AIDS dissidents: blinded by pseudoscience or asking the right questions?
Published Thursday, 07-Jun-2007 in issue 1015
It’s seemingly as implausible as if the moon landing had been faked on a Hollywood soundstage. It’s the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories. Yet a group of highly accredited scientists contends it’s true: that HIV is not the cause of AIDS and that pharmaceutical companies, the World Health Organization, governments and AIDS researchers are all in collusion to suppress the truth and keep the multi-billion-dollar HIV/AIDS gravy train rolling.
These “AIDS Denialists,” as the scientific establishment pejoratively refers to the group, include Nobel Prize recipients, Africa historians, chemists, statisticians and virologists.
They say that the first U.S. AIDS cases were caused, not by HIV infection spread through unprotected sex, but by illicit drug use, amyl nitrate sniffing and exposure to antibiotics used to combat venereal diseases rampant in the 1970s – a hypothesis that gained some traction in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but that AIDS researchers thought had subsided.
“[The AIDS dissident movement] basically says that every scientist, every physician and every clinician out of the hundreds of thousands of professionals working worldwide on this is either some kind of malicious scumbag who will do anything for money, or we’re all stupid,” said AIDS researcher John P. Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University, the recipient of AIDS drug manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $500,000 “Freedom To Discover” grant and the man HIV dissidents refer to as the most “unashamed” spokesperson for the AIDS establishment.
Despite the dissident scientists’ credentials, each has, more or less, been discredited, excommunicated or labeled a “crackpot” or purveyor of pseudoscience for disputing a correlation between HIV and AIDS. However, a March 2006 article in Harper’s magazine gave the theory serious attention. Although it was published 22 years after then President Reagan’s secretary of health and human services, Margaret Heckler, and virologist, Robert Gallo, announced the discovery of HIV, and one might have expected the response from the HIV/AIDS establishment to have been a collective yawn, the article instead sounded universal alarm among those in the HIV/AIDS field.
HIV educators and researchers swiftly mobilized to counter the arguments put forth in the article, “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” by longtime AIDS dissident Celia Farber. And media from The Nation to the New York Times denounced the story, even while conceding that the first half of the article, which exposed gross mishandling of HIV drug trials in Africa and the United States, was a solid piece of investigative journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review, while deriding Harper’s for racing “right over the edge of a cliff,” offered temperate praise for the first half of Farber’s article, stating: “Her argument is that AIDS has become an industry and a certain kind of sloppiness has entered the search for new anti-retroviral drugs. So far, so good, and if this were the only story Farber hoped to tell, we might well be tipping our hat to her.”
But it was not the only story the former Spin magazine reporter had to tell. Citing the man considered to be the founding father of AIDS dissidents, University of California, Berkeley molecular and cell biologist, Peter Duesberg, Farber painted a grim picture of a profit-hungry pharmaceutical industry, one knowingly promoting the “false” notion that HIV causes AIDS in order to peddle its toxic drugs – drugs Farber, Duesberg and other AIDS dissidents point to as the current cause of AIDS in the U.S. and Europe.
Moore and a group of researchers and AIDS activists promptly fired back at Harper’s. Demanding a retraction with at least 50 corrections and clarifications, the team launched its own Web site, aidstruth.org, to refute the claims Farber put forth. Far from being merely an objective refutation of the dissidents’ argument, the site includes speculation about Duesberg’s presumed homophobia and a “humor” section with an entry titled, “Crank How to – a definitive step by step guide” (i.e. “Step one: Develop a wacky idea”).
“The reason we take these people on is because they kill people,” Moore said. “If you persuade someone that HIV is harmless and then that person engages in unsafe sex or doesn’t take effective therapies, you’re killing that person. We didn’t want to see any resurgence of this nonsense in the mainstream American media.”
While Moore and others have taken on the dissidents with fervor, the majority of those in the HIV/AIDS field refuse to debate the dissidents or address their questions about the mysterious nature of HIV.
Asked for a response to the dissidents’ claims, a spokesperson for the UCSD Antiviral Research Center issued the following statement, in part: “A number of investigators at UCSD Medical Center … [and] School of Medicine all agree that knowledgeable people no longer engage in debate with HIV deniers because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS and the lack of willingness of these HIV deniers to accept this overwhelming evidence.”
One San Diego-based HIV researcher who has worked on HIV drug trials agreed to comment on the dissidents’ views only on the condition that his anonymity be protected.
“I can totally understand how someone would want to deny the presence of this horrible thing, especially if someone had it,” he said. “Denial is a basic, human psychological protective mechanism. However, you can’t usually reason somebody out of denial, ever – and the more exposure they get and the more people put it up as a legitimate theory, the more play it gets and the more harm it does in the community.”
Certainly, it would seem scientists such as Duesberg, a tenured professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, the recipient of the Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health and a once-revered expert in the field of retroviruses, would have everything to gain from jumping off the denial bandwagon.
“I could easily conform,” Duesberg told the Gay & Lesbian Times. “I would be right there up on top again.”
Since he began questioning the accepted model of HIV in 1987, Duesberg hasn’t received a dime in government funding.
“Since I questioned HIV/AIDS, I’m only teaching the lab course,” he said. “I haven’t had a graduate student in 15 years.
“Some of [the students], under the condition of anonymity, tell me that this is what they were told. ‘You spent a lot of time and paid a high price to get into Berkeley. Duesberg is not the way to go…. This will kill your career.’ They have done a fairly good job excommunicating me.”
However, not all Duesberg’s work has been dismissed. Known for isolating the first cancer gene in 1970, his theory that cancer is caused by irregularities in the chromosomes, not the genes, was published this year in Scientific American. While lauding his ideas, however, the journal carefully covered its tracks in regard to Duesberg’s unpopular HIV theories, via an editorial labeling him “a pariah with good ideas.”
When questioned as to why AIDS, if not caused by a virus spread through anal intercourse, was first only found in gay men – bypassing Liza Minnelli and other heterosexual denizens of the Studio 54 drug scene – Duesberg’s answer hinted more at his alleged conservative views than any solid ideas about science.
“You don’t see it in the entire gay population,” he said. “You’re looking at a very small minority of the gay population who come to San Francisco or New York from the Midwest and so forth and they try to make it there as gay guys. There’s peer pressure among them to have 20 or 30 dates in a weekend and wear a leather jacket – God knows what it is.”
In order to have this much sex, Duesberg contends, gay men acquired a ravenous appetite for toxic drugs.
“Heterosexuals tend to get married or tend to go steady, so then the fun is over in this regard,” Duesberg said. “What we call the 10-year latent period of HIV is a euphemism for the time it takes to cause irreversible damage by drug use. It’s the same with alcohol; it’s the same with smoking.”
“[The AIDS dissident movement] basically says that every scientist, every physician and every clinician out of the hundreds of thousands of professionals working worldwide on this is either some kind of malicious scumbag who will do anything for money, or we’re all stupid.
Dissenters also contend that HIV has yet to be isolated.
“I don’t know whether HIV exists or not,” said retired Virginia Tech professor of electrochemistry, Henry Bauer, author of The Origins, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory. “What’s clear is that HIV tests do not detect viral particles – only antibodies – and it’s clear that they’ve never been isolated.”
Duesberg said the problem with HIV is that it behaves markedly differently than typical viruses, which reproduce rapidly. The average 10-year period it takes from the time someone is infected with HIV to the time they receive an AIDS diagnosis is circumspect, he said.
“There cannot be a slow virus,” Duesberg maintained. “If there is one, whoever proves it deserves the Nobel Prize in virology and in biochemistry…. A virus replicates like a biological chain reaction. It doubles its template every 20 minutes. This is not a process you can slow down or stop…. There’s no way this thing could be delayed for 10 years…. They keep dancing around [the issue], with guys like [Pawel] Liberski inventing ‘slow viruses,’ but it’s a term for not knowing what happened.”
Moore attributed Duesberg’s statement to “pure ignorance.”
“It just demonstrates he doesn’t read or understand HIV literature,” Moore said. “It’s just a silly statement based on how he thinks a virus should behave. He has no … right to claim that he knows everything about how every virus interacts with every human or animal immune system…. Where is the law of virology that says a virus can only interact with an organism in one particular way? … It’s like saying that all mammals are the same or all plants are the same. They’re not.”
Bauer is part of a group of scientists with an interest in questioning scientific orthodoxies. He said he recently pored over what he believes to be the most comprehensive collection of HIV test data analyzed to date, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) files and medical journals at Virginia Tech.
Bauer believes it is not sexual transmission that makes one susceptible to HIV infection, but racially determined genetic factors.
“The HIV test data do not look like what you get for a sexually transmitted agent,” Bauer said. “Any group that you look at, child-bearing women, Marines, blood donors, whatever, the variation of the likelihood of a positive-HIV test with AIDS is the same….
“Overall,” Bauer said, “it’s roughly that African-Americans test HIV-positive five times or more than white Americans; Asian-Americans test positive about two-thirds as often as white Americans…. Amongst homosexuals, you find these racial disparities in the same order – [though] they’re not as great.”
Bauer conceded, however, that the high rate of HIV-positive [test results] among gay men is something that needs to be studied.
“There are plenty of gay men who have been HIV-positive for 20 years without becoming ill and without having antiretroviral treatment,” he said.
Bauer points to numerous cases throughout history in which long-held scientific theories have been proven incorrect.
For example, in 2005, two Australians won the Nobel Prize in physiology for proving that it is bacteria, not stress, that causes ulcers – a previously discredited theory. In 1976, a Nobel Prize was awarded to researchers who proved that Kuru, a brain disease found among New Guinea natives, was not caused by a lentivirus, which is what HIV is believed to be, but by prions, the source of Mad Cow Disease.
Charles Geshekter, an economist and Africa specialist in the history department at California State University, Chico, has long criticized the definition of AIDS in Africa, claiming that it is “not a microbial problem to be controlled through sexual abstinence, behavior modification, condoms and drugs (the so-called “ABCs” of AIDS interventions),” but a misnomer for a set of pre-existing conditions such as diarrhea, high fever, weight loss and a dry cough.
Geshekter said he formed his view based on his travels in the Great Horn region of Africa, which includes Ethiopia and Somalia, in the 1970s and 1980s. He questions how the AIDS establishment was able to collect such firm statistics on Africa.
“I was always aware of how hard it was to get good, reliable statistics on those things in Somalia,” Geshekter said. “I started to wonder: ‘Where did they get these numbers from? How are they so reliable and accurate about AIDS cases in Congo or Uganda or Rwanda or Tanzania?’ I knew that statistical record-keeping in Africa was a very chancy, very irregular matter…. Africa has the lowest record of reliable statistics for epidemiology, for death and illness because of the shortage of practitioners and the shortage of infrastructure for collecting that kind of data.”
After looking into the matter, Geshekter said he began to question the definition of AIDS in Africa as put forth during a World Health Organization conference in 1985.
“In 1985, testing for HIV antibodies was hardly ever done in Africa, so they came up with a clinical symptoms definition, a working definition of AIDS. When I saw what those symptoms were, I realized that I got those symptoms any time I worked in the Bush in Somalia: high fever, persistent cough, chronic diarrhea for 14 days, and a 10-percent loss of your body weight over eight weeks…. There’s never been a time that I hadn’t worked in the Bush in Somalia, drinking camels’ milk, on a very sketchy diet, under a tropical sun, that I didn’t suffer from all of those symptoms. Yet not being an African, I could get on an airplane and fly … [back to] Chico and I was cured of ‘AIDS.’ So, there was something illogical, inconsistent and very screwy about the whole definition.”
However, Moore and others explain that the symptoms of AIDS in Africa are consistent with existing diseases because of the way AIDS works.
“There are plenty of gay men who have been HIV-positive for 20 years without becoming ill and without having antiretroviral treatment.”
“What the individual with a damaged immune system suffers from depends on the prevalent infections that are around at the time and the place that he or she lives – opportunistic infections that generally won’t kill people,” Moore said. “In Africa, a very common cause of death from AIDS is tuberculosis infection because it’s far more prevalent in Africa than it is in Europe and North America, and many of the people who die in Africa now die of the multi-drug resistant forms of tuberculosis.”
Geshekter further questions how AIDS is being spread in Africa. He said the view of Africa as a sexually promiscuous society doesn’t mesh with his observations in the country.
“It was completely at variance with everything I’d ever seen or heard or read about regarding sexual activity, generally, in Africa, … [that] Africans are wildly promiscuous people for whom disloyalty to one’s spouse and sex on a regular loose basis is just part of their culture. It was a perfect piece of fiction created from a whole cloth from people who had spent very little time in Africa themselves.”
Earlier this year, Geshekter was invited to discuss his views with other dissidents and AIDS researchers in Mexico City, in anticipation of the upcoming International AIDS Conference, to be held in Mexico City in August 2008.
Ricardo Rocha, a veteran journalist with TV Azteca, had scheduled a televised debate between dissidents and AIDS researchers as part of a three-hour series questioning established HIV/AIDS science.
The researchers agreed to the debate on the condition that they first be granted one hour of airtime alone to explain the prevailing AIDS theory and refute the dissidents’ claims. When their segment was over, the Mexican researchers declined to stay for the televised debate.
“We were watching this live in another room,” Geshekter recalled. “When Ricardo said, ‘We’ll have a chance to debate later the efficacy and the toxicity of Nevarapine and AZT and any number of these other chemicals that are given to people to fight HIV,’ they said, ‘We’re not going to be here for the second segment.’ Ricardo tried to shame them. He told them, ‘If you’re not here, I’m going to have your four seats with your names on them vacant on the set and I’m going to explain to the audience why you’re not there.’ When that program was over, they scurried out the back door.”
Geshekter said he also suspects that too much is at stake to have even one stone lodged at what he views as a scientific glass house.
“If I come along and I say that [current AIDS theory] is a fruitless, lost, counterproductive and barren hypothesis, I’m basically saying that 25 years of an enormous amount of energy and advertising and money has been sent down a rat hole,” he said. “That absolutely cannot be accepted…. This is not about science any longer. This is a religious crusade, and anyone who challenges the religious crusade must be punished, because that’s a heresy.”
Duesberg and others question why there has been no AIDS vaccine after nearly two decades as Heckler promised would be forthcoming within two years during her April 1984 HIV press conference.
“Tying [HIV] to a virus doesn’t do it,” Duesberg said. “Every year it’s not going to work. That’s how it’s going to be. With these billions of dollars [spent], I consider that as proof of my hypothesis that it’s chemical and isn’t a virus.”
However, Moore said the search for a vaccine is far more complex.
“It’s an extraordinarily difficult scientific problem that is defeating the finest scientists working in the field. It’s because HIV is different than other viruses that interact with the human organism in much simpler ways…. If it were as easy to deal with as yellow fever virus or poliovirus it would have been done years ago….
“HIV is a member of the lentivirus family of retroviruses,” Moore said. “It’s been very difficult to make vaccines in animals against other lentiviruses with similar properties.”
To a degree, inconsistencies also exist in what mainstream researchers hold to be true about the nature of the AIDS virus.
For example, another reason it has been so difficult to produce a vaccine, Moore believes, is the “incredible variation in the HIV genome.”
“It’s a very, very variable virus because it mutates so rapidly,” Moore said.
However, Dr. Davey Smith, an assistant adjunct professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at UCSD, said it has been his experience that the virus hasn’t been mutating.
“There’s been a bunch of papers around about that,” said Smith, who agreed to answer some specific questions about HIV, so long as they were removed from the issue of the AIDS dissidents. “I don’t think there’s really much difference between the virus that is circulating now and the virus that was circulating 20 years ago.”
Finding a vaccine has been difficult, Smith said, because of the way the virus works itself into DNA.
“Once it gets into the bloodstream and it integrates into the person’s own DNA, it lives there … and we can’t get it out,” Smith said. “Even though we can start someone on therapy and we can keep the virus from producing copies of itself, we can’t get it out of the DNA form. Once we stop the therapy, it just makes more copies of itself.”
“The reason we take these people on is because they kill people. If you persuade someone that HIV is harmless and then that person engages in unsafe sex or doesn’t take effective therapies, you’re killing that person. We didn’t want to see any resurgence of this nonsense in the mainstream American media.”
Wading through the science on both sides of the issue is so complex it can be a crazy-making endeavor for the average person seeking health information.
One former medical journalist, who also requested anonymity due to a conflict with his current position, said that, despite his outspoken criticism of the dissidents’ view, he feels it is not helpful for the AIDS establishment to ignore the dissidents altogether. The ongoing cycle of investigation, debate and analysis of the facts, after all, remains the crux of science.
“I have never thought that it’s helpful,” he said. “Certainly in science, like all human activity, there is a tendency [toward] institutional discouragement against rocking the boat, so whatever the orthodoxy is, those tend to be self-perpetuating. That is a legitimate criticism. On the other hand, there is a point at which it’s reasonable to say, this has been answered already. The reason you’re still raising the question is because you’re not listening.”