Agence France Presse 6 May 2000

Pretoria -- South African President Thabo Mbeki opened a controversial panel seeking new solutions to AIDS Saturday by warning that the fatal disease was a "catastrophe" in Africa.

The panel includes dissident scientists who argue that AIDS is caused in Third World countries by such problems as poor hygiene and deny that it follows the HIV virus.

They are sitting alongside such luminaries as French scientist Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of the HIV virus which mainstream medical circles are convinced is the precursor to AIDS.

Mbeki, who has created consternation here by giving the dissidents a platform for what are widely considered to be discredited theories, declared that the search for solutions could not be based on what some considered "biblical absolute truth."

"We look for an answer because all the information that has been communicated is in reality that we are faced with a catastrophe," he said.

"We can't respond to a catastrophe only by saying 'I will do what is routine'."

The panel, set up at Mbeki's behest, comprises 33 scientists from 14 countries, more or less evenly balanced between mainstream scientists and dissidents such as Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick of the United States and South African Sam Mhlongo, who argue that the root causes in Africa and other developing regions of immune deficiency, symptomatic of AIDS, is poverty, malnutrition, poor hygiene and local diseases.

Mbeki said he had been surprised by the uproar about his quest to have the causes of AIDS reviewed, adding that criticism by eminent scientists had at times made it difficult for him to think he was not a fool.

"But I'm no longer so sure about that, given that so many eminent people responded to the invitation of 'a fool' to come to this important meeting," he said.

The press and political opposition here have likened Mbeki's flirtation with the dissidents theories to listening to "flatearthists," and the opposition Democratic Party declared the panel would find no fresh answers because the dissidents would drag the debate back to square one.

"It will be a tired rerun of longextinct speculations," it said.

"Rather than learning from his mistakes, he seems intent on ensuring that each new enterprise is more farcical than the rest. The president's irresponsibility in this matter verges on the criminal."

The New National Party, which ruled under apartheid, said the government had allowed itself to "be manipulated by fringe frantics and nut cases" and was wasting time and money.

Mbeki pointed out that of the 5.6 million people who contracted HIV last year, 3.8 million lived in subSaharan Africa.

In South Africa alone, 4.2 million people more than one in 10 were HIVpositive at the end of 1999, according to government figures.

"As Africans we want to respond to HIV/AIDS in a manner that is effective," Mbeki said.

One of the problems the panel is facing is the enormous cost of AIDS treatment on a continent where the average annual income is around 200 dollars.

Mbeki has denounced the drug AZT, and forbidden its prescription by the state for pregnant HIVpositive women, partly on grounds of cost, but also arguing that it poses health risks.

The panel is holding discussions this weekend in a Pretoria hotel, and will continue them by Internet for six to eight weeks, then meet again in South Africa in July shortly before the 13th world conference on AIDS, to be held in Durban, on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast.