New York Times- April 21, 2000
JOHANNESBURG, April 20 -- South African officials today defended the right of maverick AIDS experts to be heard, and continued to speak skeptically of accepted beliefs about how the disease is transmitted.
President Thabo Mbeki sparked renewed controversy on Wednesday for backing scientists who say that H.I.V. does not cause AIDS. He defended skeptical scientists like Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, both Americans, in a letter to President Clinton and other world leaders.
And today Mr. Mbeki's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, declaring that all sides on the debate had to be heard, drew parallels between arguments about the virus and the 17th-century controversy surrounding Galileo, who shattered scientific orthodoxy by proving the earth moved around the sun.
"His views were considered to be so threatening to the scientific establishment that he was forced to publicly recant," Mr. Zuma was quoted as saying in a statement released by the office of the presidency. "As we all know today, he was right and they were wrong."
"Suppose we discover, as Galileo did, that the so-called mainstream scientific view is incorrect," Mr. Zuma said. "Suppose there was even a 1 percent chance that the solution lay elsewhere. As a country we cannot afford to overlook this possibility."
Western scientists have criticized the position that H.I.V. does not cause AIDS as misguided, saying thousands of people are dying while politicians argue about the cause and cure of the disease.
South Africa has one of the world's fastest growing rates of H.I.V. infection, with 4.2 million people -- almost 10 percent of the population -- estimated to have the virus.
South Africa is scheduled to act as host to an important AIDS conference in Durban in July.
South Africa has invited dissidents, including Mr. Duesberg and Mr. Rasnick to attend the July conference. A conference organizer said today that there was no confirmation that the two American scientists would attend.
In his speech, Mr. Zuma went on to say that no group of scientists could monopolize a particular issue.
"Our view is that it is fundamentally wrong to accept the notion that established mainstream scientific truths must not be questioned," Mr. Zuma said in the statement.
"We should not, and we will not leave any stone unturned, even if this means including the views of the so-called dissidents," he said.
A presidential spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, said Mr. Mbeki's letter to world leaders was to meant to defend the right of Mr. Duesberg and the others to be heard. Mr. Mankahlana added, however, that the South African president did not necessarily agree with them.
Mr. Mbeki's letter asserted his government's right to doubt whether H.I.V. causes AIDS, to question whether lifesaving treatments such as the drug AZT are too toxic and to resist the "superimposition of Western experience on African reality."
Mr. Mbeki's government has refused to make AZT available in public clinics even though studies have shown its use can protect the babies of H.I.V.-infected mothers.
Further debate over the use of AZT emerged today when a spokeswoman for the military said the army had discontinued use of AZT earlier this month.
"The courses have been stopped and there will be no new prescriptions," the spokeswoman said.