By Andrew Selsky

AP 21 March 2000

Johannesburg, South Africa (AP) -- President Thabo Mbeki's office on Monday bitterly accused Western drug companies of enriching themselves from the AIDS epidemic and compared them to warmongers "who propagate fear to increase their profits."

The blistering comments, carried in a newspaper column, come as Mbeki's administration finds itself on the defensive for its controversial policies, including the withholding of anti-AIDS drugs to infected pregnant women, which could help save thousands of newborns' lives. Mbeki also recently declared that the drug AZT, a mainstay in the battle against AIDS, was dangerous - remarks that baffled and shocked AIDS experts.

Monday's broadside made some experts wonder about the Mbeki administration's ability to deal with the worst calamity to hit sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 2 million people died from the virus in 1998 and 1.7 million more became infected in 1999.

In South Africa alone, 4 million people - 10 percent of the population - are believed to have HIV or AIDS. There is no known cure.

"It's unfortunate that we are going backward instead of dealing with the serious issues," said Dr. Ashraf Grimwood, who chairs the National AIDS Convention of South Africa.

The column in the influential Johannesburg newspaper Business Day also defended the government's decision to convene a panel to investigate whether HIV leads to AIDS and whether the virus is sexually transmitted - matters the world medical community has long taken for granted.

In the column, Mbeki's spokesman Parks Mankahlana wrote that the panel should try to unearth information about the virus - information he hinted was being kept secret.

"This international panel must ... attempt to unravel the 'mysteries' of the HIV/AIDS virus, including, and more especially, what the profit-takers cannot tell us," Mankahlana wrote.

The panel is separate from the World AIDS Conference, a biannual event which brings together the world's most respected AIDS experts. South Africa will play host to that conference in July in the port city of Durban.

South Africa has previously complained that pharmaceutical companies charge more for anti-AIDS drugs than the vast majority of Africans can afford. But Monday's column was the most vociferous attack.

"Like the marauders of the military industrial complex who propagate fear to increase profits, the profit-takers who are benefiting from the scourge of HIV/AIDS will disappear to the affluent beaches of the world to enjoy wealth accumulated from a humankind ravaged by a dreaded disease," Mankahlana wrote.

The piece singled out the shareholders of Glaxo Wellcome, which manufactures AZT, and said they are concerned about the values of stocks but not people's lives.

Glaxo Wellcome said it would respond in its own column to Business Day this week. And James Cochran, the British-based company's executive director for Africa, said recently that "blaming the pharmaceutical industry for failure to arrest the current AIDS epidemic in Africa is convenient but simplistic."

"The real barriers to access to treatment are lack of education, medical infrastructure and political will," Cochran said. He pointed out that Glaxo Wellcome supplied anti-AIDS drugs at reduced prices to Uganda and Ivory Coast and offered anti-AIDS drugs at a 75 percent price reduction to South Africa for HIV-positive pregnant women - an offer which he said South Africa spurned.

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang last Thursday ruled out giving anti-retroviral drugs to infected pregnant women, saying the government could not afford them and that the safety of the drugs was not proven.