SOUTH AFRICAN LEADER ENTERS AIDS CONTROVERSY
He queries biochemist who denies HIV link
By Louis Freedberg
San Francisco Chronicle 3 April 2000
It isn't every day that David Rasnick, a biochemist who lives in Saratoga,
gets a call from a foreign president.
Truth be told, it had never happened until South African President Thabo
Mbeki, Nelson Mandela's successor, called on his cell phone two months ago
to discuss Rasnick's controversial stance that the human immunodeficiency
virus, or HIV, does not cause AIDS.
Mbeki has not said one way or another whether he believes Rasnick's
But just reaching out to him has triggered an uproar in South Africa, where
AIDS advocates worry that it will set back efforts to combat the disease
And it has also caused concern among AIDS officials in Washington, who
wonder what signal it will send to the U.S. Congress, which is debating
several bills to increase support for AIDS prevention efforts in Africa.
Rasnick believes that what is diagnosed as AIDS in Africa is really a new
label attached to old ailments -- such as persistent coughs, diarrhea,
parasitic diseases and tuberculosis -- in developing countries.
THEORY LONG AGO DISCREDITED
AIDS researchers say they are alarmed at Mbeki's interest in a theory they
thought had been discredited years ago.
"It gives them a platform to espouse theories that are absolutely
unsupportable,'' said Thomas Coates, director of the AIDS Research
Institute at the University of California in San Francisco. "And they
don't get many platforms in the world because they are considered to be on
the lunatic fringe.''
Rasnick, 52, who has a doctorate in chemistry and founded two Bay Area
companies that manufactured protease inhibitors, is a former president of a
loose confederation known as the Group to Reasses the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis.
He has made it something of a crusade to challenge the conventional wisdom
that HIV causes AIDS.
"President Mbeki asked me for my personal support in his efforts to
explore all things related to AIDS,'' said Rasnick. "He said he wanted to
start from scratch, and wanted my thoughts on what is making Africans sick
-- what we know, and what we can do about it. And he wanted to know if
(anti-AIDS) drugs do more harm than good.''
To most scientists working on AIDS, the question of what triggers it was
settled more than 10 years ago. In 1988, a committee of experts set up by
the National Academy of Sciences concluded definitively that HIV causes
AIDS. That position was corroborated by a presidential commission in the
"We don't have the time and energy to get bogged down in these kinds of
discussions at this point in the pandemic,'' said Sandra Thurman, President
Clinton's adviser on AIDS policy.
CONFERENCE HEIGHTENS CONCERN
Another major concern is that South Africa will host the biannual
International Conference on AIDS this July, the first time the meeting will
be held in a developing nation. Up to 15,000 AIDS researchers, policy
makers and activists are expected to attend.
Thurman worries that Mbeki's flirtation with unorthodox views could cast a
shadow over the proceedings. "We don't want our deliberations to be held
under the cloud of accusations and discussions about whether HIV is causing
AIDS,'' she said.
Next month, Mbeki will be in Washington for his first state visit, which
will give President Clinton the chance to talk to him directly about the
issue. But officials are hoping that the controversy will be defused by
Mbeki apparently stumbled across Rasnick's work on the Internet. He then
asked Rasnick to respond to a questionnaire he had sent to his health
minister probing the causes and treatment of AIDS.
In preparing his response, Rasnick solicited the help of Charles
Gesheckter, a professor of African history at the California State
University at Chico who last November visited South Africa and met with
Mbeki's health minister.
In an interview, Gesheckter argued that the incidence of AIDS in Africa has
been vastly exaggerated. He cited World Health Organization statistics that
indicate only 794,444 reported AIDS cases for the entire continent from
1981 to 1999 -- a stark contrast to the 2 million annual AIDS deaths now
routinely cited in dramatizing the catastrophic effects of the disease
Both Gesheckter and Rasnick are on the board of directors of the Group to
Reassess the HIV/ AIDS Hypothesis. Also on the board is Peter Duesberg, a
UC Berkeley biochemist who is the best known proponent of the view that HIV
doesn't cause AIDS.
OTHER STATEMENTS WORRISOME
What worries AIDS watchers is that Mbeki's discussion with Rasnick is just
the latest in what they view as a series of disturbing statements and
actions emanating from Pretoria.
Late last year, Mbeki told Parliament that he had come across a "large
volume of scientific evidence'' that showed that AZT, the anti-AIDS drug
routinely administered in the West, may be toxic, as a justification for
his government's policy not to administer it to pregnant women who test HIV
positive. Several studies have shown that AZT can reduce the transmission
of AIDS to children by as much as 50 percent.
"As activists and doctors, we are are asking ourselves: Is this government
taking the disease seriously?'' said Ashraf Grimwood, chairman of the
National AIDS Convention of South Africa. He said Mbeki's flirtation with
"the long dead dinosaur'' that HIV does not cause AIDS has "made a major
dent on (the government's) credibility to deal with the epidemic.''
But Glaudine Mtshali, the counselor for health in the South African embassy
in Washington, D.C., and a former senior official in the Department of
Health in Pretoria, said Mbeki is simply opening up the debate to further
strengthen what the government is doing.
"Let us hear all views; let us make up our own minds within the scarce
resources we are faced with,'' she said.
MORE CONTROVERSY FROM MBEKI
So far, Mbeki shows no signs of backing off. In an opinion page article
last week in Business Day, a leading South African newspaper, Mbeki
spokesman Parks Mankahlana insisted that the president is committed to
fighting AIDS. But with no cure, approaches such as expensive drug
therapies -- which are out of the reach of most African countries -- have
done little to stop its march across the continent, he said.
"HIV/AIDS is not going to succumb to the machinations of the profiteering
pharmaceuticals and their propagandists,'' wrote Mankahlana, using
incendiary language that presumably was cleared by Mbeki. "Like the
marauders of the military industrial complex, the profit takers who are
benefiting from the scourge of HIV/AIDS will disappear to the affluent
beaches of the world to enjoy wealth accumulated from humankind ravaged by
the dreaded disease. And we shall continue to die from AIDS.''
Mbeki has announced that he will set up an international panel to broaden
the search for solutions. In the meantime, Mankahlana said, Mbeki "needs
the support -- not the abuse -- of all of us."
Rasnick is one person whose support Mbeki can count on. "He is an
extraordinary man, and I am at his disposal,'' he said.