Then along came Vichai Jirathitikal's little pink pills. Branded V-1 Immunitor and distributed free of cost—for now, anyway—the new wonder medicine is raising patients' hopes and inspiring reveries of recovery. For one thing, it was invented by a bona fide pharmacist—never mind that his scientific expertise was with prawns and not people. For another, dozens of his patients are eager and willing to vouch for Vichai's miracle.
So far, few in the medical profession have done likewise. Some of Vichai's critics question the science behind the pills. Others question the company he keeps: his principal backer is Salang Bunnag, an ex-police general who was forced to resign from the force in 1998 after members of a drug gang that publicly surrendered tohim were taken off and, minutes later, shot dead. Vichai says Salang believed in his cure when the medical establishment ignored him.
But the pharmacist appears reluctant to reveal the active ingredients of his new drug. All he says is that it contains magnesium, calcium and "non-living chemical matter." He claims the active ingredient is similar in molecular structure to the HIV virus and teaches antibodies the secret to fighting the real virus. Aldar Bourinbaiar, an American scientist who is connected to Salang's foundation, claims that within 15 days many patients start putting on weight and their sores begin to heal; over six months the viral load drops and the CD-8 interceptor cells, which protect the body's immune system, start rallying. "We know the drug replaces infected cells with healthy ones, but we'll probably spend the next 10 years figuring out why it works," Bourinbaiar says.
So far, Vichai has doled out V-1 free of charge to more than 20,000 people. Hanging out at the clinic, there are a dozen volunteers doing odd jobs who claim that V-1 saved their lives. "I was brought here wrapped in sheets because my sores were bleeding so bad," says Konokpal, 38. "My family had booked a temple for my funeral rites. Now I can run, catch buses—I feel like I can fly." Skeptics question such testimonies. Senator Jon Ungphakorn, an AIDS campaigner, alleges that a number of people who took V-1 over the past year have died from the disease, and their cases have not been explained by Vichai's team.
This spring, the Ministry of Public Health asked Vichai to let scientists study nine V-1 patients over six months. But after three months, Vichai claimed that the patients had all wandered off and could not be traced. The health authorities stopped the tests in mid-June. Their verdict: inconclusive. That hasn't deterred the pharmacist and the ex-police chief, however. On June 2, Salang organized a free handout of V-1 at a Bangkok soccer stadium. It was a spectacle right out of a medieval plague tableau: hollow-eyed and ravaged by the disease, more than 4,000 AIDS sufferers limped onto the field or were carried on stretchers to receive a week's supply. For two patients, the dose came too late. Exhausted from negotiating through the shoving crowd and from the suffocating heat, they died at the stadium. There are millions of AIDS victims around the world who are willing to try anything to stave off that fate—and pay for it, too. But until the Thai government conducts thorough tests, nobody will know for sure what's the value, if any, of Vichai's little pink pills.