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Truth and Heresy About AIDS

Inventing the AIDS Virus

by Peter H. Duesberg
Regnery, 722 pp., $29.95

Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled?

by Peter H. Duesberg
North Atlantic, 582 pp., $18.95

AIDS: Virus- or Drug Induced?

edited by Peter H. Duesberg
Kluwer Academic, 358 pp., $227.50, $49.50 (paper)

1.

After more than a decade of intensive medical research into AIDS, of energetic international public health campaigns and the emergence of a vast academic and commercial industry built around human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the confident observer might dismiss the following proposition:

Despite enormous efforts, over 100,000 papers and over $35 billion spent by the US tax payer alone, the HIV-AIDS hypothesis has failed to produce any public health benefits: no vaccine, no effective drug, no prevention, no cure, not a single life saved.

The scientist who made this statement is not an obscure crank. He is Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, a brilliant virologist, and the former recipient of an award for outstanding investigative research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Duesberg discovered the first cancer-related gene in 1970. Yet he is now perhaps the most vilified scientist alive. His work inspires excoriating attacks. In a review of Inventing the AIDS Virus, published in the scientific journal Nature, John Moore, who works at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, concluded:

Duesberg wraps together his twisted facts and illogical lines of argument to create a tangled web to trap the unwary, desperate or gullible. But however much he attempts to gild his writings with philosophies of scientific truth, the reality is that his premises are based not on facts but on faith: faith that he is right, and everyone else is wrong…. How sad, and how ultimately pathetic.1

What extraordinary course of events has led him to be dismissed by his peers and ridiculed by his colleagues?

Duesberg makes two astonishing claims. First, that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. And, second, that since AIDS cannot be understood as a single disease, it must have different causes according to which group of people—hemophiliacs or homosexual men, for example—one studies. The case against HIV is made by Duesberg in fifteen articles, in Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled?, and in AIDS: Virus- or Drug Induced? Three years after its first announcement, and three publishers and five editors later, his most recent book, Inventing the AIDS Virus, draws together these arguments into a historically and logically coherent tale. In describing AIDS as “a fabricated epidemic,” he recounts the scandals of misleading research, the accusations of fraud leveled against scientists such as the co-discoverer of HIV, Robert Gallo, and the hyperbole of early estimates predicting the huge epidemic proportions of AIDS. And in an unusual aside, the publisher, Regnery, sheds neutrality by declaring that “if Duesberg is right in what he says about AIDS, and we think he is, he documents one of the great science scandals of the century.”

On the basis of thirty years’ research experience into the group of viruses known as retroviruses, he acquits HIV as the cause of AIDS. He shows how dissidents who share his view have been snubbed by most other scientists. They have been forced to organize their activities into small covens, of which one is the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis. He recounts how scientists who have flirted with dissident views, such as Luc Montagnier, who, with Gallo, identified HIV, have been dissuaded from pursuing their alternative theories. He uses the examples of scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra to show how infectious agents have been blamed as causes of common diseases only to be cleared years later when it was admitted that scientific evidence failed to satisfy hastily constructed theories. He argues that diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other diseases have been falsely attributed to infectious causes. The same, he believes, is true of AIDS.

Duesberg does not substantiate his argument with new data. Rather, he believes that “the answers will instead be found by reinterpreting existing information…[in order] to make sense of the data already in hand.” His close reading of published research aims to provide detailed refutations of every assumption and every piece of evidence involved in creating the HIV-AIDS theory. But the core of his case rests on two propositions. Existing theories about the cause of AIDS are based on circumstantial—namely, epidemiological—evidence and not direct scientific proof. The epidemiological evidence is that HIV has been found in all persons who have had AIDS. The orthodox view is best summarized by the American AIDS epidemiologist William Blattner and his colleagues:

The strongest evidence that HIV causes AIDS comes from prospective epidemiological studies that document the absolute requirement for HIV infection for the development of AIDS.

Duesberg constantly warns against such epidemiological inferences because of their inherent uncertainty. In 1988, he argued that an “epidemiological correlation”

is insufficient because such evidence cannot distinguish between HIV and other causes, unless there is also evidence for biochemical activity of HIV in AIDS.

In 1993, he elaborated further:

Because of its descriptive nature, epidemiological search for an infectious pathogen is restricted to correlations…. Epidemiology can…never prove that an infectious agent causes a disease.

In addition to this failure to prove causality, Duesberg contends that AIDS is not an infectious disorder. In supporting this view, he challenges the efforts to implicate other viruses as causes of human diseases. He casts doubt on the alleged associations reported between the human papilloma virus and cervical cancer, between hepatitis B and liver cancer, and hepatitis C virus and hepatitis, together with the viruses allegedly linked to various lymphomas and leukemias. Citing evidence suggesting that HIV infection was present in the 1960s and 1970s, he also asserts that HIV is not a new virus.

If AIDS was caused by an infectious agent, Duesberg claims, one would expect it would have five specific characteristics: (1) it would spread randomly between the sexes; (2) the disease would rapidly appear—at least within months; (3) it would be possible to identify “active and abundant [HIV] microbes in all cases”; (4) cells would die or be impaired, beyond the ability of the body to replace them; and (5) we would see the development of a consistent pattern of symptoms in those infected. None of these expectations has been met. In the US and Europe, men are affected far more commonly than women; the onset of clinical disease takes a median of ten years; the virus is difficult to isolate in patients with AIDS. Nor are the direct effects of the virus on one group of target cells, called CD4 lymphocytes, believed to be responsible for the observed immunodeficiency. And the symptoms vary strikingly, for example, between Africa and America, although they have a supposedly common infectious origin.

Arguments such as these have persuaded respected scientists to express their skepticism that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1993, writes in his foreword to Inventing the AIDS Virus,

I like and respect Peter Duesberg. I don’t think he knows necessarily what causes AIDS; we have disagreements about that. But we’re both certain about what doesn’t cause AIDS.

We have not been able to discover any good reasons why most of the people on earth believe that AIDS is a disease caused by a virus called HIV. There is simply no scientific evidence demonstrating that this is true.

Is AIDS a single disease? No, says Duesberg. HIV is present in different groups: homosexual men and women, heterosexual men and women, injecting drug users, hemophiliacs, and children (who are infected during pregnancy, at birth, or from breast feeding). And the differences in the symptoms of AIDS among these groups prove, Duesberg believes, that HIV cannot be the common cause for such geographically and demographically divergent clinical events: Kaposi’s sarcoma is more common among homosexual men; infection in Africa is associated with wasting diseases, which cause drastic reductions in weight, whereas in Europe and the US infections like Pneumocystis pneumonia are more common. In Duesberg’s view, the Western form of AIDS is caused by long-term recreational use of drugs, such as cocaine, nitrites, amphetamines, or drugs used to treat AIDS itself—AZT, for instance. (The evidence from surveys that many homosexuals in fact take nitrites to enhance sexual experience or take other drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine is central to this argument.)

The hypothesis linking AIDS and drugs, Duesberg believes, resolves several longstanding paradoxes about the AIDS pandemic. American AIDS is new not because of HIV, which is an old infection, but because drug use has spiraled during the past twenty years, especially in men below the age of forty. Many diseases associated with AIDS, such as dementia, do not depend on a state of immunodeficiency. If the drug hypothesis is correct, diseases in developing countries that are “associated” with HIV infection would no longer be forced to fit into the invented category of AIDS, thereby creating a syndrome with a pattern entirely different from its Western counterpart. What Duesberg calls the “drug-AIDS hypothesis” would lead us to conclude that many of the diseases now defined as AIDS in the developing countries are old diseases—tuberculosis and salmonella infection among them—and occur equally between the sexes. Any evidence of HIV infection is an irrelevant coincidence. In all settings, Duesberg writes, HIV is a harmless “passenger” and does not cause disease.

Where does this radical argument take us? Duesberg writes,

The drug-AIDS hypothesis predicts that the AIDS diseases of the behavioral AIDS-risk groups in the US and Europe can be prevented by controlling the consumption of recreational and anti-HIV drugs, but not by “safe sex” and “clean injection equipment” for unsterile(!) street drugs.

Here Duesberg’s arguments take him into dangerous territory. For if HIV is not the cause of AIDS, then every public health injunction about the need for safer sex becomes meaningless; every call to offer clean needles to injecting drug users may be unnecessary—or worse. Duesberg notes that “the clean-needle program of the AIDS-establishment would appear to encourage rather than discourage intravenous drug use.” And, he writes, most remarkably of all, that “screening of blood for antibodies to HIV is superfluous, if not harmful, in view of the anxiety that a positive test generates.” In his opinion “AZT is AIDS by prescription”; this drug should “be banned immediately.”

How could so many scientists have got it all so badly wrong?

2.

The thesis that HIV is the cause of AIDS is undisputed by most other researchers. Duesberg accepts that epidemiological investigations find an association between the virus and the syndrome. His tactic is to argue that HIV is merely what scientists call a “confounding variable”: that is, its presence is explained by its relation with the much more significant history of drug use. HIV and AIDS-related diseases, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, are for Duesberg all simply the results of drug use, the true cause of AIDS. To be sure, one task of AIDS research has been to convert statistical associations into clear statements about physical factors that seem likely to increase the risk of immunodeficiency. There is now substantial evidence—the life cycle of HIV, the events surrounding early infection, and the damage to the immune system as the disease progresses—to show how HIV might lead to a state in which the immune system fails to function. Duesberg recognizes the importance of this evidence. He writes, however, that “even a perfect correlation with HIV does not prove causation without functional evidence.” That “functional evidence” is now accumulating rapidly. However, researchers readily admit that there are huge gaps in our understanding. In the recent authoritative account, The Molecular Biology of HIV/AIDS, edited by A.M.L. Lever, scientists write:

  1. 1

    See John Moore, “À Duesberg, adieu,” Nature, Volume 380 (March 28, 1996), pp. 293–294.

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