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Reuters New Media
South Africa Gives Go Ahead for Anti-AIDS Drug
Steven Swindells
November 15, 2000
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's top medical body has approved the use of a combination anti-AIDS drug which contains the drug AZT, its maker British drug giant Glaxo Wellcome said on Tuesday.

The approval was the first reaffirmation of the efficacy of AZT compounds by an official medical body since President Thabo Mbeki sparked worldwide controversy by questioning the widely held belief that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS and appointing so-called "AIDS dissidents" to his advisory panel on the disease.

"It's a strong endorsement by a respectable body...The MCC don't have a problem with the efficacy of the drug. It invalidates what was said," Dr Peter Moore, Medical Director of Glaxo Wellcome South Africa, told Reuters.

The regulatory Medicines Control Council (MCC) had approved and registered the anti-retroviral drug Combivir -- a mix of zidovudine (AZT) and lamivudine (3TC) -- on November 10 and it would be available in pharmacies next week, Glaxo said.

Mbeki was caught in a firestorm of international scientific and diplomatic criticism after casting doubt on AZT and denying it to pregnant women and rape victims in the financially over-stretched public health system.

Although South Africa is at the epicenter of the global AIDS crisis -- 4.2 million or one in 10 South Africans are HIV-positive -- AZT has been officially available only in the private sector since its local registration 11 years ago.

Three Years Of Negotiations

Negotiations between South African authorities and Glaxo to register Combivir, already available throughout Europe and the United States, took one month short of three years.

Despite the endorsement, AZT will still not be available in the public sector other than for health workers who are occupationally at risk of becoming HIV-positive.

Pretoria has extended trials of the drug nevirapine in the fight against mother-to-child transmission of HIV-AIDS but envisages a limited role for anti-retrovirals in public health policy.

AZT is currently used by around 3,000 South Africans who are either HIV-positive, pregnant or health workers since it was registered in 1989. Business has also moved to offer AZT despite the government's strong stance against the drug which emerged as the first anti-AIDS drug when it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1987.

The country's largest supermarket chain Pick & Pay last month offered AZT to its 30,000 employees, the first such move by a major private South African firm.