Prescription for Failure

As medical correspondent in the 1980s for the "Sunday Times," a popular London-based weekly newspaper, Neville Hodgkinson filed many AIDS reports. Like most journalists, he believed that AIDS was a new disease caused by an infectious virus that was spreading all over the world. Beginning in 1990, when his editor, Andrew Neil, published excerpts from Michael Fumento's ground-breaking book, "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS", which demonstrated that the mass epidemic predicted by public health experts hadn't happened, and was unlikely to happen in the future, Hodgkinson began to question widely accepted presumptions. A veil of false certainty had been lifted, revealing more holes in the circular definition of AIDS (caused by HIV, the virus that causes it) than in a wheel of Swiss cheese.Hodgkinson began to investigate opposing voices, doctors and scientists who, against the worldwide hegemony of the HIV model of AIDS causation, advanced alternative theories. As science correspondent from 1991 to 1994, he published numerous reports in the "Sunday Times" challenging AIDS orthodoxy. His widely researched book," AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science" (London: Fourth Estate) chronicles these dissident voices, so often ignored by journalists and historians. Joseph Sonnabend, a virologist with a large clinical practice in New York and founding editor of "AIDS Research", the first scientific journal dedicated to the syndrome, believes that AIDS is caused by repeated exposure to a variety of infectious and toxic agents, rather than any single organism. Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for discoveries that led to the development of viral load tests, agrees, and contends that his discoveries are misused by the AIDS establishment. Peter Duesberg, a researcher instrumental in the discovery of retroviruses and a member of the American National Academy of Arts and Sciences, holds similar beliefs, and his public challenges to the HIV paradigm have been a thorn in the side of the AIDS establishment for over a decade. Less well known is Gordon Stewart, a professor of public health at Glasgow University in Scotland. His viewpoint emphasizes limitations to the germ theory of disease. While he accepts that exposure to germs can lead to sickness if the conditions are right, he insists that other factors are involved -- genetic constitution, behavior, and personality; social and economic conditions like poverty, malnutrition, over-crowding, and sanitation; past antibiotic treatments; the host's susceptibility as a result of travel, dietary changes, and stress. As the author of a 1985 report on AIDS commissioned by the World Health Organization, Stewart made a case that lifestyle and behavioral factors, not exposure to a virus, are central to developing the disease..Hodgkinson provides a readable account of a more recent, and much more radical,challenge to AIDS orthodoxy mounted by a group of researchers in Perth, Australia, led by Eleni Eleopulos. After causing a stir in the international scientific community by demonstrating that HIV tests are non-specific (often eliciting positive results in the absence of the virus or its antibodies by cross-reacting with unrelated organisms), they went on to challenge the very existence of HIV. Using complex mathematical reasoning, they concluded that a human immunodeficiency virus had never been isolated. More than just a summary of oppositional AIDS theories, Hodgkinson's book is a devastating history of the censorship of these ideas, and the replacement of a truly objective approach to AIDS research by an emotional attachment to dogma. Most of the scientists it chronicles have seen their careers suffer as a result of their views. Sonnabend was stripped of the editorship of the journal he founded. Duesberg, formerly one of the top researchers in the country, hasn't been able to find funding to research his AIDS theory, and there's a letter-writing campaign underway by the directors of AIDS service agencies to strip him of membership in the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. As the only journalist for a mainstream publication to consistently report on AIDS from a dissident perspective, Hodgkinson himself endured years of verbal abuse and attempts at censorship, yet he's generous in his assessment of the motivations of those who tried to silence him. "Their judgment was distorted," he writes, "by the feeling that for once they were doing something really worthwhile, something redeeming and fulfilling, by becoming parties to the fight against HIV. I suspect it was this, rather than greed or ambition, that led so many to lie on the HIV bed, and to be so reluctant to climb off it even after it should have become clear that it was demanding more and more compromises to the intellect." Such gallant attempts to excuse the behavior of the AIDS establishment are the book's only weakness. Surely greed has been a factor in the domination of AIDS research by an unproven theory of viral infection. Linda Marsa's book "Prescription for Profits: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Bankrolled the Unholy Marriage Between Science and Business "(Scribner, 1997) presents AIDS researchers as prime examples of the lack of objectivity that ensues when scientists are permitted to profit from the results of their research. "The search for a cure," Marsa writes, "for an effective vaccine, even for treatments to ease the symptoms of this deadly disease, was hobbled by the dominance of a tiny network of friends and colleagues at major research universities, and at the National Institutes of Health. What was even more disturbing was that many scientists in the AIDS inner circle had become rich off the epidemic, through patent royalties, corporate consulting contracts from drug makers, and stocks in biotech firms." The book outlines the careers of some of this inner circle, detailing conflicts of interest, fraud, and, in the case of Robert Gallo, criminal behavior. The sorry state of AIDS research is part of a larger trend. In the 1980s, in a pro-business climate of deregulation, with the encouragement of health activists who wanted to speed up the approval process for new drugs, the federal government in the Reagan and Bush years passed laws which encouraged university and government researchers to forge ties with industry, while at the same time gutting and politicizing the oversight agencies that monitor them. Bernadine Healy, the ambitious Cleveland Clinic executive George Bush appointed director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), encouraged this trend.Scientists formed alliances with entrepreneurs to forge a new biotechnology industry that became the biggest success story on Wall Street since Silicon Valley. For example, the largest biotech company, Genetech, used $20 million in federal funds to develop its heart medication, Activase, which cost ten times as much as its equally effective rival and generated more than one billion dollars for the company. In 1984, Genetech suppressed information about serious side effects of the drug that might have prevented hundreds of debilitating strokes and countless deaths.Cambridge BioScience, a biotech firm founded by AIDS researchers William Haseltine, Max Essex, and Robert Gallo, forged ties with Harvard University that led to products profiting the company. "Haseltine would be a powerful gatekeeper over the direction of AIDS research," Marsa writes, "serving on three scientific committees that dispensed money for AIDS, a member of the editorial board of five scientific journals... testifying before Congress, crafting NIH policy.... AIDS research would come to be dominated by what one researcher bitterly called the Haseltine-Essex-Gallo Axis, which boycotted ideas incompatible with their own."The implications of Marsa's book are vast, not only for people with AIDS, but for public health in general. Commercialism undermines medical research because profits can only be made by selling the sick a product. "The triad of government, industry, and academia constitutes a mutually reinforcing system of self-interest that brings to a close an important period of independence for basic research in the biomedical sciences," notes Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University. "But the greatest loss to society is the disappearance of a critical mass of elite, independent, and commercially unaffiliated scientists to whom we turn for vision and guidance." Hodgkinson's book shows what happens to the few brave scientists who attempt to conduct research as a search for the truth.

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