DUESBERG BE RIGHT?
By Tom Bethell
National Review 17 Aug. 1992
On July 20,
the New York Times reported from Amsterdam that AIDS is "generally
thought to be caused" by HIV, the human immunodeficiency
virus. Earlier, the virus had been identified as the undoubted
cause. But reports, circulating at the Amsterdam conference, of
AIDS-like diseases with no trace of HIV triggered a moment of
short-lived doubt. The next reaction was to assume a new, hitherto
undetected virus was the culprit. Like Ptolemaic epicycles, hypothetical
viruses began to multiply.
is that HIV doesn't have anything to do with AIDS. This is what
Peter Duesberg of UC Berkeley has been saying for five years: that
HIV doesn't attack the immune system, doesn't cause AIDS, and is
in fact harmless. A professor of molecular biology, Duesberg is
one of the world's leading experts on retroviruses. I called him
at his Berkeley lab and asked what he thought of the news from Amsterdam,
and the possibility that we may now have one more lethal virus to
different viruses are we going to have that all evolved in the last
ten years and all cause the same disease?" Duesberg asked.
"Viruses have been around for billions of years and now they're
coming out for the latest AIDS conference."
a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was the first to
map the genetic structure of retroviruses. He is not popular with
the National Institutes of Health, the government agency that has
been funding and policing AIDS research for the last decade. For
years he was supported by an NIH "outstanding investigator"
grant, but after he attacked the HIV theory of AIDS, his grant was
Down the hall
from Duesberg at Berkeley's Stanley Hall is the lab of Professor
Harry Rubin, another skeptic. He also believes that HIV has not
been shown to be the cause of AIDS. I spoke to Bryan Ellison, a
doctoral candidate with Rubin. Retroviruses have never been observed
to kill cells, he told me. If you microscopically examine healthy
cells in a dish, and a virus such as polio is added to them, the
virus multiplies inside the cells and bursts them open in a matter
of hours. Soon you can see nothing but "debris and garbage
and dead cells," he said. But if you put HIV, or any other
retrovirus, into the same dish with healthy cells-an environment
where the body's immune system cannot interfere-the cells just sit
there and continue healthy growth.
Duesberg and Rubin were suspicious when HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler
announced in 1984 that a retrovirus, HIV, was the cause of AIDS.
What was the evidence for this? Correlation. Where there was AIDS,
there was HIV. "There is no AIDS without HIV," James Curran,
AIDS chief of the Centers for Disease Control, has said.
AIDS is defined as any of 25 existing diseases in the presence of
HIV. Therefore the correlation between HIV and AIDS is 100 per cent
by definition. At an "alternative" AIDS conference in
May, Duesberg illustrated the point this way: TB+HIV=AIDS. But TB
- HIV=TB. "It was a great triumph" for the AIDS establishment
to take these different diseases "and put them all in the same
uniform labeled AIDS," Duesberg said.
Until the latest
flurry of reports from Amsterdam, patients with AIDS-indicator diseases
but without HIV were not counted as AIDS cases. For reasons that
are not clear, a decision has now been made to play up the "discovery"
of such cases. There may have been thousands of them already. Robert
Root Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State University,
says that such cases were reported in the medical literature in
the mid 1980s. And according to Duesberg, in about half the AIDS
cases enumerated so far, patients were never actually tested for
HIV. They were presumed to be positive but may not have been.
I phoned the
Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and asked what they thought
of Duesberg's ideas.
now we have said-and we still say-that HIV causes a majority of
AIDS cases," said Chuck Fallis, a press officer. "The
jury is still out on the new virus-whether it actually causes the
other AIDS cases."
specifically on Duesberg?" "No."
What was once
"all" has now become "a majority."
ever have polio without polio virus," Duesberg says. "A
hundred cases can support a theory, but it only takes one to destroy
been attacking the immune system, he agrees. The T-cells of AIDS
patients do dwindle away, and there has been an increase in such
opportunistic diseases as pneumocystis in the past decade. But HIV
has never been shown physically to attack T-cells. The virus in
fact is very difficult to find, even in patients dying of AIDS.
Usually only antibodies can be detected-which is why an antibody
test is used for HIV. Indications are that HIV is swiftly neutralized
by the body's defenses. Yet it is said to kill after a ten-year
(average) latency period. This has been lengthened to account for
the failure of AIDS cases to keep pace with projections. Another
oddity: researchers still have no "animal model" for AIDS.
Over one hundred chimps have been infected with HIV since 1985 --
and the virus does "take," or replicate within them-but
none has yet come down with AIDS.
of army recruits shows the HIV-positive percentage of the population
has remained constant since 1985, and AIDS remains largely confined
to risk groups-homosexuals and drug-users. Neither finding is consistent
with a new virus spreading in the population.
further and claims that drugs are the real cause of AIDS. If he's
right, the emaciated patient in the AIDS ward corresponds to the
emaciated junkie in the opium den. One-third of AIDS patients are
admittedly intravenous drug users-covering about 75 per cent of
heterosexual AIDS cases. The real figure is probably higher: drug
use is illegal, and no doubt underreported. Duesberg adds that homosexuals
from the "bathhouse culture" are (or were) heavy drug
users (including non-injection drugs such as "poppers").
In the course of their encounters they tend to pick up whatever
is going around, including HIV and other germs. But he says that
HIV itself is a harmless "hitchhiker"-a marker for risk
behavior, as the scientists say.
It's the same
with needle-sharers. They pick up HIV, but, says Duesberg, it's
the drugs that are killing them, not the bugs. This would explain
why over 80 per cent of AIDS patients are male (males consume over
80 per cent of psychoactive drugs); and why the sexually active
general population that is not addicted to drugs does not get AIDS
(at a time when venereal disease is spreading). On Duesberg's theory,
needle-exchange programs are worse than useless. Many homosexuals,
incidentally, are enamored of the viral theory of AIDS. ACT-UP member
Robert Rafsky, who "confronted" Bill Clinton in the New
York primary, thinks that HIV "cloaks AIDS activists in nobility."
Duesberg's position is politically unpopular. As he says, if drugs
cause AIDS "you are responsible for your health."
makes the following claims: there are no cases in the medical literature
of health-care workers contracting AIDS through accidental needle-stick.
In a footnote to its latest AIDS report, the CDC says there have
been four such cases, but they have not been identified or described.
There are a few disputed cases in the courts "and they want
their money," Duesberg says. By contrast, about 15,000 cases
of needle-stick hepatitis infection are reported every year.
About 75 per
cent of the 20,000 U.S. hemophiliacs are HIV-positive, but there
has still not been a properly controlled study of them. Do those
with HIV come down with more AIDS diseases, or die sooner, than
those without? It has been found that hemophiliacs in general are
living longer than ever, even though three-fourths are now infected
with the "deadly virus" and virtually all of these have
been infected for eight years or more. Since the relevant data are
already in place and await only statisticians, perhaps NIH could
spend some of its research billions on a hemophiliac study.
is not a single controlled epidemiological study to confirm the
postulated viral etiology of AIDS," Duesberg wrote in 1990.
True? San Francisco's Project Inform recently put out a discussion
paper, very critical of Duesberg, referring to "studies"
comparing HIV-infected homosexuals with uninfected controls with
"similar patterns of drug use and frequency of sexual contacts."
None of the latter came down with AIDS, apparently. These studies
were not identified or footnoted, so I phoned Martin Delaney, the
executive director of Project Inform, and asked for the reference.
it turned out, was a person, not a paper. He gave me the name of
a doctor who is identified in Randy Shilts's book, And the Band
Played On, as having helped persuade CDC a decade ago that AIDS
was caused by a virus. I phoned him but so far haven't heard back.
dismayed that journalists were interested in Duesberg. I mentioned
the series of articles that came out recently in the (London) Sunday
Times about Duesberg and his critics. "When the Sunday Times
publicizes what Duesberg says," Delaney replied, paradoxically,
"it has an obligation to ask, 'What is your source for this?'
They don't apply skepticism."
I spoke to
Neville Hodgkinson, the Sunday Times's science correspondent and
author of the series. He said he had never checked anything so carefully
before publication. He was concerned that there might be a study
he didn't know about. "What was the response?" I asked.
and indignation, but no factual rebuttal," he said. "I've
never seen anything like it." He was solemnly told that there
is a "consensus" that HIV causes AIDS, and it shouldn't
AIDS: A Controlled Study," was the unsubtle title of a paper
released at the Amsterdam conference. Here was the "long-awaited
rebuttal to controversial UC Berkeley Professor Peter H. Duesberg,"
wrote the San Francisco Examiner. Like the New York Times, however,
it has ignored the controversial professor. The study was of homosexuals
in Vancouver, some of whom were HIV positive, some not. "Every
case of AIDS occurred in people infected with HIV," according
to Martin Schecter, the principal investigator. But according to
Duesberg, the two cohorts "were not controlled for extent and
duration of drug use." The "positives" had been doing
drugs for years, apparently; the negatives either not at all or
for a much shorter period.
we don't have a study refuting Duesberg yet. If we don' t have one
soon, we may have a major scientific scandal on our hands.*
is Washington editor of The American Spectator and a Media Fellow
at the Hoover Institution.