MBEKI STANCE ON AIDS
LEAVES SCIENTISTS IN A DAZE
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,"
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
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
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
"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,"
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