SAPA 5 April 2001

The government on Thursday ran into a storm of criticism over the report of its controversial presidential AIDS advisory panel.

Opposition parties condemned it as a waste of resources, while organisations working in the AIDS field said it could even harm the fight against the disease.

The 134-page document fails to resolve any of the key controversies that led to the formation of the panel, among them whether HIV causes AIDS.

Instead, the report proposes a series of further experiments around the reliability of HIV testing and a review of AIDS data.

'A total of 250 000 South Africans are living with AIDS' Democratic Alliance spokesperson Dr Kobus Gous said the panel's "peculiar" composition - split evenly between orthodox and dissident scientists - had doomed it to be an expensive failure.

The DA was appalled to note that, based on the report, the government would claim to be justified in denying anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers and rape survivors.

"A total of 250 000 South Africans are living with AIDS, not to mention the 5-million who are HIV-positive. Will the president consider asking them for their opinion on the report?" Gous asked.

African Christian Democratic Party spokesperson Jo-Ann Downs said the document was "like contractor's PVA, which is a very expensive version of whitewash".

In layman's terms, the call for further experiments and research meant the people producing the report wanted an extended season of remuneration, she said.

'We can't wallow in the luxury of this kind of confusion' Mark Heywood, head of the AIDS Law Project, said the report had achieved "almost nothing".

"It hasn't moved us from A to B. If anything, the lack of resolution is bad for public health and HIV prevention in South Africa."

Dr Ashraf Grimwood, chairperson of the National Council on AIDS, said the panel had been an expensive exercise that had caused ground to be lost in the fight against AIDS.

"In a sense, what we have done with this long and very expensive debate is put back a lot of years' work, especially among young people," he said.

If the report did not indicate that HIV caused AIDS, "then it's a very serious situation".

"It means it will continue the undermining of a lot of the activities we are undertaking to address this very serious issue.

"We can't wallow in the luxury of this kind of confusion. We need to move on," he said.

Government communications spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe confirmed that President Thabo Mbeki, whose Internet courting of dissident views led to the formation of the panel, had read the report.

Presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo said the presidency had nothing more to say on the issue at this stage.