Monday October 1, 2001

South Africa tests Aids drug on Tanzania army troops 

Mungo Soggot in Johannesburg  The Guardian


A company owned by the South African government has been testing an HIV/Aids treatment made from burnt coal on Tanzanian soldiers without the approval of the Tanzanian authorities. 

The trials are taking place at the military hospital where Virodene, the notorious South African HIV/Aids concoction, was recently being tested until the researchers running the experiments were expelled from Tanzania earlier this month. 

Four years ago Virodene researchers secured South African government funding and political support to develop the drug, which turned out to be a toxic industrial solvent. The scandal was the first of many blunders by the government over Aids. 

Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research, which rejected the Virodene experiments, said yesterday that it has not given its approval to current trials of the coal-derived HIV/Aids treatment, oxihumate-k. 

According to its director general, Dr Andrew Kitua, the institute has applied to the Tanzanian military to visit Lugalo hospital, where the trials are being conducted. He says there "seems to be a connection" with the Virodene trials, but wants to make further investigations. 

Enerkom, the state-owned company that developed oxihumate-k, nevertheless says that its trials, which have been carried out under the auspices of the University of Pretoria, have been running since 1999 "with the appropriate [Tanzanian] authorisations". It has spent about 8m developing the drug. 

This expenditure contrasts with the South African government's reluctance to pay for anti-retroviral drugs. The government has made ambiguous statements about the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs, while President Thabo Mbeki has consorted with Aids "dissidents" who condemn these drugs and question the link between HIV and Aids. 

Mindful of the Virodene scandal, Enerkom and the University of Pretoria have sought to distinguish oxihumate-k from Virodene, and have also been more cautious than the Virodene researchers about proclaiming the virtues of their product. 

Unlike the Virodene backers, Enerkom does not purport to have discovered a cure for Aids, but merely says that its drug helps boost the immune system. 

Enerkom started developing oxihumate-k in 1984, and markets it as a nutritional supplement called Oximate. 

When the Virodene researchers were expelled from Tanzania, they claimed to enjoy political support in South Africa. There is no evidence to support this, although the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, visited the clinic where the trials were taking place. 

It is unclear how much South African government support there is for Enerkom's project. The health department has sought to distance itself from the trials, saying that Mrs Tshabalala-Msimang knows nothing about them. The minerals and energy department, which oversees Enerkom, has backed them. 

South African experts in medical ethics say it is questionable whether informed consent - crucial for an ethically sound trial - can be obtained from groups such as soldiers or prisoners. 

Enerkom and the South African government have struggled to explain the decision to run trials in Tanzania. The acting director general of the minerals and energy department, Smunda Mokoena, said the Tanzanian military approached Enerkom to conduct the trials. "The opportunity presented itself and Enerkom took it up," he said.