The Medical Research Council (MRC) board has agreed to the health department’s request to launch an investigation into its outspoken president Glenda Gray, apologised for “any offence caused” by her criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and barred staff from talking to the media.

The probe is going ahead despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s remarks on Sunday evening, in which he said the government appreciated the “diverse and sometimes challenging views” of SA’s scientists and health professionals.

Gray, an internationally acclaimed HIV researcher who is a member of health minister Zweli Mkhize’s advisory committee on Covid-19, is at the centre of a growing storm about academic freedom after she publicly criticised some of the lockdown regulations and said childhood malnutrition cases were increasing at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

She was first rebuked by the minister, who challenged the scientific accuracy of some of her remarks, and now, according to a leaked letter from MRC board chair Johnny Mahlangu to acting health director-general Anban Pillay, faces a “fact-finding” investigation to “determine the nature of the damage done to the MRC and the national Covid-19 response as a result of the comments made”.

In the letter, Mahlangu says the board distances itself from Gray’s remarks and “fully supports the efforts of the minister of health and the ministerial advisory committee (MAC)”. He declined to comment when approached by Business Day.

Pillay, who wrote to the MRC board requesting the investigation, conceded that other scientists who had raised concerns about the government’s response had not been subject to censure.

“Other scientists like Prof Mendelson and Sanne did not make false allegations. They were just critical of the lockdown,” he said, referring to MAC members Marc Mendelson, who is head of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, and Ian Sanne, who is the CEO of Right to Care and an associate professor of medicine at Wits.

The Academy of Sciences of SA (Assaf) issued a statement on Monday saying that while the minister was within his rights to challenge Gray on her views, Pillay’s “bullying” actions were “extremely alarming” and an abuse of power.

“Pillay did something that should raise red flags in our constitutional democracy. It is not simply that he accused this globally renowned scientist from making false allegations without compelling evidence for his case. Dr Pillay went further. He abused the power of his office to write to the chairperson of the MRC, recommending an investigation into the conduct of its president for the simple reason that she held different views from the political authorities on the lockdown restrictions,” it said.

In a separate development, more than 300 leading scientists and academics signed a letter of support for Gray.

“We recognise that it is impossible to have perfected the response to the epidemic, but course correction should be rapid and not defensive. With that in mind, 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,” they said.

Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib, who is among the letter’s signatories, described the MRC’s investigation into Gray as a “witch hunt”. It was perfectly legitimate for the minister to hold her to account for her remarks, but the subsequent investigation was inappropriate and sent a “very chilling” message to the scientific community, he said.