interferons, the compounds produced by the immune system to help fight infections.
When taken orally in lozenge form, the drug is said to help fight the collapse of the body's natural immunity system and to counter the wasting effects of the AIDS virus. While makers of the drug caution that Kemron is not a cure for AIDS and merely one of many other drugs developed recently to combat the disease, they claim that Kemron produced remarkable recoveries in a majority of the 101 people with AIDS tested over a six-month period.
But in April, a long report on the Kemron tests in the San Francisco-based AIDS Treatment News raised serious questions about the tests' design.
For example, although all of the 40 Kenyan patients in one of the Kemron tests were HIV-infected, most were in the earliest stages of the virus and could not yet be expected to show AIDS symptoms. In those patients the symptoms that the drug allegedly corrected -- fever, appetite loss and rashes -- are suspected by some experts to be the result of no more than passing infections that would have cleared up on their own.
Those corrections might explain the dramatic improvement in immune system function attributed to Kemron. The passing infections might temporarily have depressed the T-cell counts that are a measure of the immune system.
The most controversial of Kenya's claims about Kemron is that 10 percent of the patients tested negative for the antibody associated with the AIDS virus after using the drug.
Other scientists in the United States and Europe, however, have said that negative results could be explained by the fact that positive results are often false in Africa because the presence of other diseases, such as malaria, can affect the test's outcome.
Nevertheless, the drug seems to have inspired excitement in Kenya if not other countries. In a population that reported more than 6,000 new AIDS cases during the past year, the mere showing by Kenyan officials of empty boxes in which the drug will be marketed prompted a wild stampede by onlookers at today's ceremony anxious to touch them.
Staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in Washington contributed to this report.