Professor Glenda Gray. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BEN GABBE
Professor Glenda Gray. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BEN GABBE

The board of the SA Medical Research Council (MRC) has backtracked on its decision to investigate the organisation’s president, Glenda Gray, for comments she made “in her personal capacity” to the media about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

In a brief statement issued on Tuesday morning, the board said it had discussed the matter with Gray and found she had not breached any of the MRC’s policies. Gray is an internationally acclaimed HIV researcher and chairs the research sub-committee on the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 that provides scientific input to health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Her criticism of the government’s lockdown regulations and claim that childhood malnutrition cases were increasing at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital prompted a sharp rebuttal from Mkhize, and a request from acting health director-general Anban Pillay that the MRC board investigate her conduct, to which the board initially agreed.

The board has now reversed its position after it met on Monday night.  

“The board has decided that it will not be instituting any further investigation on this matter. The board encourages Prof Gray, the minister of health and the ministerial advisory committee to resolve the issue of statements made in media amicably in the best interests of all parties and the nation,” it said.

Gray thanked the board in a statement on Tuesday for “having acted with the requisite urgency in its deliberations over this matter”.

“I also re-affirm my commitment to doing all I can to the best of my ability to contribute to the national effort against Covid-19 and remain at the disposal of the minister of health and the ministerial advisory committee in this regard.

“I also want to thank all those who have reached out to me personally during this unfortunate and trying time and especially to those who insisted on upholding the principles of academic freedom, which can only be of benefit to our country and all its people.”

Gray has received support from leading scientists and academics. The Academy of Science of SA (Assaf), and the committee of heads of organisations of research and technology, issued statements supporting scientists’ right to publicly express their opinions.

Impulsive and high-handed

Assaf president Jonathan Jansen said on Tuesday that public reaction and professional pressure against the board’s “impulsive and high-handed [response]”, resulted in the decision to halt the probe against Gray.

“This is a victory for science, democracy and the public good. The scientists should now be allowed to get on with the vital work of managing a pandemic that threatens the health and lives of many thousands of South Africans,” Jansen said. 

More than 300 leading scientists and academics had also 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 Prof 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 is 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.

Pillay, who previously 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, such as Prof Mendelson and Sanne, did not make false allegations. They were just critical of the lockdown,” he said, referring to ministerial advisory committee 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.

Update: May 26 2020
This article has been updated with comment from Prof Glenda Gray and Prof Jonathan Jansen