SAPA 7 May 2000

Pretoria -- International AIDS experts remained deeply divided about the cause of the disease after a weekend gathering in Pretoria, but they agreed on Sunday that a simple experiment might resolve the matter.

They decided to set up a sub-group to explore what the nature of such an experiment should be, President of the SA National Research Foundation Khotso Mokhele told reporters.

"This will hopefully put to rest once and for all this question," he said.

The more than 30 scientists enlisted by South Africa to test assumptions about AIDS are evenly split between experts questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and those subscribing to the conventional view.

Chief facilitator of the discussions on Saturday and Sunday, Stephen Owen, said the two camps -- after heated debates -- remained deeply divided about the cause of AIDS.

"There remains the divergent points of view of the relationship of HIV to AIDS. That point of difference remains in very stark terms," he said.

"It would be overstating the situation grossly to say there were major areas of difference that have been significantly narrowed."

The panel of scientists was initiated by President Thabo Mbeki. Dubbed the Presidential AIDS Advisory Council, its brief is to furnish him with practical recommendations on how the fight against AIDS should be tackled in Africa.

Members of the council will follow up their weekend deliberations with a closed Internet discussion over the next four to six weeks. They will then reconvene in South Africa to conclude the debate and to finalise their proposals.

The R2-million exercise has come under fire from several local as well as international scientists subscribing to the view that HIV has conclusively been proven as the cause of AIDS.

Mokhele said the purpose of the weekend gathering was not to narrow differences. The purpose was to identify issues for discussion and debate.

"We succeeded in listing key questions around the cause, the prevention and the treatment of AIDS."

The major outcome of the meeting was an agreement that there was a possible series of simple experiments that could be done to deal with the cause of AIDS.

"It ought not be too costly and ought not to take a long time," Mokhele said.

The sub-group that would explore this included United States scientist Peter Duesberg, who is a leading figure among the so-called dissidents.

The other members are -- William Makgoba of South Africa's Medical Research Council, Helene Gayle of the Centre for Disease Control in the United States, and Harvey Baily, an AIDS expert based in Mexico.

"Their work will entail the precipitation of what those experiments could be and the engagement at later point with other scientists."

Mokhele would not give details on the nature of these experiments, saying that was to be formulated by the sub-group.

Duesberg later told Sapa that the experiments could focus on the fact that most Africans diagnosed with AIDS were only presumed to be infected with HIV.

"Almost all of the diagnosis here are done in a way that does not require an HIV test. It would be very simple -- you take 100 AIDS patients here and test how many are HIV and how many not," he said.

"If you find that the majority is HIV-free, then you have a problem. That would mean that HIV is out, and that you have to look for something else."

He also contended that nothing had so far been published in any medical journal to prove that AZT was an effective drug against AIDS.

Duesberg he was "a bit sceptical" about the extent to which the six-week discussion would be open to the views about the so-called dissident scientists.

Asked if this meant that his group would not have a major impact on the outcome of the debate, he said: "I am not madly optimistic."