SAPA 13 July 2000

Evidence of dirty tricks in the AIDS drug campaign emerged on Wednesday after a top pharmaceutical company admitted to funding an activist group that has been aggressively lobbying for greater access to drugs to treat the disease.

The revelation came to the fore after activists from a group called Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) staged a demonstration at the stall of pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim at the 13th International AIDS conference in Durban on Wednesday afternoon.

After a vocal altercation with conference organisers, members of the group moved to the stall of another pharmaceutical company, Merck Sharpe and Dome (MSD).

Here, the company's executive director of public affairs, Geoffrey Sturchio, admitted the company funded Act-Up.

People shouldn't be naive about AIDS activist groups. Boerhringer-Ingelheim, who manufacture AIDS drug Nevirapene, compete with MSD, who manufacture the drug Crixivan. Both are major sponsors of the Durban conference.

In the past few days, members of Act-Up disrupted several meetings at the conference, demanding that the South African government supply anti-retrovirals to pregnant women. They were also vocal at the opening ceremony of the conference.

Earlier this year, Professor Jerry Coovadia, the chairperson of the Durban conference, refused to give Act-Up permission to attend, saying they were disruptive and aggressive.

A collaboration between MSD and Act-Up was also uncovered at the 12th International AIDS conference in Geneva, when security personnel admitted to a journalist Alex Russel that the two had collaborated to stage an aggressive publicity stunt at the company's booth.

AZT sales doubled Glaxo Wellcome's turnover in five years. Act-Up were in the news again two years ago, when certain branches of the movement broke away from the central body to campaign against the use of anti-retrovirals.

The breakaway group said the drugs caused severe side effects and did more harm than good.

Science writer and consultant Anita Allen said people shouldn't be naive about the role some AIDS activist groups and non-governmental organisations play in the AIDS drug campaign.

"What better advertisement than to have people shouting passionately for your drug with the company logo in the background?" Allen asked.

The South African government has come under great pressure from activists, the media, the public and pharmaceutical companies to supply AIDS drugs like Nevirapene and AZT free of charge.

Government has resisted the calls, saying the drugs could be harmful and are too expensive.

Stakes in the business are high. Sales from AZT alone doubled the turnover of pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome within five years after receiving a licence to sell the drug.

A doctor, who did not want to be named and who is a speaker at the Durban conference, said government policy was often defined by recommendations compiled after conferences and panel discussions on the disease.

He said he had been under pressure to alter his speech to a more drug-prone stance at the second meeting of President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS advisory panel earlier in July.

"They came to my room and wanted to see my speech. They said I must start it with a strong statement on retroviral drugs. When I refused, they suggested that I cut my speech by half so that someone else could speak.

"Again I refused. They were obviously terrified about what I was going to say," the doctor said.

The doctor, who has been treating AIDS patients since before 1984, said he felt the role of AIDS drugs in combating the disease was exaggerated. Dosages of drugs used to fight the disease, he said, were often too high.

"AZT has probably killed more people than it saved. If it came to a choice between giving Africa AIDS drugs or food and water, I'd have no hesitation, give them food and water," he said.

Doctor Helen Gayle, from the Centres for Disease Control, who was implicated in manipulating the doctors speech, denied knowledge of the incident.

She said everyone at the panel spoke independently and of their own free will. Later however, she admitted to hearing rumours of the incident, but said she felt doctors had misunderstood the situation.