By Steven Swindells

Reuters 22 Oct. 2001

Johannesburg -- South Africa said on Monday that HIV drugs were ineffective and produced side effects almost as bad as the disease itself.

The African National Congress (ANC) government accused an alliance led by the pharmaceutical industry, and including HIV/AIDS activists and churches, of trying to force it into dispensing harmful antiretroviral drugs.

"Government is resisting pressure to provide to all and sundry highly toxic drugs that offer no hope of eradicating the virus,'' ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said in a letter sent to the country's leading Business Day newspaper.

"It will not be stampeded into taking positions that do not improve the health of our people on a sustainable basis,'' Ngonyama said, referring to US research that highlighted the risks of heart disease and cancer associated with antiretroviral treatment.

Ngonyama called the side effects "almost as bad as the illness that they are supposed to alleviate.''

But the South African drug industry denied that antiretroviral drugs were unsafe.

"All medicines, including antiretrovirals, are registered by drug regulatory bodies around the world as being safe and effective provided they are used as prescribed under medical supervision because it is found that the benefits of those drugs far outweigh any potential side effects,'' said Mirryena Deeb, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa.

South Africa has balked on cost and safety grounds at the nationwide use of antiretroviral HIV drugs, which slow down the duplication of the virus that leads to full-blown AIDS.

South Africa's AIDS policy also attracted a whirlwind of criticism after President Thabo Mbeki questioned whether HIV actually does cause AIDS.

This is despite South Africa having more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world. An estimated 5 million people -- or one in nine South Africans -- are affected.

The ANC's latest attack on the drug industry came weeks after London- based GlaxoSmithKline granted a licence to South African generic producer Aspen Pharmacare to manufacture its AZT, 3TC and Combivir antiretroviral drugs.

But the success of the plan, which could drastically cut the cost of these drugs to around 15 rand (US$1.61) per pill, will hinge on whether the government offers a state tender to Aspen for GSK's products under licence.

Ngonyama, questioning the motives of the industry, said German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim had funded an AIDS activist group that was demanding the use of antiretrovirals.

The company has previously denied the allegation.

Pretoria is facing a court challenge by the country's leading AIDS group, the Treatment Action Campaign, for not allowing the drug nevirapine in state hospitals to reduce the risk of mothers passing HIV to their babies.

A senior health official is being sued on behalf of a 6-month-old baby who contracted HIV from her mother, on the grounds that health workers failed in their duty to provide proper care.