Agence France Presse 7 May 2000

Mainstream and dissident scientists who met in Pretoria over the weekend to seek new solutions to AIDS failed to agree, several participants said Sunday.

The debate, held behind closed doors, became heated at times, the organisers acknowledged.

The scientists met at the invitation of South African President Thabo Mbeki, anxious to find new approaches to a disease ravaging Africa, but who has been roundly criticised at home and abroad for giving the dissidents a platform.

The mainstream scientists defended the thesis, held by the overwhelming majority of the world's medical community, that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. The "revisionists" deny the link, arguing that AIDS in Third World countries is a result of such factors as poor hygiene and malnutrition.

The only tangible result of the twoday conference was the establishment of a committee of four participants, two from each camp, who will devise experiments and pose questions to be answered.

Its members are, on the "orthodox" side, Malegapuru Makgoba, the head of South Africa's Medical Research Council, and Helen Gayle, of the US Centers for Disease Control; the "dissidents" are Californian biologist Peter Duesberg and Harvey Bialy, of Mexico.

French scientist Luc Montagnier, who discovered the HIV virus, told AFP he believed the committee had been established to calm things down.

But South African Health Minister Manto TshabalalaMsimang told a final press conference that the fact that the conference had been held at all was important.

"It's the first time that a group of such eminent scientists in the field of HIV/AIDS have met in one group to deliberate, exchange views to assist the South Africans to the formulation of a national response to the catastrophe," she said.

Mbeki declared when he opened the conference on Saturday 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'."

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 dissident 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.

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.

The 33 scientists from 14 countries will continue discussions by Internet for six to eight weeks, then meet again in South Africa shortly before the 13th world conference on AIDS opens on July 7 in Durban, on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast.