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Durban Conference Status, May 2000: Interview with Conference Chair Coovadia

May 19, 2000

The XIII International AIDS Conference -- the largest and perhaps the most important AIDS meeting in the world -- now occurs only once every two years; the next one is in Durban, South Africa, July 9-14, 2000. On May 10 AIDS Treatment News interviewed Conference Chair Dr. Hoosen M. (Jerry) Coovadia, about the program -- and also about security concerns, and the talk of a boycott to protest policies of the government of South Africa.

More specific information can be found at the Conference Web site,

AIDS Treatment News: What is the current status of the scientific program for Durban?

Professor Coovadia: It is going very well. Our main interest has been to see that issues relevant to developing countries would not escape the dominance they deserve in this meeting. We have a program which addresses (but not exclusively) the scientific and community issues in developing countries. Examples include access to care, interventions that are affordable and should work in developing countries, and treatment or prevention of opportunistic infections in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere.

Developing countries and the industrialized world have interests which converge -- for example, vaccines. Certainly in Southern Africa, the development of an HIV vaccine appropriate for our part of the world is seen as a high priority. So we have devoted a considerable amount of time to discussions and data on vaccines.

The scientific program is designed to bring people up to date on the best information available in the world on different aspects of HIV. We do not want to sacrifice science just because the conference is in the developing world. We have asked for the best information on the virus, the host responses, and what we know about immune protection against HIV. I think the program covers what people who work with AIDS want to know, particularly but not only in the developing world.

ATN: What about the other aspects of the conference, as a chance to meet people from around the world, and as a forum for political discussion?

Coovadia: The conference is not just the plenary sessions and poster presentations. Also important are the debates we have constructed around critical issues for both developing and developed countries. For the developing world, there are issues like breast-feeding transmission of HIV and should one breast feed or not, the use of microbicides, or antiretrovirals and whether we should even consider using them in the developing world at this time. And the conference will bring people up to date about the latest on the use of antiretrovirals in the developed world, and the issues around whether we should begin treatment early or late. The debates often reflect very different views, so they should be interesting to listen to, and informative as well.

In addition to the formal program, the meeting here will offer unique opportunities to people from the U.S., from Europe, and from Asia and other parts of Africa and Latin America to see how a country is dealing with an epidemic which consumes so many resources and affects such a wide range of people -- a situation unequaled in any other part of the world. They will be able to see this first hand, and to interact with individuals from around the world -- especially from Africa and Asia, who could not as easily get to the previous conferences. People on this continent have easier access to South Africa, and I think they will come in large numbers.

There are also many satellite meetings and other groupings to discuss issues, such as prevention, macroeconomics, and the work of international organizations. There will be a wealth of information, so people will be able find programs which suit their needs and help them keep abreast of what is happening.

ATN: Is the program information on the Web yet?

Coovadia: There is an outline on our Web site now; and in a few weeks, the topics and speakers, and the satellite sessions, should be complete. People coming to Durban will have time to prepare and decide what to attend.

For example, one meeting I am interested in, on breast feeding and HIV, will be held on the Friday before the conference (July 7); those who are interested in particular satellite meetings may need to plan to be here ahead of time. We are still making final arrangements on speakers and satellite sessions.

We have been working closely with the government of South Africa, especially the Ministry of Health, and our information is that many dignitaries, especially ministers of health and leaders of international organizations, will be attending.

ATN: Anything else to add, before we get into some of the concerns about the meeting?

Coovadia: This is the best time of year to come to South Africa. Many of our major social occasions, the highlights of the year, are held in July. The weather is excellent, it is springtime -- the game parks, the mountains, are at their best. Durban is one of the major holiday cities in Southern Africa. I think people will enjoy being here, in addition to opportunities for learning, and meeting or working with colleagues from around the world.

Security and Other Issues

ATN: First, is there any problem of malaria at the conference?

Coovadia: Not here in the city. But if you travel to the game parks a bit north, you need malaria prophylaxis. We can guide people on this, because there is chloroquine-resistant malaria, and they will have to take the appropriate prophylaxis. It is easily available; we will have facilities to assure that people have access to these drugs.

ATN: On security, one concern is that in the past these conferences have been in very safe cities, like Geneva, or Vancouver. So there may be ten thousand people who are in the habit of wandering around and not giving any thought to their personal safety. I realize you have taken precautions, which includes guidelines for people to follow [they are on the Web site]. But how do we get the message out, that there are some necessary precautions?

Coovadia: For perspective, be aware that Durban and this particular site has had major conferences in the past two years. These have included political conferences with very high-profile people -- for example, the non-aligned movement, the Commonwealth heads of government, with people including Arafat, and Castro -- and these meetings have proceeded without any serious security problems. We have also had large medical meetings, and they also have not had any serious problems either. And we have gone to a great lengths to insure the safety and security of our delegates. I think the Durban area is pretty safe under the conditions in which our delegates will be living and attending the conference.

In the past conferences some demonstrations by activists resulted in destruction of property and assaults on individuals. We are aware of them, and while there is no 100 percent guarantee, we have taken precautions to prevent such actions.

ATN: I have been at all the International Conferences starting with the third (Washington DC, 1987), and the only assaults I saw were at Vancouver in 1996, when the group which calls itself ACT UP San Francisco broke into a medical meeting and threw red liquid on the speakers on stage, in front of thousands of people. Yes, there have been pharmaceutical-company booths that had stickers pasted on them -- but those demonstrations were in good spirit, and nobody was threatened. Other than the incident in Vancouver, which was intolerable, I am not aware of people being afraid for their safety at these meetings.

Coovadia: Right, except at Geneva, in the opening ceremony, the minister of health spoke, and there was quite a commotion around her, with demonstrators insisting that Switzerland not deport a person from Africa. We will not allow people to disrupt the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, or any of the scientific presentations.

ATN: You have the rules clearly laid out, in the security section on the Web.

Coovadia: We also decided that we would not allow ACT UP San Francisco, because of its history of violent activities, to have a booth or official presence within the conference. Of course they can sign up as delegates; we cannot prevent that.

Another security aspect: There has been a rumor that there will be Seattle-type marches on the Conference; that is not true. There is a march being organized by a group called TAC, Treatment Action Committee. They are very responsible and peaceful; in fact some of our staff who feel strongly will probably be in this march, too. TAC has linked up with the major trade union organization Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions), which is part of the government alliance for freedom in the liberation struggle. They are committed to nonviolence; and they are advocating for easier access to pharmaceuticals, not against the Conference. They have kept us informed of their plans; we have met, and have no problems with protests like that, which are peaceful, and quite acceptable in this environment. It is not a Seattle-type demonstration.

ATN: There has been talk of boycotting the Conference for various reasons, but that does not seem to be an issue, as no organization has called for a boycott.

Coovadia: I looked for an institution behind this talk, and cannot find any. It seems rather one or two individuals talking about a boycott. And we have had support on this from various organizations, including the Global Health Council, UNAIDS, and others.

So the boycott idea is not widespread. I can understand individuals feeling strongly that they should express grave disappointment with the [South African] president's role. But boycotting the conference would be the wrong thing. They should be supporting us, because most of us are objecting, and we are doing it on the ground, as much as anybody outside. I do not think the boycott talk is a serious problem.

ATN: Is there anything you would like to add?

Coovadia: There was a concern about withdrawal by some pharmaceutical companies. I looked into this carefully, and it is not true either. At this time only one company, Pharmacia Upjohn, pulled out -- but they did so because they no longer produce any AIDS drug [after selling delavirdine to Agouron]. That is why they left the Conference, not for any other reason. So there is no indication that the pharmaceutical sector will refuse to participate in this conference.

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2000 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

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This article was provided by AIDS Treatment News. It is a part of the publication AIDS Treatment News.