By Emelia Sithole

Reuters 5 July 2000

Johannesburg -- A meeting of international experts convened by South African President Thabo Mbeki on Tuesday agreed to carry out further stringent studies on the reliability of the globally-used ELISA HIV test.

A group of three researchers appointed by Mbeki's 44-member panel said the studies could help South Africa to improve its strategies for combating the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS.

"The key issue that came under focus was the reliability of the ELISA test,'' said Harvey Bialy, of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, a member of the group which includes Helene Gayle of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and William Makgoba of the South African Medical Research Council.

"In order to address this question in South Africa a series of HIV tests of the utmost stringency would be applied to see whether a degree of concordance exists between the tests,'' he said.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang earlier said a new report by the UN agency UNAIDS showing high AIDS infection rates among South African adults had spotlighted government concerns about the accuracy of the country's HIV tests and the reliability of its data.

"We have also built on the work of the (three-member) team... and charged this team now to focus on the key question of validating the reliability of the tests we use in the diagnosis of HIV/AIDS,'' she said.

"The experiments to be done to carry out this task enjoy our support as they will also help the South African government have accurate data on which to plan,'' she said.

South Africa has one of the world's fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in Africa where more than 70% of the world's 34 million people with HIV/AIDS live.

About 4.3 million South Africans, or 10% of the population, are HIV positive, a toll that increases by 1,700 new infections daily, according to government statistics. A UNAIDS report released last week said 19.9% of South African adults were infected with HIV. South Africa's anti-AIDS campaign has so far been dogged by controversy with Mbeki widely criticised for his refusal to give pregnant women in the public health sector the antiviral drug AZT and his doubts about the effectiveness of anti-AIDS drugs.

Mbeki has also courted controversy by including researchers like American scientist Peter Duesberg--who contends that AIDS is not caused by HIV--on the 44-member presidential panel advising him on the pandemic.

At a news conference earlier, Khotso Mokhele, president of the South African National Research Council fuelled the controversy when he said the team of three scientists had been tasked with carrying out studies and experiments to test the widely-established belief that HIV causes AIDS.

The claim was hotly disputed by Makgoba, Gayle and Bialy although Bialy said the ELISA tests could "in the far future'' lead to tests on the link between HIV and AIDS.