South Africa, a country with the fastest growing number of HIV-positive cases (estimated at 1,600 a day), has shocked many scientists and other concerned people by questioning the cause of AIDS.
It is hard to believe, but South African President Thabo Mbeki recently called David Resnick, a San-Francisco-based microbiologist, already discredited among many in the scientific community for upholding a dissident view of AIDS.
Resnick, Peter Duesberg and a few others are reportedly claiming that there is no scientific proof that the HIV virus causes AIDS, and that many people in Africa and other underdeveloped countries are in fact dying because of
malnutrition and a lack of sanitation. Finally, these scientists are warning people not to use anti-HIV drugs as they are harmful and may lead to AIDS.
At first, it seems that Mbeki sent a few written questions to Resnick and later personally telephoned him. The two apparently spent about 10 minutes in deep conversation, alarming both local and world scientists, and "understandably" many AIDS activists.
Raising doubts about the cause of AIDS and, in effect, calling for a reappraisal of the link between HIV and AIDS as some high government officials in South Africa have done, has resulted in a sharp rebuke from leading South African and international scientists. Their concern is all the more greater as the 13th International AIDS Conference is scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa, this July.
"HIV was discovered in 1983, 17 years ago ... we have accumulated so
much evidence of the link with AIDS - it is nonsense to try to separate the virus and the disease," said the HIV discoverer and co-discoverer of AIDS, Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.
"Certainly, people are not killed by the virus itself. But there is no doubt that HIV initiates the process of immune deficiency," according to Barre-Sinoussi of the French Pasteur Institute. She was speaking to the press in Johannesburg where many leading researchers have gathered to discuss the agenda
for the upcoming AIDS conference.
Dr. Helene Gayle, a director with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, was also baffled by the calls of some South African politicians and doctors for a "re-examination" of the causes of AIDS.
She found "no merit in questioning conventional wisdom" and warned that "this virus moves quickly - the damage in prolonged questioning and debating issues that have long ago been discussed and refuted is enormous."
"It's a national scandal," the president of the Medical Research
Council of South Africa, Malegapuru Makgoba, said of Mbeki's phone call to
Resnick. Makgoba attacked the AIDS dissidents, calling them "failures in
their own countries" and warning that South Africa is becoming
"fertile ground for pseudo-science."
Describing Mbeki's questions as "trivial" and mind-boggling,
Makgoba was quoted in the influential South African weekly, the Sunday
Independent, as saying that the issue - what causes AIDS - has become
"political rather than scientific."
He warned that, "if politicians are seeking consensus among scientists,
that's the wrong approach. One of the things that distinguishes politics from
science is that in science we never seek consensus ... in science you are either
right or wrong."
Makgoba reminded the media that in September 1995, the U.S. National
Institutes of Health published a 61-page document refuting the dissident
theories point by point.
The Sunday Independent also quoted U.S. researcher, Dr. John Moore of the
Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, as saying that "Mbeki has
given lifeblood to a dead cause." In a telephone interview, Moore said that
he was "flabbergasted" and that the matter would be brought to the
attention of "very serious levels in the US government ... because [Mbeki]
needs to get proper advice, from his peers.
"To see these questions [the link between HIV and AIDS] resurging in a
country where the AIDS problem is so much more serious [than in the U.S.] is
shocking and frightening; and to see the president of a nation taking this
seriously is a very shocking thing," warned Moore.
He compared the calls for a "re-examination" of what causes AIDS as
"tantamount to Holocaust denial because the implications are so serious ...
You should not try to steer government policy on a path that could lead to the
genocide of a nation."
When asked by a journalist about Mbeki's "democratic right" to seek
further information, Moore responded, "It's the South African government's
right to reinvent the wheel if they want, but these debates have been held and
settled in America and Europe 10 years ago."
Dr. Ruth Nduati, a pediatrician at the University of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya,
described Mbeki's actions as "unfortunate."
"It's taking us backwards, and it is our worry that such discussions may
unravel our significant gains in terms of managing the disease." She
concluded that, "there is no doubt in my mind that HIV causes AIDS."
The head of the AIDS unit at the National Institute for Virology of South
Africa, Lynn Morris, commented that "there is no debate amongst scientists
that HIV causes AIDS. This debate is being generated by people on the fringe, in
the lay press, and not by people who are actively involved in HIV
The South African media have also published an e-mail sent by Dr. Art Amman,
a pediatrician and head of the US-based Global Strategies for HIV Prevention, to
his international colleagues this week: "After reviewing the volumes of
communication having to do with the Duesberg disciples, personally listening in
court for two days to these individuals, and surveying the damage they are
invoking, I am trying to reach some conclusions and think about a rational
approach to limiting their future damage and influence."
Amman called on the scientific community to publish "a denunciation of
these individuals and their theories as not credible, dangerous, and analogous
to other pseudo-scientific theories in the past which are taken up by despots
for nefarious intent, such as theories of eugenics and racial superiority."
"I find it curious there has been so little objection from black African
or U.S. leadership about a white-dominated movement like the Duesberg disciples,
which is perpetuating a theory that is resulting in the death of so many
Africans," Amman stated.
Some AIDS activists continue to express a profound sense of dismay at the
news that the South African government is convening an international panel to
reappraise the scientific evidence that the HIV virus leads to AIDS. Millions of
HIV-positive people in South Africa are concerned about the present AIDS
polemics, especially when even top government officials are raising doubts about
other antiviral drugs; claiming that they are harmful in fact.
Mbeki's government has already refused to provide free AZT to pregnant
mothers and rape victims, claiming that the drug's "toxicity could even
exacerbate the symptoms of AIDS."
South African Judge Edwin Cameron, who recently declared that he was
HIV-positive, criticized his government's AIDS policy.
Addressing the National Conference for People Living with Aids in Durban, he
said, "We are told that funding constraints limit the power of the
government to intervene and assist non-governmental organizations' efforts. How
then can it be that public funds, allocated to AIDS, are not spent?"
Cameron pointed out that, "it was disturbing that 40 million rands [more
than $8.5 million U.S.] of the funds allocated to the department of health for
spending on AIDS has not been used."
Cameron also attacked Dr. Ian Roberts, the special adviser to the national
minister of health, for holding "the brutal and cynical view that it is not
worth spending money on saving babies from AIDS because they will soon die
Most local and foreign analysts agree on one thing though - the questions on
the cause of AIDS need to be settled once and for all before the 13th
International AIDS Conference in Durban.