By Paul Salopek

Chicago Tribune 14 April 2000

Johannesburg -- When David Rasnick, an obscure California biochemist, answered his cell phone recently, he scarcely could have imagined that the call would touch off the world's latest--and perhaps most bizarre--controversy over the nature of AIDS.

"A voice came on the line and said it was Thabo Mbeki," Rasnick recalled, naming South Africa's president. "I didn't believe it at first. I didn't know presidents just called out of the blue like that."

Apparently, when it comes to AIDS, Mbeki does. And for 15 minutes the African leader quizzed Rasnick about his work at the University of California, Berkeley.

"He was checking me out, seeing if I was legitimate," Rasnick said. "I suppose I passed his test, because he asked me for my personal support of his anti-AIDS efforts and I gave it to him."

The trouble is more than 99 percent of the world's other AIDS experts would have flunked Rasnick. Along with a tiny group of other so-called dissident researchers, Rasnick espouses the radical view that AIDS simply does not exist. The deadly disease that the world calls AIDS is not linked to the infamous virus known as HIV, he insists, but instead is merely a collection of more mundane illnesses associated with recreational drug use and malnutrition.

To argue otherwise, he maintains, is to be duped by a vast conspiracy among governments, drug companies and mainstream scientists who are milking billions of dollars from the "AIDS industry."

News of Mbeki's quiet consultations with American AIDS skeptics earlier this year became public only a few weeks ago, but the uproar it has sparked in South Africa has been explosive.

Activists in South Africa and abroad have attacked Mbeki's administration for flirting with pseudoscience instead of facing the ruinous AIDS crisis in South Africa, where some 4 million people, or nearly 10 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. The scandal has plunged the nation's already troubled AIDS policy into further confusion as bewildered scientists worldwide are scratching their heads over why South Africa would choose to breathe new life into a discredited hypothesis that they fear will only hamper global efforts to combat the disease.

"All President Mbeki is saying is, `Let's listen to everybody,'" said Parks Mankahlana, a spokesman for Mbeki, who noted the president has ordered that a panel be organized in South Africa to re-evaluate the evidence behind the global AIDS epidemic.

"Let's not silence one group or another with hysterical declarations," Mankahlana said. "To find a solution to this thing we have to look at all angles."

Including those who doubt the very existence of AIDS. Peter Duesberg, a Berkeley colleague of Rasnick and one of the U.S. leaders of the AIDS skeptics' camp, has been invited to attend the panel.

Health organizations such as UNAIDS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shunned direct comment on South Africa's wooing of AIDS doubters. But in the past two weeks, both agencies released stinging statements denouncing the dissidents' position, labeling it a "myth."

"I consider those guys real evil characters," said an angry World Health Organization official in Geneva. "By denying the link between HIV and AIDS, they're undoing 20 years of public health efforts. Why would anyone want to give them this credibility?"

Taking into account Mbeki's actions, many scientists are weighing whether they should stay away from the International AIDS Conference, scheduled for July in South Africa. They fear that if the AIDS doubters are included, their views will be given undue credibility and world attention.

Actually, neither Mbeki's apparent fascination with the more arcane scientific debates surrounding AIDS nor the views of AIDS skeptics such as Rasnick and Duesberg are anything new.

In 1997, when he was still deputy president, Mbeki touted an alleged South African cure for AIDS called Virodene. The drug has quietly faded from the public scene. And last year, after succeeding President Nelson Mandela in the nation's second democratic elections, Mbeki again became embroiled in controversy when he publicly questioned the safety of AZT, an anti-retroviral drug widely used in the developed world to block the transmission of HIV from mother to child. Health experts say that as many as 5,000 South African babies are born HIV positive every month, fueling the fastest-growing disease infection rate in the world.

Mbeki, who has made clear his contempt for the international pharmaceutical industry--"the profit takers who are benefiting from the scourge of HIV/AIDS," his office recently called them--apparently stumbled into his latest AIDS controversy while on-line.

One of the more prominent AIDS dissident Web sites belongs to Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology who shares his lab with Rasnick at Berkeley.

In it articles with headlines such as "AIDS not infectious--but caused by recreational and anti-HIV drugs" outline the dissident manifesto that reads "various AIDS diseases are brought on by the long-term consumption of recreational drugs and AZT" and other drugs that treat AIDS.

In essence Duesberg declares that despite thousands of medical studies, there is still no conclusive proof that HIV causes AIDS.

He further asserts that the scientific establishment is cynically propagating AIDS with the very anti-retroviral drugs used to treat it. And as for AIDS in Africa, where 70 percent of the world's people with HIV live and where almost nobody has access to expensive drugs such as AZT, the skeptics argue that the AIDS phenomenon is caused by common ailments linked to hunger and poverty.

"I assume that the many beneficiaries of [the accepted AIDS] hypothesis are now concerned that, for the first time, a head of state who is independent of the U.S. government has called this unproductive and potentially very detrimental hypothesis into question," Duesberg said of Mbeki's recent actions.

Rasnick is even more pointed. "What's behind all these shrill attacks on Mbeki?" asked the biochemist, who belongs to an AIDS dissident group that claims 600 members. "It's thousands of activists and scientists who fear they're going to be out of a billion-dollar business."

What the world's AIDS community seems to be registering in this strange debate, however, isn't so much fear as genuine bafflement.

"If these are the persons Mbeki is consulting, then it is absolutely worrisome for South Africa," said Andrew Leigh-Brown, a pioneering AIDS geneticist at the University of Edinburg who challenged the dissidents' assertions a decade ago, when they first emerged.

"What we're talking about here is a very small group of people who, for whatever reasons, chose to ignore the vast, accumulated bulk of scientific evidence," Leigh-Brown said. "They're flat-Earthers. It's nonsense."

Among the studies proving the HIV-AIDS link, he cited five years of anti-HIV drug trials that largely have emptied hospitals of AIDS patients in the developed world. In Africa, he noted that condom use has cut AIDS rates, showing the disease is sexually transmissible.

Elsewhere in beleaguered Africa medical experts point out that in countries such as Botswana, where poverty--the dissidents' explanation for AIDS-like illnesses--has eased, the incidence of the killer disease nonetheless has rocketed.

So noisy has the outcry against Mbeki's contact with AIDS skeptics become, in fact, that his office issued a terse statement last week insisting that "the president has never said that HIV does not cause AIDS."

"I feel truly embarrassed for my government," said Malegapuru Makgoba, an immunologist and president of the Medical Research Council of South Africa. "I don't think anyone knows where this thinking is coming from. It makes us look absolutely lost."

Makgoba is one of several high-profile South African scientists who have not been invited to join the AIDS panel. He said that if the panel's agenda still includes discussions about the HIV-AIDS link, he wouldn't participate anyway.

Many in South Africa seem to feel the same way.

"Mbeki's panel? Who the hell cares?" asked Charlene Smith, an AIDS activist who noted that 75 percent of pediatric deaths at Johannesburg public hospitals are AIDS-related. "We're dying down here," Smith said bitterly. "Play all the intellectual games you want on the Internet, but we're dying down here."