For An AIDS Heresy
By Charles Bremner
Times (London) 11 May 1992
Bremner meets a Berkeley professor who has been ostracised for
expounding a view that has shocked the 'Aids establishment'.
does not look like a deluded crank as he sits over breakfast in
a little house in a pleasant Californian university campus and states
categorically that the world has got it completely and tragically
wrong about Aids.
and wiry for his 55 years, Professor Duesberg, a German by birth,
speaks with the blithe self-assurance of a dissident who has seen
the light, endured banishment for his views and now senses vindication
around the corner. Aids, according to his controversial thesis,
is not an infectious disease, it has nothing to do with the HIV
virus and the thousands of healthy people are being killed by taking
the anti-Aids drug AZT.
The sharp increase
in the 1980s of the diverse, long-standing diseases lumped together
as Aids stems, he says, from damage to the immune system inflicted
by excessive use of recreational drugs, particularly the nitrites
or "poppers" and other psychoactive (mood-altering) drugs
favoured by homosexuals. It's so embarrassingly clear that I don't
see how someone can argue around it, "he says. The fallacy
of the Aids virus will turn out to be "the most colossal mistake
in medical history'.
At this stage
the leaders of the "Aids establishment" - government-funded
researchers, the drug companies and militant homosexuals organisations
- would like to read and turn the page. Professor Duesberg is publicity
hungry maniac, they say. He is a flat-earther, but his his ideas
are more than loony, they say. They are dangerous because they sow
doubts about such cardinal tenets as the need to practise safe sex
and support the campaign for "Aids awareness".
He has already
had enough publicity, they feel, thanks to some conservative American
magazines which have been quick to give credence to doctrines which
are not just politically incorrect, but downright heretical.
On the lush,
hillside campus of Berkeley, the academic grove where he is a professor
of molecular and cell biology, some of his students call him "crazy
old Duesberg" and Dr. Robert Gallo, the American who is credited
as the co-discoverer of the HIV virus and a former friend, was quoted
saying that he cannot discuss the Duesberg hypothesis "without
Dr Gallo would
probably not have to do so at all, were it not for the fact that
the professor has distinguished credentials. He is a world-leading
virologist and did pioneering work mapping the structure of retroviruses,
of which HIV is one; he is a member of the American Academy of Sciences
and, until the controversy caused him to lose it, he held a $ 350.000
per year "Outstanding Investigator" grand from the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), the American government body which oversees
the expenditure of billions of dollars on Aids research. The grant,
awarded for the pursuit of his cancer research, is intended to enable
brilliant researchers to "venture into new territory "and
"ask creative questions".
deserves his ostracism, say his opponents. Michael Fumento, who
earned the wrath of the homosexual community for his book, The Myth
of Heterosexual Aids, which charged the "Aids establishment"
with exaggerating the risks of the disease for heterosexuals in
order to build political pressure for more funding, has publicly
accused Professor Duesberg of his bad faith, saying in this month's
American Spectator. "It's a big game with this guy and I don't
think this is very funny."
Yet, far from
fading under four years of ridicule, Professor Duesberg is enjoying
something akin to a glimmer of vindication. Over the past year or
so, some mainstream Aids researchers have been coming round the
notion that the HIV virus may only be a part of the cause of Aids.
The disease seems to require the presence of a "co-factor",
some micro-organism they believe, which works with it to trigger
the destruction of the immune system, allowing the body to be invaded
by the Aids diseases.
A turning of
the tide may have come, Professor Duesberg believes, with the change
of heart of Luc Montagnier of Pasteur Institute, the man who first
identified the HIV virus. Dr Montagnier now subscribes to the idea
that HIV is not alone responsible for Aids and he is due to attend
an alternative Aids symposium in Amsterdam this week along with
others from the 50-member Group for Scientific Reappraisal of the
in which no major scientific journal has given Professor Duesberg
any platform, an article in Britain's Nature last September, written
by its editor John Maddox, suggested, though still sceptical, that
there might be a grain of sense in his theories. Any mention of
them in print, however, still elicits fury from those Professor
Duesberg sees as the priests of the official Aids "church".
with him was at the home of one of his three daughters, a biology
undergraduate at the University of California at Riverside, about
60 miles east of Los Angles.
had invited him to give a seminar there; fellow students suggested
they should not tell their professors for fear of a veto.
HIV as irrelevant and calling Aids non-viral, Professor Duesberg
is still far beyond the consensus of the "co-factor "school.
But, he says, the fact that eminent scientists have now opened this
door is an admission of defeat.
of co-factors is a euphemism" he says in the German accent
which has not left him since he came to America in 1964. "It
is very difficult to say you were wrong when you are spending three
billion dollars a year and 180.000 people have been given AZT. They're
trapped in so many ways."
for the professor's break with orthodoxy are well enough known,
thanks to the publicity over the past year or so. His doubts began
within a couple of years of the official acceptance, in 1984, of
the theory that the HIV virus triggered the immune system disorder
which allowed the development of pneumonia's, cancers, dementia
and other "opportunistic" diseases.
many anomalies which seemed to contradict the notion of a virus
epidemic. Professor Duesberg says. Among these were the fact that
people have died of "Aids" with no trace of HIV antibodies
in their system, according to the professor, this has received some
corroboration with evidence that some patients who suffer from Kaposie's
sarcoma, the previously rare skin cancer which suddenly reappeared
with homosexual Aids patients, have not been HIV positive.
The most glaring
failure of Aids to follow the epidemiological norm, Professor Duesberg
claims, is the restriction of the condition in America and Europe
almost entirely within the high-risk groups of male homosexuals
and drug users. The disease has failed to explode, as widely predicted,
into the general population, including heterosexual women and teenagers;
at the same time, venereal diseases have soared, indicating no drop
in unprotected sex, he says. According to the latest figures from
the Centres of Disease Control, the American government's main monitoring
body, 86 per cent of Aids patients are homosexual or intravenous
drug users, or both.
is the question of why the HIV infection level in the American population
has remained around the million mark, according to a consensus of
authorities. This would not be consistent with a viral epidemic,
say the professor and his supporters. A study in the United States
forces between 1985 and 1989 showed as many women as men to have
been carrying HIV antibodies, yet men develop Aids four times as
much. In Africa, Professor Duesberg says, about 15 per cent of the
population is estimated by the World Health Organisation to carry
the HIV virus, but only 41.000 cases of Aids have been reported.
Another enigma comes from the huge difference between the African
and North American versions of Aids. Professor Duesberg suspects
that diseases long endemic to Africa, such as slim disease and tuberculosis,
are attributed to Aids and HIV though there is no connection.
in Professor Duesberg territory, no virus has ever behaved in the
way HIV is supposed, by its advocates, to do. It is present in only
tiny quantities, it triggers an antibody reaction which indicates
that it has been neutralised and yet it is said to become active
years, or decades later. "There's absolutely no precedent anywhere
in biology, or even microbiology, that a microbe causes a disease
only after it is neutralised...The Aids virus remains dormant. Even
among those dying of Aids. It makes no sense." Professor Duesberg
says. His critics say viruses have been known to remain dormant
and than re-activate despite the presence of antibodies which suggest
they were "conquered". The virus, says the professor,
is just one of many that have been around for centuries but which
have only been detected since the development of highly sensitive
tests, rather as new stars were "discovered" with the
improvement of telescopes. The fact that HIV is actively present
in one out of every 10.000 T-cells shows, he says, the nonsense
of claiming that they invade the body. "To take over, you 've
got to get in there and invade a large number of cells. It's like
you invade a country with soldiers. You're not going to claim you
have captured the US by invading Riverside with 50 Chicanos... They
have hyped up HIV into this super-rapist but in reality the damn
thing can hardly get an erection."
the failure of the virus-Aids hypothesis better than its results,
he says. It has saved not one life, not predicted the spread of
Aids correctly, and not led to any useful medication or vaccine.
AZT is the drug of choice for Aids patients and is acknowledged
to cause side-effects such as anaemia. But the evidence of controlled
trials is that it prolongs life. Professor Duesberg insists that
the adoption of AZT is one of the scandals of the Aids story. The
drug is a "DNA terminator", that is, it has an adverse
effect on the chemistry necessary for life and destroys the immune
system. It's as if you used a neutron bomb to try to kill a harmless
AZT was approved
in the United States in 1987 in a leap of faith after some highly
flawed research, Professor Duesberg and his supporters believe.
Using another of the arguments that outrages his opponents, the
professor says the use of AZT obscures the evidence because the
drug itself induces Aids diseases. He believes that if Magic Johnson,
the celebrity basketball player who is HIV positive, develops Aids,
it will have been caused by AZT not HIV. He says he has tried to
warn Johnson, but does not know if his message has got through.
The same may
apply to Arthur Ashe, the former tennis champion, who recently announced
that he has been HIV positive for three years. According to Professor
Duesberg, if Ashe does have an immune system disorder, it is likely
to have been acquired during the two big heart operations he underwent,
not from HIV infection during blood transfusions. He says procedures
that are traumatic to the body, such as surgical operations or blood
transfusions, have been recognised to play a role in weakening the
that Kimberly Bergalis, the young Florida woman who was said to
have been infected by her dentist, was diagnosed as suffering from
Aids because she had a yeast infection and was then found to be
HIV positive. "The most serious consequence for her was that
she was treated with AZT." Professor Duesberg says. By accepting
the HIV hypothesis, the Aids establishment had locked itself into
a closed logical loop, says the professor. Aids is defined as a
syndrome of 15 old diseases in the presence of HIV, a standard criteria
for an infectious pathogen, or disease causing agent. So if someone
dies of an Aids-type condition without HIV, it will not be listed
as Aids. Among the diseases are several such as Kaposi's sarcoma,
lymphoma and wasting disease and dementia, which have no association
with microbes or viruses. Professor Duesberg is also scathing about
the repeated revisions of the estimated latency period, as the HIV
positive population has, he says, shown no sign of succumbing to
Aids diseases faster than the non-HIV population, a claim that is
vigorously challenged by the orthodox. At first, the experts talked
of months from infection. Now they say 50 per cent are expected
to contract the disease within a decade. "It's like moving
the goal posts, or in the middle of Wimbledon, you keep raising
the net because you are losing" says the professor with one
of the metaphors that make him eminently quotable and infuriate
the critics who accuse him of playing to the media.
The Aids community
has answers for all the professor's objections, but he throws them
back with something approaching glee, warning the laymen not to
be intimidated by their jargon".
He says it
all reminds him of his Catholic childhood in Germany when the church
had a similar reaction to anyone who challenged the faith. Rather
than denounce him and banish him they should just allow him to state
his case in a serious forum and then prove him wrong, he says.
It would, for
example, he says, be easy to carry out a controlled study of say,
100 haemophiliacs to see if those with HIV succumbed to diseases
any faster than those without. There is no evidence, the professor
says, that haemophiliacs are dying more from immune system-triggered
diseases than they were before. Large transfusions of blood were
long known to destabilise the immune system, as malnutrition has
The whole Aids
establishment, which spends three billion dollars a year, would
prefer to tune him out for political reasons, he says. "Aids
more than any other disease has been politically correct from the
very beginning. It was linked to gay liberation. Gays were not to
be blamed for anything. A viral cause is God-given, but a man-made
cause is not politically correct. Of course there's patriotism in
it too. The NIH is a colossal institution, and it had to show something
for its money to the president."
New York homosexual groups have warmed to Professor Duesberg's ideas,
the majority are ferociously opposes to his theory that the surge
in Aids-type diseases is a direct consequence of the abuse to the
human system from self-administration of toxic drugs such as heroin,
nitrites, cocaine, amphetamines and the rest of the armoury of the
modern age. The link to homosexuality sprang from the explosion
of drug consumption in the wild free-for-all of gay liberation in
the 1970s, he says. Yet no studies have investigated the long-term
effects of psychoactive drugs on animals comparable with the time
periods and dosages used by Aids patients. It's very testable what
I'm saying. Why don't we test street drugs and see what it does
to the immune system?"
This is how
Professor Duesberg arrives at his conclusion that safe sex and clean
needles in themselves do nothing to halt the spread of Aids, a view
that incites apoplexy among Aids workers. The screening of blood
for HIV antibodies is itself a "toxic" practice, says
the professor, because a positive outcome amounts to a psychological
death sentence. The only way to prevent Aids, he says, is to educate
people out of abusing drugs.
Now, with the
last of his NIH funds drying up, Professor Duesberg has succeeded
in lodging an appeal against the suspension of the grant and he
believes he may land fresh official funding for work in his cramped
laboratory on the first floor of the Stanley Hall at Berkeley.
It may not
take long for history to judge whether he is a brilliant visionary
or a dangerous distraction in the pursuit of a remedy to the most
mysterious and terrifying disease of this era.*