Shock greets government decision to include 'dissidents'

By Ranjeni Munusamy

Sunday Times (Johannesburg) 2 April 2000

South Africa's top AIDS researchers have been snubbed by the government in its selection of a distinguished panel to advise President Thabo Mbeki on AIDS issues.

World-acclaimed scientists such as Professor Jerry Coovadia, chairman of the 13th International AIDS Conference, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, president of the Medical Research Council, and Professor Salim Abdool Karim, director of the council's HIV prevention and vaccine research, have been excluded from the panel.

The decision to appoint the panel follows Mbeki's engagement in a debate about whether HIV causes AIDS and his personal communication with US-based AIDS dissidents David Rasnick and Peter Duesberg.

The Sunday Times has learnt that Italian scientist Dr Stefano Vella and prominent Zambian AIDS activist Winston Zulu have already been courted to serve on the panel. However, neither of them have been told what its brief is or what its terms of reference are.

The move has outraged the South African AIDS community and caused concern in the international scientific community.

The chairman of the National AIDS Council of South Africa, Dr Ashraf Grimwood, said yesterday that the AIDS community was "shocked and horrified" that Mbeki was canvassing the opinions of AIDS dissidents who believe that HIV is a harmless virus and that AIDS is caused by poverty and "diseases of lifestyle".

"Scientists are baffled and there is talk among them about not continuing research in South Africa," said Grimwood.

"They are gravely concerned that because of government's interference and meddling this is not a favourable environment, and they are considering taking their resources and research elsewhere."

Coovadia said he was "gravely concerned" that no South Africans had been approached to advise the government on AIDS issues.

"I can't imagine why they will leave out experienced scientists and people working in the field who are knowledgeable about the issues in our country," he said.

"However, we still don't know what this panel is about. If it is to investigate whether HIV exists, then I am not concerned about being left out. I am not going to waste my time delving into a debate which has been thrashed out years ago."

Coovadia said he was concerned that some of the information reaching the President was "seriously flawed" and that he used references "which fly in the face of international scientific research".

Karim said he was not prepared to sit on a panel which "serves political ends". "It seems that this committee is to adjudicate whether HIV causes AIDS and not to address genuine critical issues about AIDS. There are no new facts which warrant a reappraisal of the HIV issue," he said.

"They treat us as if South Africa has secondary scientists, whereas we have some of the world's leading scientists on HIV. Our data is published in the best international medical journals and we compete for research funding with the world leaders in science. The government's approach to us is baffling."

Presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana said Mbeki had not appointed the panel himself as this was the responsibility of the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

With regard to questions about whether or not HIV exists, Mankahlana said there were "thousands of scientists who are very happy that the President has engaged in this debate. Coovadia and others belong to one school of thought and he [Coovadia] is not qualified to say that others are talking rubbish just because they don't agree with him," he said.

The special adviser to Tshabalala-Msimang, Dr Ian Roberts, refused to give information about the panel, or to explain why no South Africans had been asked to serve on it. "People are being approached and their names cannot be released until the minister determines the correct time to do so," Roberts said, adding that the panel's terms of reference would be announced at that time.

Makgoba said he was not concerned that he had not yet been invited to serve on the panel as it was possible the government was still getting around to approaching him and other South African researchers.

He said the dissidents had never conducted experiments or provided data to back their claims, but had instead critiqued the literature of other scientists.

"It appears that the President is going about trying to fill knowledge gaps about the disease. But there is no debate about HIV. The data proving that it exists is as clear as sunlight," Makgoba said.