Mbeki Visits Merck, Calls Vaccine Work ‘Encouraging’
South African President Thabo Mbeki yesterday visited a Merck & Co. research and manufacturing facility outside of Philadelphia, where he met with Merck Chair Raymond Gilmartin, who informed him of the company's progress on an HIV vaccine, the Associated Press reports. Mbeki called the research an "extraordinary movement forward" in the fight against HIV/AIDS. "Everybody is grappling with this issue, what do we do about AIDS," he said. "What Merck is saying to us .. is that (scientists) are working on a vaccine which would have an impact on the immune system, that the immune system is then able to fight the virus. I think that is really a major breakthrough," he added. Gilmartin said because of the "uncertainty of the drug-discovery process," more research is needed before scientists can predict when a vaccine would possibly be ready (Bergstrom, Associated Press, 6/27).
National Press Club Appearance
After his hour-long visit to Merck, Mbeki returned to Washington, D.C., where he had met on Tuesday with President Bush to discuss plans for Southern Africa's economic future, to address a National Press Club luncheon about the African economic recovery plan and how South Africa plans to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Mbeki's visit to the United States coincided with the U.N. General Assembly's special session on HIV/AIDS, but he did not attend the conference in New York. He explained that the U.N. assembly was a "ministerial" conference and that the South African delegation attending the meetings deals with HIV/AIDS on a day-to-day basis. "What the ministers said at the U.N. AIDS conference is no different from what I would have said," he added. He also noted that he had not yet arrived in the United States when the South African delegation spoke at the conference. Addressing a question about his previous statements doubting whether HIV causes AIDS, Mbeki said his views on the causal link between HIV and AIDS had been distorted by "misreporting." He told the gathering that immune deficiency can be caused by a "variety of things," including malnutrition and contaminated water, "not just a virus." He said he has lobbied for the government to take a "comprehensive approach" to AIDS to "address [the] condition of human beings," which cannot be addressed "merely with drugs and medicine." When asked if he now believed HIV causes AIDS he said that he did not think his "personal belief" was "relevant to scientific fact" and added that acknowledging HIV as the only cause of immune deficiency is a "difficult position to sustain."
The South African government has declined to provide antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS patients, even after settling the lawsuit brought by the world's major pharmaceutical companies against the country's Medicines and Related Substances Act, which allows the government to import or manufacture generic medications. Mbeki said that the government is "very concerned" about drug access, particularly for the bulk of the population that is "very poor," but when asked whether the government will pursue the use of cheaper generic drugs he said that infrastructure and oversight of the therapy was needed first. He added that when the drug companies agreed to drop the lawsuit, they also pledged to aid the country's medical system in overseeing drug distribution and monitoring (Heather Schomann, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 6/28). South African AIDS activists announced earlier this week that they plan to file suit against the government for not providing pregnant HIV-positive women with drugs that can reduce the odds of vertical transmission (Warner, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/28).