South African Scientists Fear Boycott of AIDS Conference Over President's Comments
The Chronicle of Higher Education (04/26/00)
By LINDA VERGNANI
Rumors that some researchers may boycott the 13th International AIDS Conference in South Africa because the country's
president has courted scientists with nontraditional views on AIDS are drawing a response from the South African scientists
who helped organize the meeting. The chairman of the July conference, a South African medical-school professor, says
researchers should ignore President Thabo Mbeki's "tragic" views and attend the meeting.
Mr. Mbeki recently invited American dissident scientists who deny that H.I.V. causes AIDS to serve on an "international panel" to look into the disease. Defending his views to President Clinton and other international leaders in a letter published in The Washington Post last week, Mr. Mbeki wrote: It is obvious that whatever lessons we have to and may draw from the West about the grave issue of HIV-AIDS, a simple superimposition of Western experience on African reality would be absurd and illogical. Such proceeding would constitute a criminal betrayal of our responsibility to our own people."
But Mr. Mbeki has done much that has given pause to AIDS researchers, including those in his own country. As Nelson
Mandela's vice president, he supported the use of an AIDS drug, Virodene, that was developed in South Africa but that many
scientists considered to be spurious. His government has refused to pay for distribution of the drug AZT, which has been shown in multiple clinical trials to prevent the transmission of AIDS from pregnant women to their babies. And many scientists here and abroad feel that he has given a small group of scientists who doubt the viral cause of AIDS much more legitimacy than they deserve, sidetracking serious research efforts as a result.
In his letter, Mr. Mbeki said it was being suggested that some scientists, including winners of the Nobel prize, were dangerous
and discredited and should not be communicated with. He likened this attempt at "scientific quarantine" to the way in which the
"racist apartheid tyranny" had acted against opposition.
President Mbeki's spokesman, Parks Mankhlana, said in a statement given to a local newspaper that "the president has never
said that H.I.V. does not cause AIDS. It turns out the president's cardinal sin was making contact with someone by the name of David Rasnick, who does not share the commonly held view that H.I.V. leads to AIDS." Mr. Rasnick worked in the laboratory of Peter Duesberg, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who believes that AIDS is caused not by the human immunodeficiency virus but by recreational drug use and by AZT.
Jerry Coovadia, chairman of the conference and a professor of pediatrics and child health at the University of Natal Medical
School, said he had heard "pretty vague" reports that some of the 9,000 delegates expected for the conference were
considering a boycott because of President Mbeki's views. Most of those considering a boycott, he said, were from the United
States and Britain.
Dr. Coovadia said no reputable scientists in South Africa subscribed to the president's theory. He has appealed to scientists to
attend the conference and to help counter the global epidemic of AIDS. He said it would also give them the opportunity to
restate their views in order to counteract the "flawed arguments" that were being put forward by the dissidents and their
Dr. Coovadia said it was "false" to boycott the conference in order to show disapproval of the president's views, since the
conference was organized by scientists, not the South African government. Secondly, this is the first time the conference is
being held in a developing country and the organizing committees represented scientists, community organizations, and AIDS
activists from all over the world. If people boycotted, he said, they would be boycotting these international organizers. Finally,
he said, the conference is to focus on the disease in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, so withdrawing from the conference
"would mean boycotting that important issue of the H.I.V. epidemic in developing countries."
South Africa has one of the highest incidences of H.I.V. and AIDS in the world, with about 10 percent of the population
infected. The rate of H.I.V. infection among pregnant women attending public clinics is 22 percent.