By Philippe Coste

Agence France Presse 21 April 2000

Top French specialists voiced shock Friday at South African President Thabo Mbeki's defence of alternative medical approaches to AIDS, and dismissed as a "provocateur" the US researcher Mbeki has cited in support of his stance.

Mbeki has made an impassioned defence of California biologist Peter Duesberg, who theorises that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS and that the mainstream treatment, AZT, does more harm than good.

Professor Michel Kazatchkine, head of the French AIDS research agency, said: "I'm concerned, saddened and dumbfounded by what President Mbeki says, because it lends credibility to scientific theories not at all recognised by the scientific community."

"Questioning the responsibility of the virus for causing AIDS is like turning things on their head and winding the clock back 20 years," Kazatchnine said.

Professor Jacques Leibowitch, prominent in the development of AIDS treatments, said: "Duesberg is a provocateur whom scientists have not had the courage to ostracise. He is exploiting a lot of false arguments with a tiny bit of truth in them.

"His theory is still being taken seriously because we don't yet have a treatment that can cure AIDS and whose use in developing countries can be justified."

In a letter to President Clinton published in The Washington Post, Mbeki insisted on his government's right to consult dissident scientists and accused unnamed foreign critics of waging a "campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism" akin to "the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed".

Leibowitch said Duesberg had been "developing this specious argument for years, maintaining that since there's no clear relationship between the amount of virus present in the organism and the speed of the illness, the virus can't be responsible for the illness."

Speculation in medical circles is that at the heart of Mbeki's stance is the fact that South Africa simply cannot afford the prohibitive cost of the "cocktail" of antiHIV drugs to treat the ever-increasing number of those infected with the disease.

The treatment, which costs 10,000 dollars per patient per year, suppresses the virus but does not eliminate it.

Leibowitch suggested Mbeki might be quoting Duesberg's ideas "in order to negotiate better with western countries and pharmaceutical companies" to build hospitals and laboratories to provide AIDS care more cheaply.

If this were the case, Kazatchkine said, Mbeki was being extremely clumsy.

"He has no need to deny the root cause of the illness in order to obtain more aid from fund sources."

Politicisation of the debate on AIDS treatment in South Africa might dissuade some specialists from attending the Durban international AIDS conference in July, he added.

"Specialists wish to exchange ideas and study each other's work, but have no desire to get caught in the middle of a a political tugofwar," Leibowitch warned.

Professor Luc Montagnier, the pioneer who discovered HIV, told the daily Liberation there was little risk of a boycott, as the conference was being organised by the International AIDS Society, not by South Africa.

He expressed sympathy with Africa's huge problems with AIDS and said it was sound to think there could be "cofactors" that promoted the spread of AIDS, although there remained only one cause, which was HIV.

"The problem is that South Africa is a major country, and President Mbeki's statements may encourage other (hardline) stances. You have to convert people by rational argument, not by waging a war against them."

A decision by Mbeki to include dissident scientists on a panel of experts studying measures to counter AIDS is provoking angry debate in South Africa, a country where 4.2 million people more than one in 10 of the population are HIVpositive.

Opposition parties in South Africa criticised Mbeki Thursday. New National Party member of parliament Kobus Gous accused him of "giving a podium to discredited scientists," likening his actions to "consulting flat-earthists."