/ 6 March 1998

The real Virodene scandal

The political mud-slinging that erupted this week between the Democratic Party and the African National Congress over the so-called “Aids treatment” Virodene has served to obscure the real issues, and significant dangers, associated with the Virodene project.

Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma’s fierce response seems to indicate that the tenacious minister has not yet given up her belief in the possibilities of this compound, in the face of opposition from most medical experts, nor has she turned her back on the Virodene researchers.

This championing of people who have broken every rule of scientific practice and displayed a total lack of basic ethics in treating human beings with experimental drugs is more than just an act of misguided loyalty: it has implications for South Africa’s entire medical community.

The processes and rules associated with medical research may seem arcane, but they have become standard practice in most developed countries over the years because of such medical disasters as Thalidomide and the Tuskegee experiment.

Unlike Britain and the United States, South Africa was fortunate enough to escape the worst effects of Thalidomide, which produced deformed babies, partly because we lag behind these countries in introducing new drugs, and those drugs have usually gone through their regulatory bodies before they reach ours, the Medicines Control Council.

Thalidomide caused pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies worldwide to redesign their trials of new drugs, adding time and money to the process of getting a new compound on to the market. Scientists are, therefore, justifiably suspicious of anyone who makes great claims on behalf of a compound that has been around for a short time and has had limited testing.

The Tuskegee experiment in the US, where black patients with syphilis were used as guinea pigs so scientists could learn more about the disease, also contributed to a host of ethical rules to protect ordinary people from being sacrificed to the “greater good” of science.

One of these rules is that a medical trial is passed by an ethics committee. The Virodene researchers had so little respect for the humanity of the subjects of their trial – 11 seriously ill Aids patients – that they did not even bother to submit themselves to a committee. Subsequent attempts by the researchers to construct trials have not passed the ethical standards required.

Zuma, a medical doctor, has never taken a stand against this irresponsible behaviour and has, instead, attacked critics of the Virodene project. By doing so, she has undermined the safety net of medical practice that, although flawed and imperfect, protects us from the Thalidomide and Tuskegee experiences.

Prelude to Hitler

The German government has made a welcome, if much belated, apology for the genocide in 1904 of the Herero people. This was a sudden change of heart: as recently as a week ago the German President, Roman Herzog, who is in Namibia, was still flogging the line that the Hereros were not protected by international law at the time.

This obscure legalistic point is supposed to explain why the Germans have been apologising to the Jews for more than 50 years, and paying billions of marks in reparations, while ignoring victims of an earlier German-inflicted atrocity.

After all, the fate of the Hereros of Namibia and the Jews of Europe was not unconnected. The Holocaust was made possible not just by Europe’s centuries-long stigmatisation of the Jews, but by the corrupting experience of colonialism. Europeans emerged from the scramble for Africa convinced that they were the master race.

It is no coincidence that Dr Heinrich Goering, the first imperial commissioner of Namibia, whose name still graced a street in central Windhoek eight years ago, was the father of Nazi war leader Hermann Goering.

He introduced the firepower into the colony that General von Trotha used to implement his “liquidation” order against the Hereros. Troops drove 80 000 defenceless men, women and children into the thirstlands of the desert, poisoned the waterholes, and bayoneted and hanged them wherever they came upon them until they ran out of rope and took to strangling them.

Only 16 000 out of 80 000 Hereros survived. Thus, the “final solution” had a dress rehearsal in the Kalahari Desert only a generation before Adolf Hitler came to power.

It is not just the Germans who have never faced their colonial past. In South Africa, the genocide of the San, for instance, though conducted at a far more leisurely pace, occurred first under the Dutch and then the British colonial administrations. Less than 150 years ago British explorers were still headhunting the San people. Of course, an apology would not help: there is no one left to apologise to.

To this, we could add the outrages of Sir Harry Smith and others on the Eastern Frontier, the starving into submission of the Ndebele by the Boers at Makapan, and the Boer concentration camps set up by Lord Kitchener.

After World War II, the Holocaust was commemorated by opening up the concentration camps as monuments to what should never happen again.

History has meaning if it teaches us not to repeat its wrongs; which is why the fate of Samuel Maherero and his people should not have waited almost 100 years to be acknowledged.