Reuters 16 April 2000

Johannesburg -- South African President Thabo Mbeki on Sunday defended his decision to test popular medical assumptions about HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus infecting an estimated 1,700 South Africans every day.

AIDS activists have been enraged by Mbeki's questioning of the link between HIV and the killer Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome that many cite as the single greatest threat to economic growth and prosperity in South Africa.

Mbeki has instructed the Health Ministry to set up a 20-member international panel including scientists who doubt the link between HIV and AIDS to test assumptions about the disease.

"The matter is critical,'' he said in a rare television interview with the M-Net pay channel. "The reason we are doing all of this is to be able to respond correctly to what is reported to be a major catastrophe on the African continent.

"You can't respond correctly by closing your eyes and ears to any point of view,'' he said.

South Africa is scheduled to host the world's most important AIDS conference in Durban in July, but some activists are urging a boycott because of Mbeki's stance.

Conference chairman Hoosen Coovadia told the local Sunday Independent newspaper it would be wrong to shun the conference.

"I wish to remind the world that this is not a South African government conference. It is a meeting of people concerned about HIV/AIDS, which will be held on South African soil,'' he said.

Mbeki said he was not convinced that HIV was the single virus causing AIDS or deaths attributed to AIDS.

"To attribute such immune deficiency to a virus produces a specific response. What we are discussing here as the South African government is that it seems incorrect to respond to this AIDS challenge within a narrow band.

"If we only said 'there is a virus, safe sex, use a condom', we won't defeat AIDS,'' he said.

Mbeki said he was surprised by the objection to his decision to consult AIDS sceptics and to include them in the panel that will advise his government on handling the AIDS crisis.

"Why don't we bring all points of view together, let them sit around the table, discuss all of this and let's see what the outcome of this discussion is - which is why this international panel that we are talking about,'' Mbeki said.