By Steve Connor

The Independent (London) 2 April 2000

Leading scientists are planning to boycott an international conference on AIDS in protest at South Africa's contacts with renegade "experts".

The scientists, who include top British specialists, are furious that South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, has telephoned David Rasnick, an associate of Peter Duesberg, a virologist who made a name for himself in the 1990s by questioning whether HIV causes AIDS. They are also upset that a country where up to 20 per cent of the population are HIVpositive is not allowing pregnant HIVpositive women to be given AZT, the anti AIDS drug, on the grounds that it would be too expensive.

Parks Mankahlana, Mr Mbeki's head of communications, said: "Many people have spoken to Dr Rasnick and other socalled dissidents and no one is saying that they believe that the causal connection between AIDS and HIV doesn't exist." Some critics, however, suspect it was an attempt, which backfired, to justify Mr Mbeki's opposition to giving AZT to pregnant women. The Duesberg camp has long argued that AIDS is caused by drugs and not by a virus.

Organisers of the AIDS 2000 Conference, due to be held in Durban in July, are now trying to reassure participants that the conference will still go ahead. Professor Hoosen Coovadia, chairman of the conference, said: "We could have joined forces to deal with specific shortcomings in the South African HIV and AIDS programme instead of entering this gratuitous debate."

However, some British researchers have decided not to go to South Africa, according to Andrew Leigh-Brown, an HIV specialist at the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh. "South Africa appears to be the only country in Africa taking a rather negative attitude to HIV research," he said.