What makes a man give up his legal practice and dedicate his life to highlighting the dangers of antiretroviral drugs? ………… spoke to Anthony Brink, the man people love to hate, about an issue that won't go away.
I expect Anthony Brink to be an older man, stern and austere.
So when he flies in, document-wallet in hand, looking dapper in his dark glasses and trendy jacket, I'm taken aback. It's not long before we're engrossed in a conversation about AZT, what drives him and what it's like being perceived as a maverick and treated as a pariah.
His "crime" is to question antiretroviral therapy for AIDS. For this he's been called many things, including a raving lunatic. But while intense and driven, Brink comes across as anything but mad. He has an incisive legal mind; he's precise, focused and highly intelligent.
Brink may be on the fringe, but he's not alone. And he's on the warpath.
The battle, as he sees it, is against a colossal pharmaceutical industry fraud, his specific target AZT. He holds up a tiny bottle of AZT supplied by Sigma Chemical Company to research laboratories, marked with a skull and crossbones, and the warning: "Toxic to inhalation, in contact with skin, and if swallowed. Target organs: Blood Bone marrow. … Wear suitable protective clothing." "You obviously don't find that on GlaxoSmithKline's AZT label or package insert," he says. "Or let's face it, who would swallow it?"
And that's what prompted Brink, an advocate, to "quit law and go after the really big criminals."
"The poison being pushed on our first democratic government as a lifesaving medicine for administration to Africans, pregnant women especially, is just that: a poison. But because the marketing propaganda has succeeded so well, this simple truth generates extraordinary anger."
Brink started researching AZT a decade ago, and hasn't stopped since. He even tracked down the scientist who invented the drug in 1961 as an experimental cell poison to kill cancer cells. "Professor (Richard) Beltz himself told me, 'I hope you succeed in persuading your government not to make AZT available.'
"Stumbling onto this massive corporate crime profoundly changed the course of my life," he says.
And it's not been a smooth ride.
"The issue is so polarised and so politicised that there's no middle ground. Everyone has strong opinions. I get a lot of hate mail, I'm attacked at parties, and I get the cold shoulder from old acquaintances – but I also get a lot of encouraging support from fellow South Africans and people in other African countries," he says.
What he says about AZT and similar drugs doesn't sit easily in an environment where people have been led to believe that they save lives. "It's entirely the fault of the media," he says. "Only a handful of journalists in this country have bothered to actually read the medical literature that I've sent them. The rest simply go along with the TAC line that I'm a nutcase for pointing out that ARVs are both useless as medicines and deadly poisonous. It's not hard to understand why: it's always easier to go with the propaganda flow than to stop and think independently. Think back to how, until the nineties, the name Nelson Mandela was poison on white South African lips. Now they all speak of him as a living saint."
Brink says he's not concerned about what uninformed people think about him personally, but rather that they should read what he's meticulously documented about AZT on his website, tig.org.za, and then make up their minds.
One research paper in particular, published in August 2006 in the medical journal The Lancet, is startling: A study involving more than 22 000 patients showed that "even though virological response after starting HAART (antiretroviral therapy) had improved … there was no corresponding decrease in the rates of AIDS, or death, up to 1 year of follow-up. Conversely, there was some evidence for an increase in the rate of AIDS in the most recent period."
In other words, ARV treatment accelerates the development of AIDS and AIDS-related deaths.
"Even before this study, scores of others had found that ARV drugs induce disease in clinically healthy HIV-positive people. Predictably so, because AZT and similar drugs are pure poison. At the top of the package insert you read that it attacks and kills all blood cells, it destroys muscle tissue, it wrecks the liver."
Brink often has the accusation thrown at him, "but you're not a doctor..."
He pauses, choosing his words carefully: "Advocates presenting cases in complex medical or engineering disputes are required and expected to master the relevant science to a degree equal to or even exceeding that of the experts called in the case in order to lead or cross-examine them effectively. After a decade of researching this stuff intensely, I know more about AZT than anyone in the country. Fact."
Why the focus on AZT among all the other ARVs being used? "It's the original and still the biggest selling AIDS drug. I started and stayed with AZT because it's so grossly indefensible as a medicine. And what holds for AZT holds for a whole bunch of chemically similar drugs, such as d4T, 3TC and ddI.
"AZT is up there with other recent medical disasters," says Brink, producing a box of Salvarsan (arsenic) ampoules. "It's incredible to think that from 1910 until the mid-1950s smiling doctors injected arsenic into people, in Africa especially, for syphilis, fever, yaws and malaria. Today experts get their knickers in a twist about how few parts per billion are safe in drinking water. Salvarsan crippled and killed hundreds of thousands of people. No one talks about this."
Many drugs have toxic effects, and side-effects are often tolerated because the benefits of the drug are seen to outweigh the risks, I point out. But Brink is having none of that.
"Researchers have repeatedly emphasized that AZT is exceptionally toxic, and is unlike other drugs for this reason. You can argue that a machine gun and a ballpoint pen are both dangerous weapons, but there's a whale of a difference."
Brink sees his work as political, and has dedicated his life to research, writing and activism. The Treatment Information Group that he formed in 2002 is a voluntary association of concerned individuals countrywide. "I'm closely networked with scientists and activists internationally," he says.
Brink is sharp-tongued, and doesn't mince words about his fiercest critics, Zackie Achmat and his Treatment Action Campaign. His latest salvo has been a draft indictment served on the International Criminal Court at The Hague, calling for Achmat's prosecution on a charge of genocide "for his direct criminal role in the deaths of thousands of South Africans from ARV poisoning." "Journalists were quick to quote the TAC ridiculing it," he says. "Read it on our website yourself and decide."
He explains his caustic writing style: "After ten years at this I've found that hard facts and pure reason alone never carry the day. An emotive charge is essential to a successful political argument. Also my years in the courts have taught me the importance of playing the man as hard as the ball. My guiding motto in my writing is: Meticulous precision with fact, maximum violence in polemic.
"I used to write these awfully polite letters to the so-called experts, but it was a complete waste of time. Now I argue with a broken bottle and a half-brick. I want to escalate the conflict, intensify the contradiction between the drug industry's feel-good sales agents in the TAC and the media, and those like myself pointing out the shocking facts about ARVs like AZT and nevirapine."
Why does he think people get so angry about what he's saying?
"My sense of it is that for white liberals especially, AZT has acquired the status of a medical eucharist, a holy token of Western modernity on a dark continent to save the aboriginals from dying from too much sex. Also enjoying it too much. The discourse around ARVs is so charged with these sorts of subterranean meanings that rational discussion is just about impossible.
"This is why I've adopted an unusually vigorous and sometimes outrageously humorous style in my political writing. It's intended to shake readers out of their propaganda-induced stupor."
Why does he continue with this work, when it clearly alienates him?
"I've an inconveniently strong social and political conscience," he says. "It's my parents' fault. Although I'm well-known as a critic of ARVs, my real interest is political, and ultimately goes to the quality of contemporary Western industrial cultural values. To me the marketing of AZT in Africa is emblematic of the exploitation of the Developing World by the industrial nations, and of corporate power at its most corrupt. And I have a particular fascination for how the Left has swallowed the propaganda of the drug industry about ARVs.
"When by chance I ran into AZT in September 1996, I just found it impossible to walk away from the scene of the crime. My book, Debating AZT, led President Mbeki to order an enquiry into the safety of the drug in Parliament in late 1999, and alerted Dr Tshabalala-Msimang to how bad it is. But ultimately they were powerless to resist the political might of the drug industry and its local supporters in the TAC and the media, and the result is the forced adoption of an ARV drug programme about to go through worth about R20 billion. Only the drug industry, its investors, and its hangers-on benefit. Thousands of African people are being poisoned and killed as a result.
"Getting involved in this has brought me a lot of trouble and it's cost me a lot. But from the beginning I had a sense that for better or for worse my life's destiny was inextricably entwined around this issue. I still have a huge amount of work to do."