Unproved Aids drug is tested on humans

The South African government is under attack over its support for a controversial `cure'. Mary Braid reports
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The Independent Online
NO ONE can quite figure out why the South African government is championing Virodene, a homegrown "cure" for Aids, even though it has been thoroughly panned by the medical establishment.

The government's dogged support for the drug, whose main constituent is an industrial solvent, is being linked to threats to abolish the Medicine Controls Council (MCC), the body responsible for drug safety.

Medical experts and opposition parties say it is no coincidence that the attacks on the MCC come after it refused to lift the ban on Virodene. The MCC says the drug is toxic and there is no scientific evidence to support claims that it can halt HIV and even cure Aids.

The government is furious. Thabo Mbeki, the president-in-waiting, has even said the MCC is "denying dying Aids sufferers mercy treatment".

The African National Congress has suggested that the MCC is stifling Virodene research because it has hidden financial links with international pharmaceutical companies. The MCC have denied this.

Though he retained a diplomatic silence this week, that must hurt the MCC's chairman Professor Peter Folb, a man of impeccable medical and anti- apartheid credentials.

The Virodene controversy began more than a year ago when three University of Pretoria scientists suddenly announced they had discovered an Aids wonder drug. The "breakthrough" stunned a scientific field which had never heard of Olga Visser, Professor Dirk du Plessis and Dr Callie Landauer - a heart surgery team. Small wonder, for the trio had broken every rule in the scientific research book. Their work had never been published or submitted for peer review. Worse still, they had already tested Virodene on Aids patients without permission from the university's ethics committee, or the MCC.

The medical establishment's wrath descended, but it was soon clear the team - which had formed a company, Cryo-Preservation Technologies (CPT), and patented its find - had powerful backers. It had already presented its research to a cabinet meeting organised by the health minister, Dr Nkozasana Zuma, attended by Mr Mbeki.

Seeking government funding CPT took along two of the seven Aids patients already taking the drug. They claimed to feel much better. Government support has not wavered since, despite the scandal of the original illegal human testing and a police investigation into claims that CPT was still dispensing the banned drug late last year.

A study into Virodene by an American researcher, which concluded that the drug not only did not combat the HIV virus but might even accelerate its spread, did not dampen the government's enthusiasm either. Dr Salim Abdool Karim, head of Aids research at the Medical Research Council, said this week that Virodene's claims were still "hopelessly unconvincing".

Other Aids experts have been more scathing. "They say Virodene kills the virus," said one. "So does bleach but, I wouldn't inject it into patients."

Though there are desperate sufferers willing to give any "cure" a try, Aids patient organisations are also giving the "discovery" a wide berth. The National Association of People with Aids agrees there should be no human trials until the Virodene team has more evidence to offer. "Like everyone else I am baffled by the government's motivation," said Dr Karim.

The government certainly faces a crisis. South Africa now has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world. Like the rest of the continent it has the greatest need and the least money for the expensive anti-HIV medicines now used in the West.

Have Mr Mbeki and Ms Zuma simply become carried away by their desperation to find a cheap local cure - a month's course of Virodene costs $34 (pounds 21) - that cuts out the international pharmaceutical companies?

Even admirers of Ms Zuma, who is waging a war with drug multinationals for cheaper medicines, are worried by the attack on the MCC. "There's no reason to replace the MCC, unless you just want `yes' men," said one academic.