The Star 9 Nov. 1999

Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang met AZT manufacturers Glaxo Wellcome in Pretoria on Tuesday to discuss President Thabo Mbeki's concerns over the safety of the anti-AIDS drug.

Health director-general Ayanda Ntsaluba said afterwards that the meeting had been cordial and "reasonably constructive", and that Glaxo had promised to co-operate in the probe that has been launched into the drug.

Glaxo, who were represented at the meeting by chairperson Reuel Khoza, chief executive officer Bill Collier and medical director Peter Moore, are expected to issue a statement later on Tuesday.

Glaxo asked Mbeki for a meeting two weeks ago, after he said in Parliament that there was a large volume of scientific literature suggesting that the drug's toxicity was a danger to health.

Mbeki in turn asked Tshabalala-Msimang to talk to the company. He has also asked her for a report on the drug.

Ntsaluba said that at the meeting Glaxo had wanted to know what form the investigation would take, what role the Medicines Control Council would play in it, and how long it would take.

They also wanted to know the department's stance on patients currently taking AZT.

Ntsaluba also said Glaxo acknowledged, in response to a comment from the minister, that the concerns raised by Mbeki were not new.

He said it was fair to say there was no consensus among scientists on the safety of AZT.

The department would not argue if Glaxo were to contend that the majority of scientists backed AZT, but all Mbeki had in fact said was that some fairly renowned scientists were raising serious concerns.

All Mbeki was calling for was that the minister, with the aid of scientists, should "get to the bottom of the truth" so there could be certainty.

Ntsaluba said the minister had expressed the view that there was nothing irresponsible in Mbeki raising these concerns, and Glaxo had accepted that.

She had also made it clear that she would not call for anyone to stop using AZT, and made the point that she had not instructed any researchers to halt ongoing clinical trials of the drug.

Ntsaluba said both the health officials and Glaxo had agreed the issue should not be dealt with in an antagonistic way. Glaxo had agreed to co-operate with the investigation, and to make whatever data it had available.

Tshabalala-Msimang had told the company it was difficult to say how long the probe would take, but that any uncertainty should be resolved as soon as possible.

MCC chairperson Helen Rees said on Monday that the council had told Tshabalala-Msimang, in a preliminary report, that use of AZT was justified.

She said the report was "fairly superficial", as it was based only on easily-accessible information, and would be followed in about two months by a more comprehensive document drawing from wider research.