Report Spares South African President From Embarrassment

By Chris McGreal

The Guardian (London) 5 April 2001

A panel of international scientists convened by the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, to resolve the issue of whether HIV causes AIDS has failed to reach agreement after nearly a year of debate.

An interim report made public yesterday produced conflicting sets of recommendations because of divisions between themainstream scientists, who believe HIV is the cause of AIDS, and the dissident' faction that claims the disease is the result of social factors such as drug use and poverty. Instead, the panel could agree only on the need for further research and discussion.

Among the recommendations proposed by the dissidents was one to end the hysteria' around AIDS by suspending the dissemination of the psychologically destructive and false message that HIV infection is invariably fatal'.

The South African government will not be disappointed by the lack of consensus. The report neither embarrasses Mr Mbeki by concluding he was wrong to question the cause of AIDS, nor does it say he was right when his government quietly reversed its original policy. The health ministry is moving towards the distribution of some of the very anti-AIDS drugs the president once condemned as too toxic and ineffective.

The panellists were most sharply divided over the use of anti-retroviral drugs. Those who deny HIV causes AIDS say such medicines do no good while producing severe side effects. Others argue that anti-retrovirals are beneficial in a number of ways, including preventing mother to child transmission.

Among those Mr Mbeki appointed to the 33-member panel were the controversial American scientists Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick who are at the forefront of the AIDS dissident movement. They had a profound impact on Mr Mbeki's view of the disease after he discovered their writings on the internet.

But another panel member, the French co-discoverer of the HIV virus, Luc Montagnier, has urged the South African government to be pragmatic about treating AIDS rather than engaging in academic arguments about its cause.

A year ago, Mr Mbeki wrote to Bill Clinton, then US president, comparing critics of the AIDS dissidents to the tyranny of the Spanish Inquisition and apartheid.

But some scientists were so outraged by Mr Mbeki's stance that 5,000 of them signed a declaration before last year's international AIDS conference in Durban stating categorically that AIDS was the direct result of HIV.

South Africa's trade union confederation, Cosatu, a key ally of the ruling African National Congress, also strongly criticised the president by implying he was sacrificing the lives of more than 4m South Africans - one in 10 of the population - who have HIV. Since then Mr Mbeki has largely retreated from public debate on the issue.

After a cabinet meeting yesterday at which the AIDS panel report was discussed, the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, said the government would stick to its belief that HIV caused AIDS, a view it was unwilling to espouse a year ago.

The South African government now argues that there is no ideological obstacle to the distribution of drugs, only financial constraints.

Dr Tshabalala-Msimang said that while the division among panellists on the cause of AIDS was fundamental, there was more agreement than before on the importance of factors such as poverty, literacy and sexism in the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The report was released as the world's largest drugs firms made public an affidavit to the Pretoria high court in their battle with the South African government over the importation of generic drugs. It alleges that the health ministry rejected cheaper anti-AIDS medicines when the pharmaceutical companies offered them.

The affidavit will form part of the case presented by 39 drug firms when the hearing resumes in a fortnight.