MBEKI'S AIDS EXPERTS SPLIT
OVER LINK TO HIV
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
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
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
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
distribution of some of the very anti-AIDS drugs the president once
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
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
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
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
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.