Cancer cure claims in Colombia’s (pseudo) science ministry

. Feb 06, 2020
Cancer cure claims in Colombia's (pseudo) science ministry Photo: Danaan/Shutterstock

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We’re covering today the controversy around Colombia’s science minister – who claimed to have found a way to treat cancer. The brawls between Jair Bolsonaro and state governors. And the battle for control over the House.

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An unlikely cure for cancer straight from Colombia’s science minister

Mycologist Mabel Torres, the head of Colombia’s first science agency, claims to have created a fungal extract that can treat cancer.

She describes it as being “like tea” and says the brew led several people to enter into remission after a few months. The beverage is based on large, shell-like mushrooms used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat various ailments.</p> <p><strong>Not published. </strong>The controversy began after the local press dug up an interview in which Ms. Torres claims to have conducted what was essentially an uncontrolled, informal clinical trial. She said her decision not to publish the study was “an act of rebellion.”</p> <p><strong>Reaction.</strong> Ms. Torres’ claims were met with skepticism at best, and ridicule at worst. Experts pointed out she did not perform basic steps in scientific research, such as isolating the chemical compounds of her extract to study their effect on cancer cells or conducting animal trials. Following the outrage, the minister promised to publish the data she has kept secret for four years.</p> <p><strong>Mabel who?</strong> Mabel Torres’ nomination to head the science agency was heavily criticized in Colombia. She is little-known in academic circles, having only 21 peer-reviewed articles published.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Why it matters. </strong>The Colombian government created a Science, Technology, and Innovation Ministry on December 30, 2019, the first time the country has ever had such an agency. Colombia’s scientific community celebrated the move as a way to help researchers attract more funding to their studies. Only two months later, the very legitimacy of the ministry is being questioned.</p> <p><strong>Moving forward.</strong> Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez said Ms. Torres would not be fired. Botanist Enrique Forero, president of the Colombian Academy of Natural Sciences in Bogotá, told <em>Nature</em> that he fears the episode might <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00235-w?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&amp;utm_campaign=19947c7722-briefing-dy-20200205&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-19947c7722-44493497">embolden people peddling dubious or unproven medical treatments</a>.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Tax populism puts Bolsonaro at odds with governors</h2> <p>Since Sunday, President Jair Bolsonaro has been taunting state governors about fuel prices. Criticized by supporters for not lowering the price of gas—as he had promised during the campaign—Mr. Bolsonaro said any price adjustments aren&#8217;t making it to the pumps due to &#8220;excessive state taxes&#8221; that “hurt consumers.” Then, on Wednesday, the president promised to scrap all federal taxes on fuels if state governors did the same.</p> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> The promise has no way of becoming a reality. It would cost the federal government over BRL 27 billion per year, which it cannot afford. Moreover, state administrations are in dire financial straits and cannot give up any source of revenue.</p> <p><strong>So why do it?</strong> The president has proven to be impulsive at times, worrying more about short-term political gains than with the long-term implications of his actions on his governability. In this case, Mr. Bolsonaro is not only pandering to truckers—who typically form part of his support base—but is also trying to create a political pickle for state governors who may want to run against him in 2022, such as João Doria (São Paulo), Flávio Dino (Maranhão), and Wilson Witzel (Rio de Janeiro).</p> <p><strong>Problems ahead.</strong> Mr. Bolsonaro’s “tax populism” could further sour the president’s relationship with state administrations precisely at a moment when cooperation is needed. Congress enters 2020 with the mission of passing a <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/08/07/brazil-tax-reform-congress-2019/">tax reform</a>—with the mistrust of governors, such a proposal would be very hard to approve. States exert a great deal of influence in the Senate and they could make life exceedingly difficult for the government.</p> <p><strong>By the way … </strong>The government announced it plans to lift import taxes on natural gas-fueled trucks as a push for reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.</p> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1516360-72-can-brazil-approve-a-tax-reform-in-2019.js?player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Leadership roles in House committees to be hard-fought among parties</h2> <p>Within the next few weeks, political parties will fight for the right to nominate members to the permanent committees in the House of Representatives. The main struggle will be to decide who gets to pick the head of the Constitution and Justice Committee, through which every bill in the House must pass before going to a floor vote. The top job is currently coveted by at least four parties.</p> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> Committee chairs have significant agenda-setting powers in Congress, being able to speed up or delay legislation. They also have powers to summon cabinet members for hearings, being a tool to provide checks and balances to the federal administration.</p> <p><strong>2021. </strong>Committees can also be used as a bargaining chip in another race that will silently take place—the one for who will replace Rodrigo Maia as House Speaker once his term ends, early in 2021.</p> <p><strong>PSL.</strong> The Social Liberal Party, President Bolsonaro’s former party, will no longer control the Constitution and Justice Committee (as it did in 2019), and should instead control the Finances and Tax Committee. The party is also pushing for the Education Committee in order to shield embattled Education Minister Abraham Weintraub. On Wednesday, a group of senators and representatives filed an impeachment request against Mr. Weintraub, claiming he does not have the competence—or the decorum—to perform his duties.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What else you need to know today</h2> <p><strong>Interests. </strong>The Central Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee has once again lowered Brazil’s benchmark interest rate, this time from 4.5 to 4.25 percent. The move was widely expected, and the bank informed in a statement that additional cuts are unlikely to happen in the near future, unless there is a “radical change in the economic and inflation outlook.” Analysts believe the rate will remain at 4.25 percent throughout the year and will only be raised again in 2021.</p> <p><strong>Petrobras. </strong>The National Development Bank (BNDES) raised BRL 22 billion with the sale of shares in state-owned oil company Petrobras, part of the bank’s effort to rid itself of its <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/01/20/hollywood-prison-break-raises-security-brazilian-border/">minority stock in several public and private companies</a>. With the deal, however, the government has just over 50 percent of shares with voting power, leaving it little room to sell additional stock without <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/01/24/bolsonaro-moro-clash-inevitable-coronavirus-petrobras/">losing its status as the undisputed controller</a>.</p> <p><strong>Agribusiness 1.</strong> Brazil’s 2019–2020 soybean harvest is set to grow 3 percent from the previous cycle, reaching 112.9 million tons. Productivity levels, however, should go slightly down, at 3.3 tons per hectare.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Agribusiness 2.</strong> According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brazil has become the world’s leading corn exporter, having shipped 42.7 million tons of the product in 2019. This is yet another agricultural market in which Brazil takes the lead, in addition to coffee, soybeans, beef, poultry, sugar, and orange juice.</p> <p><strong>Gaffe.</strong> The official Instagram account of Embratur, Brazil’s tourism promotion agency, <a href="https://twitter.com/BrazilianReport/status/1225119897493045249">shared a post</a> in which a Brazilian tourist denounces a robbery in Rio, recommending that people not visit the city. Rio’s state tourism office said the police were investigating a possible hacker attack, but moments later Embratur owned up to the mistake, saying the employee responsible for the gaffe had been suspended.</p> <p><strong>Coronavirus.</strong> The Senate quickly approved the government’s bill to regulate quarantine processes amid the coronavirus outbreak, which is yet to reach Brazil. Congress made one change from the original text: adding that the measures will only be valid while the World Health Organization considers the coronavirus a “global emergency.”</p> <p><strong>Sinophobia.</strong> After the coronavirus outbreak, Brazil—like many countries—is experiencing a surge in racist demonstrations against Chinese communities. A building in one of São Paulo’s financial centers which houses a Chinese company determined that all people from the Asian country, which is the epicenter of the outbreak, should wear masks on its premises and use a separate elevator. The signs were taken down after sparking outrage on social media.

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