SUSPEND ALL HIV TESTING MBEKI EXPERT PANEL RECOMMENDS
By Huw Christie
New African September 2000
Eminent world scientists from both sides of the AIDS debate have been
mandated by the Mbeki AIDS panel to undertake historic experiments to attempt
to purify, or isolate, the HIV virus; and also examine the current HIV
testing methodologies. In the meantime, the panel wants all HIV testing to be
suspended. "It's a worthless distraction," says one panel member. Huw
Christie reports from Johannesburg.
Amidst scientific debate and political revelations, senior members of the
South African Presidential Panel of Inquiry into HIV/AIDS have called for the
suspension of all HIV testing. The full panel of some 33 scientists convened
for the second and final time in Johannesburg on 3-4 July, at the large
Crowne Court Hotel in upmarket Sandton, in the attentive presence of South
African minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (a medical doctor
During sometimes turbulent proceedings, Dr. Valendar Turner on behalf of the
Perth Group of scientists in Western Australia, Prof. Sam Mhlongo, head of
Family Medicine and Primary Care at the Medical University of South Africa,
and Dr. David Rasnick of UCLA, California, amongst others, appealed for the
cessation of HIV testing.
The Perth Group and Prof. Mhlongo stressed that the accuracy of all HIV tests
is so questionable, there is no cause for continuing to use them unless their
specificity can be determined.
They say there are too many common African illnesses which create "false
positive" results on HIV tests, and that no HIV test has ever been validated
against the one necessary scientific "gold standard" -- virus isolation. This
reality is recognised by the manufacturers of such tests who typically warn:
"At present there is no recognised standard for establishing the presence or
absence of antibodies to HIV-1 and HIV-2 in human blood." (Axsym System,
Dr. Rasnick stressed that since there was no proof of an HIV causing AIDS,
testing for it was, in his view, a worthless distraction. He also disputed
the use of the term AIDS at all, in a continent where the presenting
illnesses of people diagnosed with AIDS are all long-known conditions,
usually associated with malnutrition and other consequences of poverty.
By the end of the two-day session, a smaller working group of HIV testing had
been structured which will now continue through at least Christmas to report,
in President Mbeki's words, on "the reliability of, and the information
communicated by, our current HIV tests and the improvement of our disease
The working party -- led by Prof. Mhlongo, and including Australian
biophysicist Eleni Eleopulos and her colleague Dr. Valendar Turner, Dr.
Harvey Bialy, with Dr. Helene Gayle of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,
and Prof. William Makgoba of the South African Medical Research Council and
other panelists willing to continue working -- has accepted responsibility
for historic experiments to attempt to purify, or isolate, HIV, and to
examine the consequential issue of the accuracy of all so-called HIV testing
Virus isolation is the thorn in the foot of the HIV/AIDS marching machine --
it has never been achieved by conventional standards. Until the mid-1970s,
virus isolation used to mean separating virus particles from everything in
the cell culture that is not virus, and producing an electromicrograph of the
resulting purified particles. It is then not very difficult for virologists
to analyse the particles' proteins and genetic material, and to test for
It is a careful process, however, because all experts agree that there are
abundant particles in nature and in cell cultures that in many respects
resemble viruses but are not. Only once these steps are successfully
completed can any other tests be evaluated for accuracy.
Government confidential website
The two-day meeting had begun on a sharp note. The South African health
minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in her opening address noted that the six
weeks since the first meeting in Pretoria had seen little exchange between
the panelists of differing scientific and medical views via the confidential
South African government website established for the purpose.
Noting that some scientists had nonetheless made extensive contributions,
which had mostly gone unanswered, Tshabalala-Msimang commented that those who
had worked tirelessly "will not be betrayed." The scientific website
contributions of Eleni Eleopulos' Perth Group, of Dr. Roberto Giraldo, of
Prof. Etiennne de Harven and Prof. Gordon Stewart, and various other "AIDS
dissidents" were implied. Plans were announced to make the contents of the
web discourses public in due course.
The Panel Secretariat of four civil servants, thrust into the uncharted job
of coordinating the workings of the Panel and preparing the report for
President Mbeki, was therefore faced with the necessity to stimulate debate
in a way which had not occurred so far.
The structure favoured by the Secretariat and implemented by the Canadian,
Prof. Owen (again the moderator), allowed for representatives of opposing
views to speak for half an hour about their views and data, including
on-screen visual material around the issues set down by the Secretariat: (1)
aetiology, (2) prevention, (3) treatment, and (4) HIV testing and
Who sayeth what
Following each presentation, there would be approximately half an hour
allowed for two-minute comments on the presentation from other panelists. To
begin, a young South African virologist, Dr. Carolyn Williamson, replaced the
South African professor, Hoosen Coovadia, chairman of the Durban AIDS
Conference. Williamson opened the proceedings with a standard explanation of
the HIV-causes-AIDS theory, without proofs, and distinguished mostly by the
puzzling claim that in AIDS "the cause is neither necessary nor sufficient"
for the illness.
She appeared at a loss to defend this statement against the question, "How
then, is it the cause?", except to say she had been instructed to include the
statement. Such are the unfathomable pressures on ambitious young South
African scientists, though surely she must have misunderstood the statement.
Prof. Peter Duesberg next reiterated his condemnation of pharmaceutical
"anti-HIV" drugs, asserting that in many cases these drugs themselves were
responsible for illnesses diagnosed as AIDS.
Dr. Roberto Giraldo, the specialist in infectious diseases from New York,
covered several aspects in his presentation, including the invalidity of HIV
tests, and the range of stresses that can undermine a person's immune system,
such as malnutrition and toxins amongst others. He included in his
suggestions for treatment the use of anti-oxidants, a point well noted by the
South African health minister, and touched on the role of traditional
medicine in African cultures.
Next, Prof. Salim Abdool-Karim, principal AIDS researcher of South Africa's
Medical Research Council, stressed his belief that the clinical picture of
illness in South Africa had indeed changed in recent years. Dr. Joseph
Sonnabend, an AIDS clinician from New York, appeared satisfied with
conventional AIDS drugs and clinical practice, though he was heard earlier
privately resisting pressure from some senior orthodox scientists to begin
his presentation with a sound endorsement of the Highly Active
Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) drug combinations.
Dr. David Rasnick, an expert in protease inhibitor design, presented a
panorama of the scientific literature from major journals discrediting these
"anti-HIV" drugs. It seemed many of the conventional scientists in the room
had not seen these data before. Later in the day, Dr. Valendar Turner of the
Perth Group, whose Eleni Eleopulos has done so much over the years to keep
the questions in HIV/AIDS focused on scientific matters, discussed perhaps
the key question, which will now be carried forward: When even Prof. Luc
Montagnier, accredited as discoverer of HIV, acknowledges his team was never
able to isolate "the virus", why has the presence of such a virus been so
Turner showed a slide of a Western Blot antibody test gel -- the type of test
believed throughout most of the world to be the best for HIV -- which by the
strictest criteria anywhere would be positive for HIV, before revealing it
was in fact positive for leprosy.
Dr. Helene Gayle of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who supervises the
disbursement of billions of AIDS dollars, appeared to have little new to
bring to the Panel, but managed to fill her time with slides of black text
and statistics on a navy blue background, which this observer was not alone
in finding difficult to decipher.
The second day
On the second day, Prof. William Makgoba, currently head of the South African
Medical Research Council, took the floor to present epidemiological data on
HIV in South Africa. He was unable, when repeatedly questioned, to give
figures for actual AIDS deaths in South Africa, instead showing graphs of
projected percentages of national annual mortality that could be attributed
He also insisted that the ELISA antibody testing methodology used in South
Africa was in line with British standards, resulting in a "false positivity"
rate of 0.1%. He made no attempt to address the absence of any gold standard
for "true positivity." Next the Panel heard from Dr. Harvey Bialy on the
progress made towards designing the experiments that had been hastily
foreshadowed at the press conference at the conclusion of the first meeting
six weeks before, which it was hoped would settle some of the areas of
Shortly into his improvised presentation, a loud disagreement flared up from
opposite sides of the room between Prof. Peter Duesberg and Dr. Helene Gayle,
ostensibly over some comments about AZT, which saw Duesberg leave the
conference hall, pursued by Tshabalala-Msimang who spent tense minutes
persuading him to return in the interest of the many people whose lives would
be influenced by the successful working of the Panel.
However, thereafter Duesberg absented himself from the working group on
experiments, at much the same time that Eleni Eleopulos, who had not been at
the Pretoria meeting, became one of its most active members. Indications are
that Duesberg continues to be willing to participate as the process moves
forward. The Panel split into working groups next, to try to deliver
recommendations to the anxious Secretariat that they could use in preparation
of their report. The group on experiments confirmed it intention to "test the
tests"; there was also a set of conventional recommendations produced from
the working group around treatment, and that around "co-factors."
Mbeki, the whipping boy President Thabo Mbeki has become the liberal media's
whipping boy for seeking advice about how applicable to South Africa the
received Western wisdoms about HIV/AIDS are.
Scientific journals were asserting in the mid-1980s that HIV was not epidemic
in South Africa. Now it is said to be everywhere you look. Mbeki has publicly
asked how this can be so. What will the answers mean for policy? And why are
these statistics showing AIDS in men and women almost equally? If this is
heterosexually spread, why did it not happen in the West, where frankly most
people do not use condoms?
Why are there no figures for AIDS mortality in South Africa? Real data, not
projected estimated. When can these figures be available? Why are the figures
for HIV positivity in South Africa extrapolated from testing in ante-natal
clinics with an ELISA test about which its manufacturer warns the principal
cause of false-positivity is pregnancy?
When none of the 29 illnesses grouped as AIDS is new, what evidence is there
that a "new" microbe is involved in the apparent increase of some of these
From the answers to these questions, the Mbeki government seeks to
whether there are untried approaches to the problems in the country --
principally TB, which is said to account for 60% of the AIDS-projection
figures -- which would be affordable and effective.
By Christmas, one of the biggest questions in AIDS science should have it
answer, supervised by top international bodies, at the behest of a president
not afraid to test convention and go the extra distance to find the truth: is
there such a thing as HIV?
Huw Christie is the editor of Continuum magazine at