Letter to the Editor of the Sunday Times

21 January 2016

The article “What’s all the noise about? ‘Dr Death’ says what he did for the apartheid state was ‘same as developing new Aids drug’” (17 January 2016) refers. Dr Wouter Basson’s arguments in justifying his apartheid-inspired research by describing it as analogous to AIDS drug development is outrageous in several respects:

1. AIDS researchers, like ourselves, who are developing new drugs for treatment and prevention dedicate their energies to this noble cause for the benefit of all humanity. Basson, by contrast, dedicated his efforts to creating novel strains of deadly pathogens (such as Anthrax and Ebola) as biological weapons, and to developing assassination toxins that would be undetectable at autopsy, as well as narcotic drugs as weapons to incapacitate anti-apartheid protestors during protest marches, for the exclusive benefit of an oppressive minority and an illegitimate government. To equate the two is a self-serving attempt to confer retrospective respectability and legitimacy to his morally repugnant research activities.

2. Legitimate science is conducted transparently, subject to independent regulatory review and audit, and presented openly at meetings and conferences. Basson, instead, conducted his research during the apartheid era, clandestinely and with no independent ethical review or regulatory oversight.

3. Medical doctors are first and foremost healers, not soldiers, even in times of armed conflict. The World Medical Association’s stance on the responsibilities of doctors has been clear since 1956: “The primary task of the medical profession is to preserve health and save life. Hence it is deemed unethical for physicians to… employ scientific knowledge to imperil health or destroy life”. Basson’s leadership of Project Coast’s research on biological weapons, toxins, and narcotics fails on every count to fulfil these obligations.

In summary, there is no basis for Basson’s analogy that his research was similar to the work currently being done by researchers who are developing new AIDS drugs. He should not hide behind patently false analogies but come clean in explaining how he justifies his involvement in the apartheid era’s covert chemical and biological warfare research program.

Professor Salim S. Abdool Karim and Professor Jerome A. Singh
CAPRISA - Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, Durban.

Abdool Karim was previously the President of the SA Medical Research Council