AFP 5 July 2000

South African government AIDS advisors have agreed to run a series of tests to pinpoint the nature of HIV in this country where it has infected a 10th of the population.

The panel, controversially split down the middle between scientists who believe HIV causes AIDS and so-called dissidents who do not accept this, vowed that their study will not try to solve this dispute.

It will instead test the efficacy of HIV tests used in South Africa and see whether they give an accurate picture of the infection rate, panel members said after a two-day meeting.

"Their absolute reliability is of utmost concern," said AIDS dissident Professor Harvey Bialy from the Autonomous National University of Mexico who briefed the media on the panel's conclusions along with orthodox AIDS expert Helene Gayle from the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Bialy however added that the information gathered from the first study on South African HIV tests could lead to further studies testing the link between HIV and AIDS.

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang defended the formation of the panel, which has been criticised for its composition.

She said their job was never to settle the debate between dissident and orthodox views, but to help the government "find an African solution" to AIDS which on the continent afflicts predominantly heterosexuals, and in particular women.

The minister said the outcome of the tests, which could be concluded by the end of the year or early 2001, will inform the government's future approach to the pandemic and build on a five-year plan already in place to combat AIDS through prevention, education and improved health care.

Tshabalala-Msimang refused to comment on the outburst from President Thabo Mbeki's office over the publication of a manifesto by 5 000 AIDS experts stating that HIV causes AIDS. The declaration came just ahead of the start of the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban.

Presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana interpreted the "Durban Declaration" as a personal attack on Mbeki, who was seen as questioning the link by appointing dissidents as advisors.

If the authors mailed the document to Mbeki, Mankahlana said, "it will find its comfortable place among the dustbins of the office."

Local activists and the Congress of South African Trade Unionists are to stage protest marches in Durban on Sunday when Mbeki opens the conference.