By Sonya Ross

AP 28 June 2001

Washington -- South African President Thabo Mbeki again refused to link HIV with AIDS, even though he agreed "that's what the scientists say.''

"I don't think my personal belief is relevant to a scientific fact,'' he said Wednesday after being asked whether he thinks the HIV virus is the primary cause of AIDS.

Mbeki elicited criticism more than a year ago when he asked a group of scientists to investigate whether there is a connection between HIV and AIDS. He also questioned the need for HIV testing.

During a National Press Club luncheon, Mbeki acknowledged that scientists confirm a direct relationship.

"But it is in ordinary medical textbooks that the immune system can get compromised by a whole variety of things, not only a virus,'' he said.

Mbeki said he prefers a comprehensive approach to dealing with AIDS and South Africa's other health problems, including malnutrition and a lack of clean water, which led to a recent outbreak of cholera.

For example, he said, a doctor treating a patient with tuberculosis ideally would not only treat the disease but conditions and factors that would help prevent the patient from contracting it again.

"We've got to respond to a human body in a comprehensive manner and that includes this issue of HIV,'' he said.

Mbeki said Merck & Co., one of the world's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, has expressed interest in working with the South African government to examine "these broader questions''

On Wednesday morning, he visited a Merck lab where researchers are working on an AIDS vaccine.

"I think everybody in the world would want to say to the scientists, 'Please keep up the good work ... our hopes are in your hands,''' Mbeki said after touring the West Point, Pa., facility.

Merck and other AIDS drug makers have agreed to lower prices to help African nations hit hard by the AIDS epidemic.

South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV or AIDS -- 4.7 million, about 11 percent of the nation's 45 million citizens.

At the luncheon, Mbeki defended his decision to skip a U.N. AIDS conference under way in New York.

"One can't be at two places at the same time,'' said Mbeki, who met with President Bush on Tuesday.

Expressing confidence in the large South African delegation he sent to the AIDS conference, Mbeki said, "What the ministers said at the U.N. AIDS conference is no different from what I would have said.''