AIDS Researchers Decry Mbeki's Views on HIV

Jon Cohen

Most governments that face a serious AIDS epidemic have taken a long time to acknowledge the fact. In South Africa, one of the hardest hit countries in the world, this pattern has a bizarre twist: President Thabo Mbeki has acknowledged that his country has an AIDS epidemic, but he has questioned whether HIV is to blame.

Not only is Mbeki publicly flirting with scientifically discredited ideas about the cause of AIDS, but a leading skeptic of HIV's role in the disease has been invited to serve on a panel to discuss how South Africa should deal with the crisis. These moves are drawing international attention--and increasingly sharp attacks from AIDS researchers inside and outside South Africa, where the virus has infected one out of every 10 adults.

Mbeki's questioning of the scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS became front-page news around the world last week when The Washington Post revealed that he recently sent a letter about his views to President Bill Clinton, other heads of state, and U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. In the letter, Mbeki decries the "orchestrated campaign of condemnation" that has been directed at him for seeking out the views of so-called AIDS "dissidents," such as the University of California, Berkeley's, Peter Duesberg, who in 1987 began challenging the widely accepted scientific conclusion that HIV causes AIDS (Science, 9 December 1994, p. 1642). "We are now being asked to do precisely the same thing that the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed did, because, it is said, there exists a scientific view that is supported by the majority, against which dissent is prohibited," wrote Mbeki in his 3 April letter. "The day may not be far off when we will, once again, see books burnt and their authors immolated by fire by those who believe that they have a duty to conduct a holy crusade against the infidels."

"I think the letter was emotional and irrational," says Malegapuru William Makgoba, an Oxford-trained immunologist who in July became the first black head of South Africa's Medical Research Council. "This man will regret this in his later years. He displays things he doesn't understand."

Makgoba says Mbeki told him and others earlier this year that he became intrigued by the dissidents' views after reading about them on the Internet. In January, Makgoba says Mbeki sent him about 1500 pages of documents that question the so-called "HIV/AIDS hypothesis." "It's pure rubbish," says Makgoba. "They never provided any data and, at the same time, they are taking things out of context." He told Mbeki as much in a letter that also offered detailed counterarguments. "His credibility as an African leader may suffer from this," says Makgoba, who recently edited a book called African Renaissance, which has an introduction written by Mbeki.

Parks Mankahlana, Mbeki's spokesperson, stresses that Mbeki has never said that he does not believe that HIV causes AIDS. "We've gone through all of his speeches," says Mankahlana, who points out that Mbeki has increased support for AIDS research, encourages the use of condoms, and always wears an AIDS ribbon on his lapel. Mbeki, says Mankahlana, is simply exploring a range of views on the role that HIV plays in the disease. "The problem that the scientific world has is this: It has to do with human arrogance."

The dissidents' views are expected to be included in a panel of about 30 AIDS "experts" that South Africa's Department of Health is convening to discuss how to address the country's epidemic. Duesberg says he has been invited and may well attend the panel's meeting next month. "I think after this letter, I have to go," says Duesberg. "It's getting hot again, just like in the old days, thanks to Mbeki. I'm surprised that there's a place left on this planet where you can ask commonsensical questions."

In part because of Mbeki's stance, some AIDS researchers have threatened to boycott the international AIDS conference scheduled to be held in Durban this July. But Salim Abdool Karim, a leading South African AIDS researcher who chairs the scientific committee for the meeting, says he does not expect Mbeki's views to depress attendance. "In fact, it has encouraged some people to say, 'I will attend the conference,' " Karim says. Karim, who conspicuously was not invited to sit on the health department's panel, hopes Mbeki will quickly declare that he believes HIV causes AIDS. "This should be resolved urgently, rather than making it an international issue," says Karim.

Volume 288, Number 5466, Issue of 28 Apr 2000, pp. 590-591.
Copyright © 2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.