The acting director-general of the health department, Dr Anban Pillay, has requested an investigation into the conduct of Dr Glenda Gray, the president of the Medical Research Council (MRC), claiming she has "made a number of false allegations against the government".
These concerns were described in a letter, dated 21 May, that was written by Pillay. It was addressed to MRC chairperson Professor Johnny Mahlangu, GroundUp reports.
The letter states allegations Gray recently made in the media "are damaging to the government's response to Covid-19".
This after an interview with News24 in which she criticised the government's lockdown approach as "unscientific".
Gray was quoted as saying it seemed as if the government was "sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish".
"These media statements cause confusion ... and are likely to erode public support for behaviour change," the letter read.
Pillay said he had received calls about Gray's conduct as president of the MRC on matters other than her statements to the media.
"I therefore recommend that the board investigate the conduct [of Gray] on this matter given the harm it has caused to South Africa's Covid-19 response," he wrote.
Department spokesperson Lwazi Manzi did not respond to queries or answer calls by the time of publication. Neither Mahlangu nor Gray wished to comment.
Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, a leading medical researcher based at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, has come out in support of Gray, describing her as a "national treasure".
She said Gray had raised important issues for the "common good" and in the "best interest of the country".
Bekker added the response should not be a witch hunt but a discussion so that the government, including Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, could find the best way to respond to the epidemic.
She said scientists should have the freedom to speak their minds.
Scientists must be allowed to express their views. We cannot afford witch hunts
I don't agree with everything raised by Glenda Gray in her interview with News24 (and it's not clear if she was quoted accurately in all respects). It seems she made at least one factual error. But some of the points she made are spot-on and important contributions to the debate on how we respond to Covid-19.
Gray is a highly respected scientist and she should feel free to speak her mind and to criticise without fear of losing her position as the head of the MRC. Of course, she should also expect to be criticised in response, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has written an emphatic response to her criticisms, as he is entitled to do.
But Anban Pillay's letter is troubling.
First, this appears to be improper interference. The MRC is a statutory body, but its board must have independence from the government.
Second, Pillay wrote: "Subsequently, I have also received calls from persons regarding Prof Gray's conduct at the MRC on other matters which I will share once I receive more details from them."
This suggests the health department is willing to dredge up staff grudges against Gray, which exist in any large organisation, to try to get rid of her.
If Pillay succeeds in getting rid of Gray, it will not only result in the MRC losing the services of a first-class scientist, it will likely damage the morale of the institution for a long time to come. It will also alienate leading public health experts, many of whom are sympathetic to Gray, from the government. We cannot afford that during this pandemic.
In 2001, an MRC study on mortality was leaked to the media. The study showed how HIV was killing hundreds of thousands of South Africans. The report was one of the most important published in the MRC's history and it contributed to ultimately changing government policy for the better in 2003.
But its findings conflicted with the Aids-denialist ideology of then-president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. So they pursued a witch hunt for the leaker of the document.
There are similarities with what's happening now. In both situations, instead of engaging with the content of what emanated from the MRC, the government opted for revenge.
I don't want to overstate the similarities though. President Cyril Ramaphosa and Mkhize are trying hard to respond to the Covid-19 crisis even though the government is making mistakes. So a comparison with Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang is not entirely fair.
Also Covid-19, because of the speed at which it's unfolding and our lack of knowledge about it, is a much harder problem to deal with than Aids was in 2001, when the solutions were relatively straightforward. What needs to be done now is not at all obvious and reasonable people, like Gray and Mkhize, will disagree with each other.
But those disagreements are not necessarily a problem, even if they reach the public domain. On the contrary, this is an opportunity for a healthy public debate. Mkhize, Pillay and the other people in charge of the country's response to Covid-19 need to participate in that debate, with thicker skins, and without rancour.