Controversy Overshadows 13th AIDS Conference

The first time they convened, the 33 scientists who are attempting to give South African President Thabo Mbeki the definitive answer on AIDS could not bear to stay in the same room together.

The panel, made up of roughly even numbers of AIDS “dissidents,” who question the link between HIV and AIDS, and mainstream scientists, who say it has been proved beyond doubt, had to break out into separate sessions.

Now, just days ahead of the 13th International AIDS Conference, to be held in Durban, South Africa, mainstream scientists are struggling to find a way to make Mbeki happy without giving into the hated dissidents — and without letting the controversy overshadow the conference.

They are furious that the first AIDS conference to be held in a developing country is being hijacked by what they consider to be an inane debate over well-established facts, when it should be an opportunity to highlight the disaster that AIDS has become in Africa.

Stark Fundamental Differences

“When we met as a panel, we all spent the first day and a half working through as much as we could together, but it came to a point where we were not able to make sufficient progress because the fundamental differences were too stark,” Dr. Salim Abdool-Karim, head of the HIV/AIDS Research Unit at South Africa’s Medical Research Council, said in a telephone interview.

“There had to be two different groups. The kinds of suggestions and recommendations that you make if you don’t accept that HIV causes AIDS are so dramatically different that there is no gray area. It is all black and white.”

When Mbeki first started questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, disbelieving scientists turned to their main link — the Internet.

Messages flew fast and furious between South Africa, Britain, the United States and elsewhere. One South African researcher called Mbeki’s questioning attitude “idiotic.”

An outraged John Moore, formerly of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at New York’s Rockefeller University and now of Cornell University, sent out lists of Mbeki’s new 33-member AIDS advisory panel, which included virtually every known “dissident” who disputed the link between HIV and AIDS.

Challenging Orthodoxy Online

Ironically, it was the Internet that first gave Mbeki the idea that he could challenge scientific orthodoxy. Known for his fondness for “surfing the Web,” he had come upon the pages posted by Peter Duesberg of the University of California at Berkeley, David Rasnick, a California-based molecular pharmacologist, and research editor Harvey Bialy of New York.

The three men are members of the Group for the Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, which argues that HIV does not always cause AIDS and HIV drugs may do more harm than good.

Mbeki appointed them to his panel, along with some of the world’s leading mainstream AIDS researchers, including Karim, Dr. Luc Montagnier, who co-discovered HIV, and Dr. Helene Gayle, who heads the AIDS center at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

They are trying to be diplomatic while, at the same time, make their point. One member of the panel, who asked not to be named, said it was difficult because of strong pressure from Mbeki’s office.

“The absurdity of this panel is without question but the political ramifications are serious,” the panelist said. “The president [Mbeki] wants to know that we came to an agreement.”

Some researchers say it is possible that Mbeki is acting out of desperation.

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