MBEKI DIGS IN HEELS OVER HIV/AIDS
By Adele Sulcas
The Star 25 March 2000
President Thabo Mbeki has become further embroiled in the escalating
controversy around HIV/AIDS, telling a constitutional court judge,
the heads of two major churches and the chairperson of the world's
leading international AIDS conference that he would continue to
question the conventional wisdom on HIV/AIDS.
Mbeki made his stand clear in reply to a joint letter from Judge
Edwin Cameron, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, the head of the
Anglican church, Bishop Mvume Dandala, the head of the Methodist
church and Professor Jerry Coovadia, the chairman of the Durban 2000
HIV/AIDS conference, as well as Merci Makhalamele, a prominent
They had written to him asking him to reconsider the government's
policy of not providing anti-HIV drugs to pregnant women.
Mbeki also responded personally to a letter from Dr Johnny Sachs, a
well-known Cape Town immunologist, who questioned the wisdom of
"individuals in leadership positions" querying the links between HIV
Copies of Mbeki's responses, both written on March 15, were given to
The Sunday Independent this week by a government source.
Mbeki's statements on the need to "reinvigorate the debate" around
long-established AIDS-related science, and his telephone call in
January to David Rasnick, an American dissident theorist, have caused
consternation among scientists.
On several occasions recently Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health
minister, has publicly reaffirmed that the internationally
established scientific evidence on HIV-AIDS is regarded as
"conclusive" and that the epidemic is "the most serious health
challenge" to southern Africa.
Activists and researchers feel that a statement from the presidency
is needed to clarify the government's approach to the epidemic, which
already directly affects about four million South Africans who are
In his response to Sachs, Mbeki insists that the debate must remain open.
Mbeki said: "I am taken aback by the determination of many people in
our country to sacrifice all intellectual integrity to act as
salespersons of the product of one pharmaceutical company."
This refers to Glaxo Wellcome, the British manufacturers of the
anti-HIV drug AZT.
"I am also amazed at how many people, who claim to be scientists, are
determined that scientific discourse and inquiry should cease,
because 'most of the world' is of one mind," Mbeki said.
"The debate we need is not with me, who is not a scientist, or my
office, but [with] the scientists who present 'scientific' arguments
contrary to the 'scientific' view expressed by 'most of the world'.
"By resort to the use of the modern magic wand at the disposal of
modern propaganda machines, an entire regiment of eminent 'dissident'
scientists is wiped out from the public view, leaving a solitary
Peter Duesberg alone on the battlefield, insanely tilting at the
Duesberg is the name most often associated with dissidents who
believe HIV does not cause AIDS.
The letter to the Cameron group quotes five studies that cast doubts
on the safety or efficacy of AZT, including a French study, reported
on by The Sunday Independent last year, in which eight children of 1
754 mother-child pairs experienced a condition called mitochondrial
"It is clear from your letter that you believe that we should ignore
or merely note these findings because of the current 'consensus
amongst responsible and authoritative scientific leaders' as well as
'the available evidence'," Mbeki writes.
"Undoubtedly, such 'consensus' and 'available evidence' also existed
on the use of Thalidomide.
"Faced with the findings indicated in this letter, I am afraid that
my own conscience would not allow that I respond only to the
'consensus' with which you are in agreement."
Referring to the health department's recent decision to form an
international expert panel "to discuss all HIV-AIDS matters that are
in dispute", Mbeki writes: "I hope you will agree with me that such a
meeting should be inclusive of all scientific views and not only
those representative of the 'consensus' to which you refer."
He ends by saying: "I fully recognise that I have much to learn and
must be ready to admit and correct whatever mistakes I might make as
a result of not heeding the advice that 'a little learning is a
Jon Cohen of the American journal Science, who wrote an evaluation of
the dissidents' claims in Science in December 1994, said the
questions Mbeki was raising have long been considered "dead" debates.
"These questions are old, they're stale. Science is provisional,
things keep changing, AIDS moves quickly. Medicine is also about
making conclusions and not simply debating things forever," Cohen