A businesswoman who exploited migrant workers at her chain of Indian eateries is now investing in a new venture: Discovering new coronavirus drugs.
Convicted tax cheat Joti Jain has now embarked on a “noble” journey to repurpose drugs to treat patients hospitalised by the coronavirus.
The former director of the Masala restaurant chain has bought 100 percent of the shares of Silverfern Pharmatech Innovations Ltd – which ironically, was once an immigration firm.
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She was previously sentenced to 11 months home detention and community work, and ordered to pay $58,000 in reparations, after admitting a raft of immigration and exploitation charges involving employees at Masala restaurants in Mission Bay, Takapuna and Bucklands Beach. Workers had been paid as little as $3 an hour.
Now, she has purchased Silverfern from family member Akhil Jain, who previously acquired it from immigration advisor Erica Willoughby in 2009, and changed its name.
In its latest incarnation as Koru Biotech Innovation, the company says it is working to repurpose registered drugs to find a treatment for Covid-19.
Vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said the principle of screening existing therapeutics was a well-established approach to finding new treatments.
An advantage was that the drugs had already been approved for human use and data on safety exists. “I have seen exciting data in the past where personalised cancer treatments can be found by screening existing medication against a person’s cancer cells, which of course are very unique,” Petousis-Harris said.
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“There are many laboratories worldwide doing this in some way and there are many with promising candidates. However, I would not get excited about anything until it had been through an efficacy trial and demonstrated effective.”
Petousis-Harris said it was hard to assess Koru Biotech Innovation’s track record and activities as there was little detail on their website nor staff profiles.
Joti Jain did not respond to requests for an interview but Akhil Jain, the company’s sole director, spoke to Newsroom from Dubai. He said Joti Jain wanted it that way – she was not seeking publicity.
Akhil Jain said Joti Jain had taken a “u-turn” and was doing “noble work” by funding research to solve a major health crisis.
“You can’t keep chasing people for what they’ve done in the past, 10 years ago. I don’t think it’s fair,” Akhil Jain said.
“She’s been convicted of some issues, immigration and tax and she’s paid her debt to the society, so what is this about? She’s doing the right thing and putting the money in the right places to help people and solve a major problem without any publicity. Is that wrong?”
Working on the Masala chain gang
In 2018, as former co-owner of the companies running the Masala chain, Joti Jain pleaded guilty to 21 charges of tax evasion and was sentenced to nine months home detention. That was three years after she was sentenced for the immigration and exploitation charges.
Joti Jain was served a deportation notice but voluntarily left for India after serving her home detention sentence in 2017. She was brought back into the country just months later by Inland Revenue under a limited visa to provide evidence for the trial of her co-defendants and former Masala colleagues, Rupinder Singh Chahil and Vijay Kumar Gupta.
She was not allowed to work or study while living in New Zealand under that visa.
Joti Jain was disqualified from being a company director from 2018 to 2023. Nonetheless, she was listed on the Companies Office as a director of Koru Biotech Innovation for nearly a month, before resigning on December 11, 2020. She retained 100 percent of the shares in that company.
Inland Revenue refused to comment on whether it was aware Jain had bought Koru Biotech Innovation or was a director for a month under a limited visa, because it was constrained from commenting on “specific taxpayer affairs”.
Chahil and Gupta pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering on the second day of their trial and Jain was expected to leave the country last year.
However, due to Covid-19 border closures, Immigration NZ said Jain was in the country until less than a month ago. The agency said it worked with Jain and her representatives for several months to facilitate a voluntary departure.
A spokesman for Immigration NZ said because Jain voluntarily left the country on March 31, 2021, before a deportation order was served, there was no travel ban imposed. She could return to the country if she met “entry and character requirements applicable at the time”, had a visa and a border exemption.
Akhil Jain, owns a number of companies including pharmaceutical research company Koru Lifescience Limited, which is a research lab with the same company address as Koru Biotech Innovation.
He said other companies contracted Koru Lifescience’s facilities and his business was a profitable enterprise, selling technology to companies overseas.
His other businesses were in the immigration services and residential property development company sectors.
Akhil Jain said prior to its Covid-19 drug repurposing research, Koru Biotech Innovation was mainly focused on repurposing drugs to treat rare diseases and cancers.
“There are slightly above 7000 diseases that have no treatments so far,” he said. “We are working with scientists across the planet in medicinal chemistry and biology to find a treatment or interim therapeutic resolve that can give [patients] a better standard of life.”
On the Covid-19 front though, Akhil Jain said he was pleased with how its research was progressing.
According to a company press release in November, Joti Jain (chairperson at the time) said that in less than four months the company had identified “several” known drug compounds that could be tested for a treatment of Covid-19.
Akhil Jain said the company had narrowed down nine chemical compounds from more than 70,000 that could be repurposed.
He said the company had four staff in New Zealand but was also working with scientists in China and India. He said he had “picked up” knowledge experts from around the world to fast track the company’s research.
The company was working with a university in the United States where scientists were testing its treatments in a “real time live virus environment” by examining how repurposed drugs worked on human cells from different organs infected with Covid-19.
“We tried to collaborate with scientists in New Zealand but the infrastructure is limited and scientists in New Zealand universities are also committed to their own experiments for other reasons.”
Akhil Jain would not name the US-based university, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
“Trials are progressing as we speak, we’ve been able to achieve a very good infection of the host cells and the trials of our drug compounds are ongoing … we should have final results in about 10 to 12 days.
“Based on that day we will be working with US Food and Drug Administration to form a clinical trials strategy and how to fast track it. We will be working with Center of Infection and Disease Control in the US and also with their counterparts in the FDA.”
The company planned to have an approved drug by the end of the year.
“Hopefully we should be able to come out with results and clinical trials and possibly an approved drug in seven to eight months,” Akhil Jain said. “We’re making sure we have a drug that is highly effective in small quantities so it’ll be highly potent and have to be used in very small amounts.”
Is their research credible?
Vaccine researcher Robert Feldman said a number of pharmaceutical companies around the world were putting their efforts into repurposing drugs for a Covid-19 treatment.
The anti-viral drug remdesivir had been widely reported for striving to achieve this, Feldman said, however it was found to have little to no effect on Covid patients.
Feldman, whose company CVC has raised more than $5 million from private investors and through government funding to create a Covid-19 enhancer to strengthen the efficacy of the vaccines, said any company working in this area needed some “hefty” funding to do any pre-clinical, let alone clinical work.
Akhil Jain said Joti Jain was the company’s main financial backer, but would be seeking further investment, potentially from the taxpayer too.
“Clinical trials are quite expensive. Based on the current design it could be in the high millions. We will be speaking to government departments and private equity investors to see how quickly we can ramp up the funding scenario and move to the next phase,” he said.
“You can’t keep chasing people for what they’ve done in the past, 10 years ago. I don’t think it’s fair”
– Akhil Jain, Koru Biotech Innovations
Akhil Jain said he was currently in Dubai to meet with several biotechnology companies and scientists in the region to understand how they could collaborate to progress Koru Biotech Innovation’s Covid-19 research.
“We’ve been collaborating with them over Zoom but these are all lengthy discussions which will carry on Zoom. We’re also looking at facilities in the UAE that can accommodate manufacturing because once we’ve isolated the compounds we want to produce we need production facilities that can handle this drug as per international levels.”
Akhil Jain did not say when he had last seen Joti Jain and was not aware she had left New Zealand in March.
“She’s not a hands-on scientist. I’m basically leading the research and working this through and I’m quite happy with the research. I don’t want to make this about Joti Jain, this is all about how we can work together and defeat [the pandemic].
“I’m purely interested in talking about how the world has been halted and a small New Zealand company can possibly punch above its weight, that’s all.”