Review of Peter Duesberg's Inventing the AIDS Virus
April 26, 2000
Inventing the AIDS Virus by Peter Duesberg (Regnery, 722 pages, $29.95) 'You can't question AIDS and remain a scientist, but you can remain a citizen," Peter Duesberg tells me in his small laboratory office in Stanley Hall at UC Berkeley. Since the prominent retrovirologist broke ranks with mainstream science in 1987 with his assertion that HIV does not cause AIDS, he has found himself cut off from funding, dismissed by other scientists, and "pilloried from post to post" in the press, as Harry Rubin, his colleague at UC Berkeley, said in Duesberg's defense at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in June 1994.John Moore, a book reviewer for the scientific journal Nature, even accused Duesberg of spitting on both "the graves of those millions of people killed by HIV" and those the virus "has yet to slaughter."If those words don't sound as calm and reasoned as you might expect from an article in a scientific journal, it's probably because they aren't. While questioning is what scientists are supposed to do, Duesberg's skeptical approach has been treated, in Nature and beyond, as more of an immoral act than one of scientific responsibility. That's why, with his new book, Inventing the AIDS Virus (Regnery, $29.95), Duesberg has turned somewhat away from the lab and entered the world of scientific muckraking. It's an amazing read.The 722-page volume details not only Duesberg's controversial ideas but also the many conflicts of scientific interest, false "breakthroughs," and instances of blatant misconduct that have led to some of what he considers the wrongheaded theories about disease that we live and die with today. As one example, Duesberg mentions Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, the grandfather of the "slow virus" theory, which holds that viruses can affect the body as slowly as cancer does, with years elapsing between infection and the onset of disease. In 1977 Gajdusek tried to pass off a photo of New Guinea "natives" eating pork as cannibalism. That might seem simply amusing if Gajdusek hadn't won the Nobel prize in 1976 for his work on kuru, a disease supposedly caused by the eating of brains in ritualized cannibalism -- and if his theory hadn't profoundly influenced (according to Duesberg) the generation of scientists now studying HIV.But Duesberg himself has been accused of a form of cannibalism: his criticism of his own field of research has earned him a reputation for "eating his own." Despite accusations of opportunism, however, Duesberg hasn't had much to gain from being wary of the science of AIDS. And despite his disagreement with apocalyptic AIDS projections, Duesberg is keenly aware that people are dying. He just doesn't think safe sex and clean needles are going to help. Those two solutions, Duesberg says, are based on the premises that AIDS is infectious and HIV is deadly -- premises he says are false.GOIN' ROUND IN CIRCLESDuesberg argues his point simply and engagingly on Inventing's opening page: the supposed perfect correlation of AIDS and HIV is an artifact of the current definition of AIDS. It says that all people with AIDS have HIV because, for example, if a person has Kaposi's sarcoma and an HIV antibody, he or she has AIDS; but if the person has Kaposi's sarcoma and no HIV antibody, he or she has Kaposi's sarcoma. The same goes for tuberculosis and dementia. And if a person has a couple of "AIDS-defining" conditions and no HIV antibody, that person still doesn't have AIDS. He or she has, instead, a condition called idiopathic CD-4 lymphocytopenia (ICL; rhymes with "fickle"), a syndrom that, like AIDS, is still a mystery.Duesberg has been saying since 1987 that HIV does not meet "Koch's postulates," the classic criteria necessary to prove that it is a causative agent of a disease. He suggested in '87 that HIV is a passenger virus, infectious but harmless; now he also hypothesizes that diseases grouped together under the heading AIDS in the United States and elsewhere are caused by drugs -- including "therapies" such as AZT -- and are complicated by malnutrition and other immune system-suppressing conditions. Duesberg explains his doubt about the HIV-AIDS connection by discussing cases (including the SMON syndrome in Japan) in which scientists mistakenly looked for microbial causes of a disease when it was really toxins (including medicines) that were making people sick.It's a difficult argument for many scientists to swallow. Still, judging from the strength of the scientific community's seemingly unified outcry against it, you'd think Duesberg had made like a guest on the 700 Club who stands up and screams, "God is dead!" For lay people, too, Duesberg's ideas are startling, given the ubiquity of "safe sex" messages and the trend toward rushing drugs that have not been fully tested into human bodies. And if HIV doesn't cause AIDS, as Duesberg posits, then a lot of puking, aching, and other side effects of antiviral drugs such as AZT have been suffered in vain. That's an unpleasant thought for those who have been following their doctors' AZT orders.It's not as if tragic experiences have never accompanied new medications, as anyone familiar with thalidomide babies can attest. Yet scientists who have a professional -- and sometimes financial -- stake in these medications expect us to trust them implicitly. People who listen to Duesberg are deemed "unwary," "desperate," and "gullible" -- just a few of the words Moore uses in his Nature review. Some people may be. But unwary and gullible are easy words to throw around; they could even have been applied to those who thought scientists knew what they were doing when they offered DES to pregnant women in the 1950s and '60s.AIDS POLITICSIn our interview, Duesberg offers his own bottom-line defense of his new book. "One thing I might like to point out is this: Anybody talking about AIDS -- even [those who subscribe to] the orthodoxy -- they all agree that we have failed so far to produce any public-health benefits. Nothing. No life [has been] saved. No drug is working. No vaccine is [working]. In that situation, scientists are called on to provide, to develop, alternative hypotheses -- testable hypotheses. "That's what I'm doing. But [people] are attacking anybody who does that, anybody who acts like a scientist, forgetting entirely that the enemy is not just someone who comes up with an alternative hypothesis or has this or that name. The enemy is supposed to be AIDS, isn't it?"So it is. But other sticky issues have made AIDS a more complicated phenomenon -- both scientifically and socially. This disease -- a magnet for right-wing foment -- has been characterized with plague-and-punishment metaphors from the start. Activists have had to fight for fair and serious treatment. And when some of them called for a "war on AIDS," they got something more like Nixon's failed war on cancer. According to Duesberg, science has been at least as unsuccessful with AIDS as it has been with cancer, in large part because the same scientists are fighting both wars. Duesberg is in a better position to see that than most: like many leading AIDS researchers, he's a veteran of the war on cancer.Bit in 1987 Duesberg found himself shouting "Fire!" in the proverbial movie house when he wrote a paper in a journal called Cancer Research questioning the potential for retroviruses to cause cancer in animals or AIDS in humans. He also found it strange that retroviruses were supposed to cause cell overgrowth in cancer and cell death in AIDS.But Duesberg probably will not be remembered for his skepticism regarding the feline leukemia virus or Rous sarcoma; he is not well known for his skepticism regarding veterinary use of the feline leukemia virus vaccine. AIDS is a far more high-stakes field in which to dissent, and it attracts those with agendas other than medical. That's why Duesberg's opinions have found some unlikely proponents, including right-wingers who may not want to acknowledge suffering gay men; libertarians who don't want to be told about latex; and the occasional adventurous publication, such as Spin, that's willing to take the heat for presenting the notion that "unsafe sex" might not kill you.Although many reports characterize Duesberg as a solitary complainer or a conspiracy theorist, those who share his skepticism include Kary Mullis, the Nobel prize-winning inventor of PCR, a technology used to amplify HIV so that it can be measured, and the 400 scientists, physicians, nurses, lawyers, journalists, teachers, students, and other observers who in the early 1990s joined the "Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis." And while Duesberg may be one of the better known "AIDS dissidents," his nine-year battle with Robert Gallo and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is not the only instance of AIDS second-guessing (see Elinor Burkett's recent book, The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS, Jon Rappoport's AIDS, Inc., or John Lauritson's Poison by Prescription: The AZT Story). It's just that Duesberg's complaints may be the most specific; most of his dissent singles out the scientific-research establishment.For much of Inventing, which Duesberg wrote with his former protege, Bryan Ellison, his target is the "centralized science" of the NIH where, Duesberg argues, the process of peer review has become one of peer pressure. The NIH -- the fount from whence flows most of the scientific funding and opinion in the United States -- discontinued Duesberg's seven-year grant to do independent research five years into the grant, in 1990; Duesberg says it was because he questioned the institute's orthodoxy. According to the committee that discontinued the grant, "Duesberg has become sidetracked." HOUSE OF CARDSSidetracked? Well, maybe. The scientific establishment isn't Duesberg's only target in Inventing the AIDS Virus; the media also get some reproof. One reason the virus theory has gained such widespread acceptance, he argues, is that the media have confused the issue by calling HIV "the AIDS virus" -- and by propping up the dubious HIV-AIDS connection by using hemophiliac children (read: "innocent victims") as AIDS media stars. Who would question the validity of media accounts of hemophiliac children with AIDS?Well, Duesberg would. In his book he describes a phone call to the Indiana Hemophilia Foundation to inquire about the cause of child hemophiliac Ryan White's death. According to Duesberg his call revealed that "only internal bleeding and hemorrhaging, liver failure, and collapse of other physiological systems were listed.""These conditions," Duesberg writes, "happen to match the classical description of hemophilia; none [are] listed as peculiar to the AIDS condition." But, he continues, "the representative did not seem to know that. It was then acknowledged that White's hemophilia condition was more severe than the average, requiring him to take clotting factor every day near the end. On top of all that, White had taken AZT, the former toxic cancer chemotherapy now prescribed as AIDS treatment. Hemophiliacs, needless to say, are particularly vulnerable to the internal ulcers induced by such chemotherapy. Thus, only media hype transformed White's death from a severe case of hemophilia, exacerbated by AZT, into AIDS."Duesberg finds the media cowardly and unaccountable, and he has taken on the job of reminding journalists of what they've been saying all these years. They have been dutifully regurgitating what government agencies have told them, rather than questioning the contradictions in the claims of the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While HIV is commonly called "a deadly virus" in the press, Duesberg reminds us that the length of the latency period -- the period between HIV infection and the onset of AIDS -- has been revised steadily upward in the years since the virus was discovered.To Duesberg's continued annoyance, many in the press have selective memories. No one seems to care about Gallo's mishaps, such as his admission in 1986 that in 1984 he published a photograph of French scientist Luc Montagnier's virus LAV as an illustration of HTLV-III, the virus Gallo said he discovered. As John Moore put it, "All this ancient history is very entertaining." But while Gallo has been forgiven for his major errors, Duesberg's heresy is so disdained that in the New York Times Book Review's critique of Inventing the AIDS Virus, reviewer June E. Osborn has to state why she's even bothering to look at the book. (It's because Duesberg was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his retroviral work.)Osborn concludes that the book is "outrageous," "insulting," and "destructive of personal morale, prevention efforts, and public understanding both of HIV-AIDS and of biomedical science in general." She sums up her analysis with an unfair reduction of Duesberg's conclusion: "Don't do drugs and don't have hemophilia or other diseases." What she forgets is Duesberg's main point: misunderstanding the cause of the illness can only delay attempts to find a cure for it.Maybe Osborn, the former chair of the National Commission on AIDS, doesn't want to get Duesberg's point. If she did she might face the same scientific shunning Duesberg has. After all, scientists may be dismissing Duesberg because he is exposing the intricate web of back-slapping that allows them to keep their jobs; scientists who question HIV's relation to AIDS don't seem to be getting much of the billions of federal AIDS research funding. Duesberg takes pleasure in pointing out the intersections of scientific and financial interests; he notes that Gallo, for instance, filed the patent for his virus antibody test the same day Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced in a government press conference that the HIV retrovirus probably causes AIDS.This tactic has not made Duesberg many friends; criticizing members of his own department at UC Berkeley hasn't made life easy, either. "You're frozen out; you're not invited to a seminar, you don't get graduate students, you don't get a grant.... he said. "At best, your colleagues say 'Hello' and go in the other direction."Like the rest of us, scientists are sometimes less than human. And if for no other reason than that it reveals why science can no longer be left to researchers with dubious motives, Inventing the AIDS Virus is pivotal. As Duesberg takes pains to say in our conversation, people see scientists as "truth-seekers who have no other agenda, no conflict of interest. [Science is] the only profession we treat [with such reverence] in the press. If Clinton says something or the pope says something, we always wonder [about its veracity]. It's not that way with scientists. [They] see nothing but the truth; they're paragons of virtue. Some are literally frauds, but we still accept them. Despite this, they are the leading 'AIDS researchers.' We didn't put this [information about scientists' scandals] in because it was hateful -- just to say 'Watch out for these guys; they're not as noble as you think they are.