Panel Hands Off AIDS Hot Potato

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

South African President Thabo Mbeki's controversial AIDS advisory panel found little common ground last weekend and ended up establishing a four-person committee to devise tests of fringe ideas about what causes the disease. Mbeki outraged many mainstream AIDS researchers last month when he questioned whether HIV causes AIDS and named leading skeptic Peter Duesberg of the University of California, Berkeley, to a deeply divided 33-member panel that will recommend ways South Africa should fight the disease (Science, 28 April, p. 590).

The panel, which met on 6 and 7 May in Pretoria, appointed two researchers from each camp to work on formulating experiments that could test theories about HIV's role in AIDS, which threatens more than 10% of South Africa's 42 million people. The four--Duesberg, William Makgoba of South Africa's Medical Research Council, Helene Gayle of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, and Harvey Baily, a Mexico-based AIDS researcher--plan to confer by Internet over the next 6 weeks. They will return to South Africa to present their ideas before the 7 July opening of the 13th World Conference on AIDS.

Critics call the exercise a waste of time and money. But Mbeki told the panel he is keeping an open mind: "You can't respond to a catastrophe merely by saying 'I will do what is routine.'"

Posted in Health