Letter to Clinton defends medical researchers who dispute link between virus and syndrome

By Hein Marais

The Globe and Mail (Canada) 20 April 2000

Johannesburg -- South African President Thabo Mbeki has added to the controversy surrounding his government's response to the AIDS crisis by sending a letter to world leaders in which he defends medical dissidents who question the link between HIV and AIDS.

In a hand-addressed, five-page letter delivered to U.S. President Bill Clinton in a diplomatic pouch last week, Mr. Mbeki contests the pertinence of Western medical expertise in combating what he calls a "uniquely African catastrophe." In the letter he asserts his government's right to doubt whether the human immunodeficiency virus causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, to question whether lifesaving treatments such as the drug AZT are too toxic and to resist the "superimposition of Western experience on African reality."

Mr. Mbeki also accuses critics of his bid to reopen debate about the nature of the disease of waging a "campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism," which he likens to "the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed."

Copies of the letter were sent to other world leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Last month, the African National Congress government stunned local and international AIDS organizations by inviting AIDS dissidents to participate in talks coinciding with the July meeting of the World AIDS Conference in Durban.

South African and international AIDS experts are threatening to boycott the conference, throwing local AIDS groups into turmoil as the country approaches the brink of a full-scale epidemic.

Figures released yesterday by the Health Ministry show that 4.2 million, or one in 10, South Africans are HIV-positive and that 1,700 people are being infected daily. More than 33 million people around the world are infected with HIV and 70 per cent of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In his letter, Mr. Mbeki fervently defends South Africa's right to consult with AIDS dissidents like University of California, Berkeley biochemist Peter Duesberg and his ally, David Rasnick. They contend that HIV does not cause AIDS, a contention that has been dismissed by the medical and scientific community worldwide. Mr. Mbeki is adamant that the puzzle of HIV and AIDS remains unsolved.

Local diplomatic sources say Mr. Mbeki's stand stems from a fervent desire to find another approach to AIDS in a country that cannot afford the cocktails of antiretroviral drugs manufactured by Western pharmaceutical companies.

A year of treatment costs about $15,000 a person in South Africa, a country where almost half the population earns less than $1,400 a year.

As a result, the ANC government has been locked in a battle with Western drug companies to win the right to import or manufacture generic versions of patented drugs -- something Washington has particularly opposed.

Last month, Mr. Mbeki's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, accused Western drug firms of enriching themselves from the AIDS epidemic and compared them to warmongers "who propagate fear to increase their profits."

In his letter, Mr. Mbeki stressed that South Africa is doing everything it can, "within our very limited possibilities," to provide care for AIDS patients.

Yet the ANC government has refused to make the drug AZT available in public clinics, saying it is toxic even though studies have shown it can protect the babies of HIV-infected mothers.