The South African AIDS Drug Wars: Lessons for Russia

Anthony Brink

AIDS Conference: Ekaterinburg, Russia, 28-31 May 2008:

The HIV/AIDS Problem and the Family Wellbeing of the Nation

In 1996, two years after national liberation in South Africa, the pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoWellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) began a high-pressure marketing campaign to coerce our newly-elected first democratic government to spend billions of rands on buying its drug AZT for administration to HIV-positive pregnant women – claiming that the drug would prevent these women from infecting their babies with HIV, and that without the drug they would get sick and die. No one paused to question this lying sales propaganda. Journalists began championing the drug in the newspapers. The government objected to buying the drug – but on cost grounds only, saying it was unaffordably expensive.

    In the same year I became aware that the entire germ/poison AIDS model was a medical and scientific fallacy and that ARV drugs given by doctors to HIV-positive people are deadly poisonous and completely useless. In view of the pressure our government was under to buy AZT, I felt it imperative to work on exposing the drug for what it is: a cell poison originally designed in 1961 as an experimental cancer chemotherapy to kill leukaemic blood cells. My first success was in winning the interest of our country’s leading investigative journalist, Martin Welz, who commissioned me to write an article about it in October 1998.

    It was at about this time that a former male prostitute and junior high school dropout named Zackie Achmat decided to embark on a new career as a drug pusher. In December 1998 he launched his ‘Treatment Action Campaign’ with the dedicated mission of helping Glaxo force the South African government to buy its drug. It was easy for him. All he had to do to gain support for his cause from trade union leaders, the clergy, journalists, and the opposition politicians – in fact just about everyone – was to claim that he was in the business of saving lives and that the liberation movement now in power didn’t care about its people, thereby playing into a basic racist stereotype of African government.

    In March 1999 my article about AZT was published in a national newspaper The Citizen. This was followed by a response to it by the country’s most senior AIDS treatment expert, to which I wrote a detailed reply. I then forwarded the exchange to the government under the title Debating AZT, and after reading it President Thabo Mbeki ordered an enquiry into the safety of the drug on 28 October that year, stating in the National Council of Provinces that ‘there … exists a large volume of scientific literature alleging that … the toxicity of this drug such that it is, in fact, a danger to health. These are matters of great concern to the government, as it would be irresponsible for us to not to heed the dire warnings which these researchers have been making.’

    What happened next is instructive for your country.

    Glaxo claimed that President Mbeki had been ‘gravely misinformed’. The medical establishment, opposition politicians and journalists all condemned President Mbeki loudly. The drug-industry stooges on the Medicines Control Council failed to heed the medical and scientific literature to which President Mbeki had referred, and pronounced AZT safe, ignorantly reporting that there was nothing to worry about. President Mbeki responded to their incompetence in early 2000 by convening an international panel of orthodox and dissident scientist and doctors to discuss and debate the drug, as well as the basic business model on the basis of which it was being sold: the HIV theory of AIDS. Again, he was vehemently condemned from all sides for this. And again he was frustrated by the orthodox experts’ refusal to cooperate in addressing the issues he’d raised, with the result was that his initiative in opening the AIDS debate died without the resolution he’d hoped for. In a recent biography President Mbeki is quoted regretting this very much.

    Soon after this, all eyes turned to another drug being touted as a lifesaving medicine for mothers and babies: nevirapine, which the manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim was offering free of charge in developing countries for five years as a marketing stratagem. The government responded by opening eighteen experimental pilot sites around the country for providing nevirapine to women in labour and their newborn babies under close monitoring to ensure it was safe and effective.

    By now the TAC had attracted millions in foreign funding for its pro-drug and anti-government propaganda campaign. Dissatisfied with the government’s cautious approach, it sued in the High Court for an order compelling the government to abandon its pilot programme, and to make nevirapine available in public hospitals for administration to all HIV-positive pregnant women and to their newborn babies without delay. Claiming that lives were on the line, the TAC won the case in 2001, and the decision was confirmed on appeal by the Constitutional Court the following year. I’ve written the entire saga up in my book The trouble with nevirapine, including an account of the unreported serious adverse events and deaths among babies on the clinical trial in Uganda that was held out by nevirapine’s promoters as proving its benefits.

    Next, the TAC turned to pressurizing the government to make ARVs available in the public health system for all people diagnosed HIV-positive and having lower than usual CD4 cell counts. President Mbeki and Health Minister Dr Tshabalala-Msimang had vocally opposed the drugs on the grounds that they are extremely toxic and harmful – this is summed up in a leaflet I prepared, Why do President Mbeki and Dr Tshabalala-Msimang warn against the use of ARV drugs like AZT? But their opposition was overwhelmed by a united front of powerful foreign and local pharmaceutical interest groups, and in late 2003 the government announced that it would supply ARVs for administration to HIV-positive people.

    This is instructive in regard to how powerless the leadership of a democratic state in the Developing World is when pitted against the multinational pharmaceutical corporations: it’s not even free to make its own health policy.

    One of the political stunts pulled by the Achmat and his TAC in 2003 was charging Health Minister Dr Tshabalala-Msimang at a police station with culpable homicide, accusing her of being criminally responsible for thousands of lost lives as a consequence of her opposition to ARVs. In January 2007 I outplayed Achmat in his political theatre by charging him with genocide in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Although the widespread death and injury of African people caused by ARV drugs that Achmat has forced the government to provide in the public health system meets the formal requirements for a charge of genocide, I knew my charge against him wouldn’t succeed because ARVs are supported by the pharmaceutical industry-controlled World Health Organization. So I set my criminal complaint against him in the form of an elaborate, multi-layered parody, satirizing even the International Criminal Court itself with a play on its legal jargon – at the same time mocking Achmat with wave after wave of scorn, showing up his stupidity, his ignorance and his hypocrisy (he was severely injured by ARVs himself in 2004, yet he persists in promoting them). My political strike against Achmat in the International Criminal Court attracted huge publicity in South Africa, and I was interviewed making my case against ARVs by several national radio stations for four days running, prime-time. My criminal complaint against Achmat provides a useful overview of the medical and scientific research literature showing how bad ARVs are.

    The literature reporting the deadly toxicity of AZT and similar drugs is vast, and many leading reports are reviewed in my book Debating AZT: Mbeki and the AIDS drug controversy, published in January 2001.

    I’ve also performed a comprehensive survey of the research literature on the foetal and neonatal toxicity of the drug, Poisoning our Children: AZT in pregnancy. Some of these reports are excerpted in my leaflet Why do Zackie Achmat, Nathan Geffen and Mark Heywood want pregnant African women and their babies to be given AZT? What AZT does to unborn and newly born children. In summary, children exposed to AZT in the womb and after birth have a much higher early death rate, and incidence of serious disease, immunological disorders, brain damage and other neurological disorders, and other problems than unexposed children – as one might expect from a cell poison purpose-designed to kill human cells given to especially vulnerable babies.

    Disregarding dozens of research reports on how harmful AZT is for babies, the TAC resumed pressurizing the government to supply AZT in maternity wards as well as nevirapine, threatening the government with more litigation to force it to do so.

    Late last year I endeavoured to prevent this by way of an information campaign to draw journalists’ attention to the horror of what the TAC was pressing for, and I circulated a press statement to all the country’s newspapers: October 1957: Thalidomide in pregnancy; October 2007: AZT in pregnancy; Another tragedy of thousands of children killed and injured foretold. But, being completely on the side of the TAC, the media ignored it.

    Earlier this year, on 25 January, the National Health Council capitulated under the TAC’s threats and recommended that the Department of Health supply AZT for administration to pregnant women and their babies – practically all African. This is President Mbeki and Dr Tshabalala-Msimang’s ultimate nightmare.

    I’ve spoken only about bad drugs in this talk, leaving the other big issues to my colleagues to address. I’m referring here principally to the useless antibody tests and, crucially, the missing virus problem. [This was written and translated before the Perth Group asked me to present their conference paper on the subject, which I did.] You will be interested to learn that President Mbeki is alive to all these issues: he discusses them all in his detailed scientific and ideological critique of the HIV-AIDS paradigm, Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot & Mouth and Statistics: HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African – notably remarking that ‘HIV’, the alleged virus at the centre of the whole show, has never been isolated by the standards of classical virology:

Strange as it may seem, given what our friends tell us about the Virus everyday [President Mbeki’s sarcastic boldface and upper case emphasis], nobody has seen it, including our friends. Nobody knows what it looks like. Nobody knows how it behaves. Everybody acts on the basis of a series of hypotheses about the Virus, which are presumed to be facts, supposedly authenticated by ‘clinical evidence’.

    Those who have imbibed the faith that millions among us are infected by a deadly HI Virus, will disbelieve the assertion that the work of isolating our unique HI Virus has not been done. The omnipotent apparatus will scream loudly that the telling of this truth constitutes the very heart of the criminal non-conformity that must be denounced and repressed by all means and at all costs.

    Rather than perpetuate our self-repression, it is time that we demanded that the necessary scientific work be done to isolate and analyse the Virus that is said to be so deadly.

    So as some of you wonder about the strange news that you hear at this conference, unsettling things you thought you knew, it’s something to bear in mind that the President of South Africa, recognized by everyone as an uncommonly brilliant intellectual, completely rejects the HIV theory of AIDS and the use of ARVs for the core reason that for him there isn’t any ‘virus’.

    In conclusion: I come to you here in Russia to report a terrible defeat of South Africa’s enlightened democratic leadership by ignorant but determined pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, hoping that informed about what has happened in my country, you might avoid the same calamity in yours.

    It’s been a lesson in how massively wealthy, foreign-funded NGOs pursuing alien geo-political and commercial agendas can gather immense political power; attract and build a broad coalition of ‘civil society’ constituencies to support it; successfully pervert the truth with incessantly repeated lies; subvert the democratic will represented by a democratically elected government; and hijack a country’s policy-making, with the most horrible practical consequences – all under the guise of serving the public good.




This talk and the documents listed below can be accessed at the Russian-language page of my Treatment Information Group website:


1.      Why do President Mbeki and Dr Tshabalala-Msimang warn against the use of ARV drugs like AZT?

2.      Criminal Complaint against Zackie Achmat in the International Criminal Court at The Hague

3.      Why do Zackie Achmat, Nathan Geffen and Mark Heywood want pregnant African women and their babies to be given AZT? What AZT does to unborn and newly born children

4.      AZT in pregnancy: TIG press statement


I thank Dr Irina Sazanova for her translations of the first three documents.