S. AFRICA LASHES AT DRUG COMPANIES
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
"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
"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
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.