Medicine And The Media

Miracle AIDS cure hits the South African press

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 08 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:450
  1. Pat Sidley, journalist
  1. Johannesburg

    “Aids cure: Trick or Treat?” said a poster for the Mail ' Guardian two days after the dramatic announcement of the discovery of a cheap drug that could help AIDS sufferers. The poster neatly outlined the problems surrounding “scientific breakthroughs” that are reported in the media without first undergoing scientific vetting.

    The unfolding story in the media over the next week provided sad pictures and sound bites of desperate AIDS victims seeking the new treatment, as well as angry denouncements from the medical and scientific establishment of publicity seeking and greedy quackery. It was probably the announcement that South Africa's “miracle” AIDS drug team–as a mass circulation Sunday newspaper billed them–had appointed an American publicist to promote their work which tipped guarded optimism about the discovery into cynicism. The research team had appointed Larry Heidebrech, who previously handled Olympian runner Ben Johnson.

    For the previous 10 days South African newspapers, television, and radio had had major “splashes” about the “accidental” discovery by a team of researchers at Pretoria University of a drug that may reverse the progress of HIV infection–and, perhaps more importantly, would be affordable to most of the sufferers in South Africa. The news came against the background of the ineffectual attempt by the government to deal with the AIDS crisis, and new figures which showed that in some areas of South Africa the virus affected one in every five people.

    When the news was leaked it was accompanied by the announcement that the discovery (and the need for further funds to develop and test it) had been presented–not to a team of scientists and researchers but to the cabinet instead. The minister of health, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, already politically embarrassed by an earlier foray into combatting AIDS–by commissioning without authority a costly musical play called Sarafina 2 to popularise the AIDS cause–had decided the government needed an early briefing. According to various press reports, the cabinet, which consists of only one medical doctor and no scientists, rose to its collective feet in applause for the new discovery.

    Later press reports suggested that the government's interest in the “miracle” drug was financial and that it did not want to see any discovery of this nature in the hands of drug companies. The whole event had from the start been a media event rather than a scientific or medical one. It did not follow the pattern drug companies use when they wish to persuade the lay public of the virtues of a new drug. By the time such companies give their information to journalists, research has already been conducted, drugs are registered, and there are some scientific data to convince journalists that the public relations event they have enjoyed is newsworthy too. In this case, just 24 hours after the initial unquestioning glee, newspapers reported that ethics committees at the University of Pretoria had not authorised the research and that questions were being asked about the consent given by subjects of the research.

    South Africans had been informed of the “miracle” find in huge front page splashes and long inserts on television. The Johannesburg daily newspaper, the Star, used most of its front page, with elaborate colour illustrations of the virus and the new drug Virodene P058, to inform its readers of its discovery. The researchers, led by a laboratory technician, Olga Visser; her husband, Ziggy; and Dr Kallie Landauer, claim that while “playing around” in the laboratory with “strong antivirals, chemical compounds, rats' tissue and human cells” Olga Visser “noticed something funny happening.” The compound she was fooling around with was killing the virus, she told a mass circulating Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Times. The news article was totally unquestioning.


    The research was led by Olga Visser


    The head of the Medicines Control Council, Professor Peter Polb, announced he would investigate the claims made, and the University of Pretoria stopped the research pending the outcome of an inquiry. The Department of Health, once again terrified of adverse publicity, gagged its employees and those of the National Institute of Virology, preventing them from discussing the drug with journalists. The results of the various investigations are due in the second week of February.

    The medical and scientific community here have greeted the news with open scepticism, and the government with too much trust. Journalists, however, have been left much more uncertain. They perhaps reflect the hopeful ambivalence of a desperate public. Those views are summed up in an opinion column in the Johannesburg newspaper the Saturday Star: under the headline “Let's hope Aids drug claims don't leave us with red faces,” the author concludes a largely cynical article with: “In the meantime, perhaps it is better to be an optimistic fool than a pessimist who is right.”

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