Opinion

Slim: The life, times and education of Salim Abdool Karim

Professor
Salim Abdool Karim, the government’s chief adviser on Covid-19, has achieved
worldwide acclaim in a career spanning more than 30 years. He has straddled
science and activism in his professional life, and helped stare down Thabo
Mbeki on HIV. But this, the battle against the coronavirus, is his moment,
writes Sarah Evans
.

There is
a photograph of Professor Salim Abdool Karim that sums it all up: It was taken in
2018 at the March for Science in Durban, and photographer Rajesh Jantilal has
captured Abdool Karim mid-frame.

He is
wearing a white coat, with a megaphone in his hand, at a protest in the rain.
His index finger gestures downwards, making a point; he is tall, authoritative,
and soaked.

The image
is probably the best description never written about him: The 59-year-old is a
scientist, with an activist heart, who is not afraid of stormy weather.

“Slim”,
as he is affectionately known, is now the chairperson of the 45-person
Ministerial Advisory Committee, advising Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on
Covid-19. And to scientists, and anyone involved in opposing former president
Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/Aids
policies, he is a familiar face.

But he
shot to national fame this week when he appeared beside Mkhize at an online
public engagement to present the facts and figures behind the government’s Covid-19
response to the public.

The
demand for interviews from journalists has been unrelenting since Monday, an assistant
says, slightly out of breath.

Were Dr
Anthony Fauci, the US’ chief scientist
on infectious diseases or Nobel Laureate Francois Barre-Sinnousi, the
co-discoverer of HIV, to pass Slim in the corridor, they would stop for a
catch-up chat with their friend (all appropriate social distancing measures
considered).

But
despite his presence on the international stage, this much is clear: His
Covid-19 work will secure his place in the history books. Because this is Slim’s moment;
the high watermark of a career spent breaking new ground on infectious
diseases.

A life
spent studying viruses

In a
webinar with News24 this week, Abdool Karim described what appears to be a
grueling work schedule, with a relaxed grin and laid-back demeanour.

After
working all day, and having dinner with his family, he starts a “second day” from about 20:30 until
about 02:00, a routine he has had for many years.

When he
was called upon by Mkhize to help him manage the Covid-19 crisis, he happily
agreed.  “I didn’t ask to
do any of this, I was asked to come and do it,” he said.

Never one
to shy away from a deadly and incurable disease, Slim agreed.

He said he
started out studying measles and epidemics before he chaired the government’s expert committee
on polio. He then focused on immunisation, with Hepatitus-B and HIV his
main areas of research.

Salim Abdool Karim

“I’ve spent
most of my life studying viruses. So, in a way, this was an obvious challenge
to take up.”

His wife, Quarraisha, is an
equally accomplished epidemiologist, famous for her contributions to Aids
research. Their two daughters, Safura and Aisha, are a public health lawyer and
a health journalist, respectively.

A wonderful PhD…

In an interview with academic journal
The Lancet, Slim said he entered medicine as a second choice, “to be on the safe side”, as options for Indians were
limited in the turbulent 1970s. His first choice was engineering. As fate would
have it, that option did not materialise, and he found himself graduating from
the then-University of Natal as a doctor.

Slim and Quarraisha’s PhD supervisor, Struggle stalwart and acclaimed HIV/Aids
researcher and paediatrician Professor Hoosen “Jerry” Coovadia, remembers an
impressive young student.

Slim approached his work with “fitness, ardour, depth, and
intelligence”. His thesis on Hepatatis-B in
children was undertaken “surprisingly
carefully” and he
showed a knack for epidemiology that would stand him in good stead later in his
career.

“He was the first person I’d met who could do a population-level survey of where Hep-B
strikes; every bit of the epidemiological and social implications of the problem.
And he did a wonderful PhD. on it. That was the beginning of my appreciation of
him.”

Several decades later, Slim has a CV that stretches all the way
from UNAIDS, to the World Health Organisation, Columbia University, Harvard
University and the South African Medical Research Council. In South Africa, he
is best known for being the director of the Centre for Aids Programme of
Research in South Africa (Caprisa).

In 2019, he added the title of
Fellow of the Royal Society to his name, joining the ranks of Sir Isaac Newton
as among the most respected scientists in the world.

After a career of 30 years,
when Slim calls, scientists answer.

Professor Brian Williams, a
mathematician with decades of experience in TB research, tells News24 from Switzerland
Slim asked him to assist with expert advice on Covid-19.

He appeared electronically from
Geneva as part of the government’s unprecedented public engagement
on Covid-19 on Monday night at 30 minute’s
notice because “Slim
called”.

Showing
up Mbeki

While his international
reputation is largely that of a scientist, in South Africa his reputation
straddles the realms of science and activism. Even his presence at Mkhize’s side this week harked back to Mbeki: the minister and the
doctor were students together at university.

Thirty years after graduating,
the two men stood in a hotel room at The Hilton Hotel in Durban as former
health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang rained hellfire on Slim and Coovadia,
for daring to oppose the government’s stance on
HIV/Aids.

Mkhize representing the government
(although not necessarily agreeing with it), Abdool Karim opposing it.

The incident took place on the
sidelines of the International Aids Conference in Durban in 2000. Coovadia
chaired the conference, while Slim, his former pupil, was the scientific
programme chairperson.

There, the two scientists and
their many colleagues around the world plotted to jolt the Mbeki government
into action by either persuading it with science, or by shaming it into action.

The incident at the hotel       

It was the moment Slim became acquainted
with politics, having spent most of his career outside of it; it was a baptism
of fire for the scientist.

Tshabalala-Msimang ordered Slim
and Coovadia to her hotel room at The Hilton to give them a dressing-down about
the goings on at the conference. Mkhize was there as well as current deputy
health minister Joe Phaahla, and others.

After being derided by the
minister for his belief in science, Coovadia, with a long history in the
struggle against apartheid as a leader of the United Democratic Front and other
structures, had had just about enough.

South African scientist, epidemiologist and Direct

“She started giving us a lecture, asking how we could oppose
the government and so on. I said to her, ‘You were overseas, you weren’t here
[during the Struggle]. I was here, they bombed my house, not yours’.”

And then the late minister said
something that Coovadia says he will never forget. “She looked at the two
of us and said, ‘You two, you are here now, but tomorrow all your friends will
be gone. And then there will be me, and then there will be you’.”

Nelson Mandela closed the conference
to rapturous applause – a public relations coup for Coovadia and his
colleagues. A seminal declaration emanated from the conference, showing the
scientific community united in its opposition to the dissidence by Mbeki.

That combined with the
political heft of Mandela and the emotive address by child activist Nkosi
Johnson arguably changed the course of history.

With Slim at his side, Coovadia
and his colleagues sealed Mbeki’s fate as a pariah of the international
community.

Slim,
the ally

With his baptism of fire complete,
Slim went on to become an ally of HIV/Aids activists in South Africa.

Mark Heywood, formerly of the
Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), remembers his contribution.

“He was already a
researcher in the field, but was also open to making connections with
activists. So, from very early on, the TAC relied on him to make medical
knowledge accessible to community activists… He and his wife played an important
role,” said Heywood.

Slim went on to become a
signatory to another crucial declaration at the Bredel Conference in 2001,
lending his scientific weight to the TAC and other organisation’s position on
the use of anti-retroviral drugs.

Is he a good fit for this
position?  

“Undoubtedly,”
Heywood said. “He’s not a pushover, because of his stand against Mbeki, so
he has the necessary independence. But he like all of us, he thinks that where the
government is good, it needs support. He also has the respect of the scientific
community.”

He has the respect, yes. But also the affection. Slim is always
spoken of with a touch of kindness, and a slant of respect. More recently, with
a healthy dose of name-dropping.

So where does the nickname come
from?

It is a sensitive subject, and
while his friends and colleagues now say the name comes from the Afrikaans word
for clever, that’s not really the truth.

The slender-faced man who
appeared at Mkhize’s side that night did not look the same as he did 30 years
ago.  

Gently, and with a chuckle,
Coovadia explains: “Slim wasn’t always exactly slim.”

But since the translation from
Afrikaans is kinder and, these days, far more accurate, so its connotation as a
nod to his looks has been let go.

Slim means clever. Indeed.
 

 

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