The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) board’s decision to launch an investigation into its president, acclaimed scientist Dr Glenda Gray, amounts to a “witch hunt”, Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib has said.
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Gray came under fire last week over comments to News24 in which she criticised some of government’s lockdown regulations as being “unscientific” and, in some cases, being thumb-sucked.
In an interview with News24 on Monday morning, Habib described the response to Gray’s comments by the SAMRC board as “disproportionate”, “over the top”, and warned of the chilling effect the entire saga would have on the scientific community.
He said it “crossed the line from holding someone accountable to a witch hunt”, calling the letter “unacceptable”.
Gray, an acclaimed HIV vaccine specialist, paediatrician and expert in HIV mother-to-child transmission, serves on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), a 51-member body advising government on aspects of its Covid-19 response.
Last Wednesday night, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize issued a scathing rebuke of Gray’s comments, particularly around child malnutrition. Gray had initially said there had been no child malnutrition cases at Chris Baragwanath Hospital until the lockdown, although she later clarified this to mean that the number of cases had increased.
On Saturday, acting Department of Health Director General Dr Anban Pillay wrote to the SAMRC board, requesting an investigation into Gray – a move described by Habib as “Trumpian”. The SAMRC board agreed to his request in a letter on Sunday.
In the SAMRC board’s letter, addressed to Pillay, board chairperson Professor Johnny Mahlangu said the board supported Mkhize and the MAC.
He apologised for Gray’s comments and said: “With immediate effect, the SAMRC president and the staff of the SAMRC are under strict instructions not to interface with the media until all issues relating to the public comments made by Prof Gray are resolved. As board chair, I will take that responsibility in the interim.
“The board will immediately commission a fact-finding investigation under the direction of an independent expert(s) to guide the board in determining the nature of the damage done to the SAMRC and the national Covid-19 response as a result of the comments made. The board will formulate an appropriate plan of action to correct the negative implications of this unfortunate incident and deal with any code of conduct transgressions that may have occurred.”
Habib said while the SAMRC board was within its rights to disagree with Gray, its moves to investigate her crossed a line and amounted to a “witch hunt”.
On Saturday night, more than 200 academics came out in support of Gray. The list had reached more than 300 by Monday morning.
“We condemn the specific threat made against Professor Glenda Gray for expressing her opinion in public, which is totally out of step with the public pronouncements made by the President, welcoming criticism. We uphold the right to academic freedom of speech, and call on the South African government to engage openly with alternate views, and for all of us to urgently work towards constructive solutions regarding policy, in the interests of the country,” the academics said.
Habib said this response was “spot on”.
“It says, we don’t agree with Glenda, but actually we don’t think it’s appropriate to start investigating her.”
Also on Monday, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town and the immediate past president of the International AIDS Society, stressed that it was crucial that Gray’s expertise was not lost now. Bekker said the decision to investigate her, simply escalated the stand-off, instead of having constructive debate and discussion.
“I think the SAMRC absolutely needs to retain Glenda Gray at this moment. We have got to manage the infectious disease epidemic on our hands. We are going to need to test vaccines in the future and do a whole lot of scientific stuff going forward,” she told News24 on Monday.
“This is not the time to risk losing her at the helm. I am very disappointed to see the board was not supportive of her, and I think that escalates the stand-off. And I absolutely would hope that the board would be independent of government,” Bekker said.
She also emphasised that it was an important principle that scientific bodies needed to stand back and be independent of government.
“I think it’s hugely disturbing that the board has not supported their president at this time. And we need to retain her. This is the worst time to lose Glenda Gray,” Bekker said.
Inappropriate behaviour by senior member of government
Habib said Pillay’s response, to “go digging up dirt on someone”, was “Trumpian behaviour”.
Habib said Mkhize’s response to Gray, in which he criticised her comments, should have closed the matter. Referring to Pillay’s letter, he said: “This kind of behaviour is inappropriate for somebody at senior levels of government.”
He said the board was well within its rights to state its support for the minister, and even to distance itself from Gray’s comments.
But the board’s decision not to talk to the media and to launch a fact-finding investigation into Gray were “over the top”, Habib said.
“The board is entirely within its rights to be supportive of government’s attempts at managing this pandemic. I broadly agree with it,” he said, adding that the government’s response was considered global best practice despite issues with implementation.
And board was within their rights to disassociate themselves from Gray’s comments, Habib said, and this was also a “legitimate response”.
“They’re also within their rights, implicitly supporting the response by the minister (Mkhize) responding to her (Gray). This might raise eyebrows but they are within their rights to do so.”
Habib said the minister was within his right to respond to her, too, but that should have been the end of the matter. This, Habib said, would have been considered a “mature political response”.
“I think Professor Glenda Gray could have been more astute. I think there is a legitimacy for people to be annoyed because she should have engaged the media after sending the advisory to the media. The minister was legitimate to respond firmly the way they did,” he said.
But the board’s letter to Pillay on Sunday “crossed the line”.
He said the letter displayed a “disjuncture” between what President Cyril Ramaphosa had said in his Sunday night address, that he respected the rights of scientists to have differing opinions.
Habib also questions why the SAMRC was weighing in on issues relating to Gray’s work on the MAC. He said Gray was on the MAC not because she was the CEO of the SAMRC, but “because she is a scientist in her own right. She’s there in an individual capacity.”
“The board should have said they support the minister and closed this matter.”
‘You’ll divide the scientific community’
Habib also said Pillay had displayed a “very serious governance misunderstanding” over his letter to the SAMRC. He said the SAMRC was not part of the Department of Health and was an “independent organ of state enacted by Parliament”.
“Frankly I’m disappointed that the SAMRC board has not taken a more principled political stance. They should have said, we disassociate ourselves from her remarks, we note the minister’s response and support government and we see no reason to take it further.”
All of this will have a “chilling effect” on the scientific community, Habib said.
He did not know what was behind the SAMRC’s “disproportionate response”.
“Perhaps people are feeling the pressure. It is perfectly reasonable to feel pressure, but in the midst of the pandemic you don’t win kudos by settling personal scores or trying to humiliate somebody. You’ll divide the scientific community. Then everybody is not focused on the job at hand.”
Habib said the divided reaction to Gray’s comments was a manifestation of divisions in the scientific community.
“That didn’t exist ten days ago. When the minister responded [to Gray], we stayed out of it. When we got involved is when the acting DG [Pillay] decided to investigate [Gray]. That, I think, was a line being crossed. That’s when the scientific community stood apart… when that line was crossed, we said this has gone too far.”
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