Mkhize says leading scientist on Covid-19 committee is ‘factually incorrect’

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has hit out at one of his appointed scientists over her comments around the country’s nationwide lockdown, saying that she made “factually incorrect and unfounded statements”.

Professor Glenda Gray is a South African physician and scientist specialising in the care of children and in HIV medicine. The professor is a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19, who was appointed by Mkhize.

She made a number of controversial comments in an interview with News24 last week, stating that the government’s lockdown strategy is not based in science and is completely unmeasured.

Mkhize said in a statement on Wednesday (21 May) that his office has been inundated with media requests for comments regarding Gray’s comments.

“Having read the article, I have been taken aback by the obvious inaccuracies it contains which have, in my view, caused unnecessary sensationalism and doubt on the work and effort of the government in dealing with Covid-19,” Dr Mkhize said.

“We will keep emphasising this: as government we do not claim to have it all figured out when it comes to Covid-19. No country does. The president has constantly and correctly stated that we are in uncharted waters. But we are committed to doing everything in our powers to protect the lives of our citizens.”

The minister said it is “important to publicly place on record that prof Glenda Gray made factually incorrect and unfounded statements”.

  • Claim: “We are seeing children with malnutrition for the first time (at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital). We have not seen malnutrition for decades and so we are seeing it for the first time in the hospital.” – Professor Gray.

Response: “There has been a reduction in the number of cases of malnutrition that have been seen at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital POPD and the total admissions during the month of March and April 2020, when compared to the previous 4 years. To illustrate this, in April 2019 there were 2,885 patients seen and 500 admissions,” Mkhize said.

“However, in April 2020 there were 834 patients seen and 146 admissions. I have been advised by the department’s officials that at a subsequent Covid-19 MAC meeting, prof Velaphi, the head of paediatrics at the hospital, raised this concern and asked why prof Gray would mislead the public by giving inaccurate information. In response, Prof Gray merely stated that she had relied on what she had heard from ‘other colleagues’.

“However, these colleagues were not disclosed. This emphasises the warning we have been to the media and public not to just rely on anecdotal evidence. This ends up causing unnecessary anxiety to our citizens,” said Mkhize.

  • Claim: “We believe, as scientists, that we give and are giving the government good advice and why they decided not to take the advice or engage readily with the scientists is unknown. Why have experts if you don’t care what they think?” – Professor Gray.

Response: “Since the establishment of the MAC, 50 advisories have been given to the minister of health, all of which have been accepted. Ironically, last week prof Gray, as chairperson of the Research Subcommittee was part of the team that was preparing an advisory to the ministry of health in relation to the lockdown.

“This advisory had not been submitted to the Minister of Health when prof Gray elected to speak to the media. There was a platform that had been created but this was overlooked even before making input through the Department of Health channels. She elected to do so through the media,” Mkhize said.

  • Claim: “This strategy is not based on science and is completely unmeasured. It’s almost as if someone is sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish, quite frankly.” – Professor Gray.

Response: “There are existing structures in government that have taken into account various factors, including scientific, socio economic, etc.

“The comment that government thumb sucks its decision not only undermines the joint work and effort that the NCCC, cabinet and government as a whole has been engaged in. But it is also unprofessional and unbecoming conduct from a member of the MAC who has direct access to the ministry and the department.

“In my view it undermines and brings into disrepute the institution that prof Gray works for which is an entity of the Department of Health, the MRC,” Mkhize said.

  • Claim: “We punish children and kick them out of school and we deny them education. For what? Where is the scientific evidence for that?” – Professor Gray.

Response: “The Department of Basic Education has been engaged in various consultations with its stakeholders on the correct approach to take in the process of opening schools. The minister has also presented the department’s strategy in the correct forums and is exercising her executive powers based on information and evidence before her to recommend to government on how to proceed.

“It can never be prof Gray’s place to make such comments without being aware of the details, the advice and the process the Department of Basic education has followed,” said Mkhize.

Divergent views by scientists are healthy and welcome, Mkhize said.

However, he urged that all those who are contributing to the thought process and science behind the decisions ultimately undertaken by the government “to desist from potentially destructive behaviour and continue to engage constructively with Government as they are mandated”.

“As head of the Medical Research Council, prof Gray has access to the minister and the department, but never once raised this matter directly with ourselves, yet she has never failed to raise other issues of concern beforehand.

“It must be understood that regulations are influenced by inputs from the public, and her views would have been considered had she made submission in a normal way when public comments were called for.

“It is exactly for this reason that government has been bold enough to even make amendments to some regulations based on public inputs. However, prof Glenda Gray chose not to use this platform.”

Read: Here’s how many South Africans are taking pay cuts during lockdown

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Mkhize says leading scientist on Covid-19 committee is ‘factually incorrect’