Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

Has tenderpreneurship spirit swallowed the space of scientific innovation?

By Opinion Time of article published May 31, 2021

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Pali Lehohla

PROFESSOR Leonhard Mehlber, a renowned neurosurgeon, is no more. I had the privilege of meeting him only once on a Zoom platform last month where we agreed on a face-to-face meeting shortly. Sadly, that will now no longer happen.

The surprise meeting came about through Thami Mtshali, a chemical engineer by profession and director of Galela, where for the past five years Mehlber was a member of the scientific research team. Mtshali has been in the media on how Covid-19 can be fought using the immune system boosting Galela oil.

On April 12, the Broad Pool of Ideas WhatsApp group ended up discussing planning deficits in South Africa. This was triggered by my article on the subject. At issue was the serious gap in creating scenarios and modelling public policy especially economic policy models. This led to a broad question to me on the platform from Mtshali on modelling of Covid-19.

I replied to the question that I am not for the modelling of the disease itself, but from the work that we are immersed in at Indlulamithi South Africa 2030 Scenarios, the econometric techniques of the Applied Development Research Solutions, which has modelled the impacts of a mild and severe scenarios in the economy. The discussions then drifted into a request for a meeting where Mehlber joined in.

We covered broad fields including my interaction with Professor Peter Seeberger, director of Max-Planck Institute on the Madagascar Covid-Organics. The meeting revealed a lot to me about Mehlber. His immersion in science to deliver better health outcomes was immeasurable.

In a self-deprecating and unassuming style Mehlber said in science there was no room for miracles, we must seek and strive to know and understand and thus be able to explain everything. This was a retort on the claim that Galela was a miracle medicine for Covid-19. We spent a bit of time on statistics.

Mehlber was very charming. He said how pleased he was that he finally met the man who was at the helm of this institution that produced excellent statistics. To this end he said over the past ten years he had been following attentively and using statistics from Statistics SA, especially one of those on the causes of death. He said that time-series data was helpful in their scientific research at Galela. It enabled them to secure insights into the health and medical condition of South Africans.

On January 20 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Council tested Galela and issued the following three conclusions.

“1. The sample contains CBD, THC and CBC cannabinoid components at small concentrations, 2. The sample contains lipid components typically found of plant oils and 3. There is no evidence for the presence of hazardous compounds in the oil.”

On May 7, the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) issued a certificate of registration of Galela Immune Booster.

I have recently listened to people surviving this third wave on the back of Galela. Against these testimonies are scientific explanations by the now late lead scientific researcher Mehlber on how Galela works.

Similarly following the prescripts of science is Dr Emmanuel Taban, the first person on earth to apply flexible fibreoptic bronchoscopy to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients.

Almost half a century ago, Chris Barnard gave Louis Washkansky a chance to live 13 more days by the first heart transplant. This novel treatment placed apartheid South Africa in polar position in heart transplant treatment. How much more could democratic South Africa currently go with the science jewels of our times who are saving many more lives in the midst of a pandemic?

The story of Neo on Friday evening was too telling. Having tested Covid-19 positive and by Friday morning, May 28 after 14 days in isolation her condition had deteriorated rapidly. She was preparing her will and writing out where everything was for her mother to find after she departed this world. Little did she know that within two hours of being delivered Galela, she would regain her precious life.

The Friday evening conference call between Mtshali and I with her lasted almost two hours. She was unstoppable, too happy but also too scared that Galela could perform such a miracle. More importantly she was lost for words because Mtshali put her life first. As Mahlber insists, in science there is no room for miracles, we must seek and strive to know and understand and thus be able to explain everything.

Now I have to ask myself how the apartheid system of science and innovation embraced the science of an entrepreneurial state that Mariana Mazzucato talks about, yet our democratic state finds this difficult to embrace. Has the tenderpreneurship spirit swallowed the space of scientific innovation?

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @Palilj01

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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