File photo: Professor Carolyn Williamson

Years Aids denialism during the Thabo Mbeki presidency were the darkest of her career, says Carolyn Williamson who now heads UCT’s Division of Medical Virology.

Williamson, who has worked in HIV research for more than 20 years, hopes to contribute to the development of microbicides and vaccines that can effectively prevent HIV infections.

Working in HIV research during the period of denialism was like “being in a parallel universe”, said Williamson.

Denialists rejected the existence of HIV, while others accepted that HIV existed but said it didn’t cause Aids.

Mbeki and then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang were at the forefront of denialism.

“It was probably the darkest period of my career. It was very disconcerting from a personal perspective to be in an environment where people were questioning what we knew as truth.”

Williamson, who belonged to Mbeki’s HIV Advisory Panel, said there was “absolutely no logic” in the denialism which had “serious repercussions” for the growth of the HIV epidemic.

She said the denialism had ended when the government announced the roll-out programme for antiretrovirals.

Williamson said: “But the confusion in SA about how to treat HIV continued for some years.”

The real turnaround came when “aspirational” Aaron Motsoaledi was appointed Minister of Health in 2009.

Williamson delivered her inaugural lecture about her research into HIV at the university last night.

The Cape Times spoke to her ahead of the lecture, titled “HIV: Surviving under immense pressure”.

“I’ve been working on HIV for 20 years. It’s been quite a journey in our country. And it’s been quite a journey scientifically over the last few years,” she said.

“In my work I try to understand how the virus causes diseases. We try to understand how to control the virus and how to develop a vaccine.”

Her work focused on understanding how the virus survived the extreme immune pressure of the body and why some people could control the virus, while others rapidly became infected.

Asked when a cure for HIV could be expected, Williamson said: “A cure is something that is a long way on the horizon. My work is about finding a vaccine and that is closer. It is really hard to know.” She said SA was expected to start large-scale clinical testing within the next three to five years. “Hopefully that will bring us closer to a vaccine.”

Williamson, who received her PhD in Microbiology in 1988 from UCT, is the co-developer of the first candidate HIV vaccines to be developed in Africa and tested in clinical trials in both Africa and the US. - Cape Times