Gervan Lubbe: the fraudster who promoted pseudo-science and the media that believed him
Published: April 10, 2012, 7 a.m., Last updated: April 9, 2012, 11:12 p.m.
Controversial 'inventor' Gervan Lubbe was recently imprisoned for 20 years for defrauding investors of millions of rands. Had investors and the media been more scheptical of Lubbe’s pseudo-scientific claims, things might not have gone so far.
On 22 March Gervan Lubbe was sentenced to an effective 20 years in prison in the Port Elizabeth Commercial Crimes Court. Lubbe had been found guilty on 19 counts of fraud amounting to R21m. Lubbe had made headlines in the 90s as the ‘inventor’ of a pain management system called APS (Action Potential Simulation). Despite the lack of evidence that the APS device actually works as advertised, Lubbe received positive coverage on the television series Carte Blanche and the Daily Mail in the UK, among others.
More recently, Lubbe claimed to have developed a malaria monitoring device and that he had written an autobiography that was sure to be a best-seller.
The Weekend Post describe the scam as follows:
Lubbe’s scheme involved selling shares in his company by convincing investors and directors he would publish a tell-all autobiography titled Full Disclosure, produce the groundbreaking malaria-detecting watch and launch an upgraded version of his award-winning APS pain management device. Neither the book nor the products ever materialised and Lubbe was accused of using investment capital as his "own personal piggy bank".
What makes this scam particularly interesting is that the deception was partly built on easily debunked pseudo-science that at least some media believed and promoted unquestioningly.
Malaria monitor debunked
Things began unravelling for Lubbe in 2006 when Elsabe Brits of Die Burger started asking some tough questions about his malaria monitor. Not long after, in 2007, Lubbe was taken to court by the directors of his own company. It would take five years for the fraud case to be ruled on.
The malaria monitor was supposed to be a wrist watch-like device that pricked the skin four times a day and then automatically tested the blood for the malaria parasite. The websites NaturalNews.com and treehugger.com still carry incredulous pieces on the monitor, as do many others.
According to Lubbe, the malaria monitor had been tested at the University of Pretoria. However, Brits checked with the University of Pretoria and found that they had not and were not conducting research on the malaria monitor. She also spoke to malaria experts who explained that the proposed mechanism by which the monitor diagnosed malaria was implausible. Gervan also claimed, falsely, to have secured large orders for the device.
However, even with Lubbe's malaria monitor shown up as mumbo-jumbo, the question of his earlier ‘discovery’, the APS machine remains. The myth seems to persist that the machine was an important medical breakthrough.
The over-hyped APS machine
Whereas there is undoubtedly a fascinating story to tell about Lubbe’s rise to prominence in the 90s on the back of his APS machine, details of it on the internet are sketchy. There is a Carte Blanche transcript from 2007 that refers back to another Carte Blanche episode in 1997. It seems the 1997 episode was rather uncritical: "Lubbe astounded even scientists and medical experts. The accolades poured in." The 2007 episode was much better.
The APS machine is still being actively marketed on sites such as APSTherapy.co.za and if you google "Gervan Lubbe" you get scores of uncritical references to him as an "acclaimed inventor". However, it is hard to find any evidence that Lubbe actually "astounded scientists". Much is made of a gold medal he won at an invention show in Geneva and recognition from the Pretoria Afrikaans chamber of commerce, but none of this makes for meaningful scientific recognition.
Much is also made of the fact that the APS was cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration in terms of their 510(k) process. 510(k) is a form of medical device clearance that thousands of devices qualify for and is not the same as FDA approval, which sets a higher threshold for proving efficacy. Even so, marketing materials for the APS overstated the efficacy and underplayed the contraindications allowed under the FDA's 510(k) clearance. The FDA wrote a warning letter to the APS’s representative in the US insisting that they stop making unapproved claims.
I searched for both Gervan Lubbe and "action potential simulation" in the Public Library of Medicine, the main medical database of most peer-reviewed medical research. I found only one small study on the APS. It found the device to be of no value in the treatment of pain in people with fibromyalgia syndrome.
As with Patrick Holford, it seems Lubbe’s rise to prominence had more to do with business acumen and charm than with actually improving people’s health. Had the media and Lubbe’s investors been a bit more sceptical of his APS device and later his malaria monitor, much of the harm done by his fraudulent behaviour might have been prevented.
Also see this Afrikaans article about Lubbe that was recently published in the newspaper Rapport.
Comments in chronological order (1 comment)
Marine Pina Urrútia wrote on 20 April 2012 at 12:43 p.m.: