Book review.


Peter H. Duesberg, 'Inventing the AIDS Virus' Regnery USA 1996, 720 pages, ISBN 0-89526-470-6.


Some say Professor Peter Duesberg, who came to Berkeley in 1964, was headed toward a Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking work on retroviral cancer genes. He was named California Scientist of the Year in 1971, given an Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health in 1985, and inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1986.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Stockholm. Peter Duesberg encountered AIDS. In 1986, for an invited paper in Cancer Research, he read all of the published research but could find little scientific reason that HIV, a retrovirus--about which Duesberg knew as much as anyone in the world--could be the cause of AIDS.

To state his case and to answer his many critics, Duesberg has prepared three books published this spring: Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled? (North Atlantic Books), a collection of 13 of his scientific articles; AIDS: Virus or Drug-Induced? (Kluwer), a book edited by Duesberg containing essays by him and two dozen others; and Inventing the AIDS Virus (Regnery), a book written by Duesberg for a general audience and the focus of this article.

Inventing the AIDS Virus is huge (722 pages) and sprawling, but its point is clear: a virus-obsessed AIDS science has failed to save a single life because it has come up with the wrong cause, HIV.

Duesberg says that the cause of immune suppression in the largest group of AIDS patients in the West--drug abusers and gay men--is recreational psychoactive drugs (heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and alkylnitrites, or "poppers"). Repeated use of these drugs ravages the body's immune system and opens it to the two dozen opportunistic diseases we know and fear as AIDS. Drug use, he argues, accounts for the "latency period" of AIDS victims: the higher and longer the intake of drugs, the more likely that AIDS diseases will follow. It's like cigarette smoking and lung cancer, he says, or alcohol consumption and cirrhosis of the liver.

But, he says, "the medical establishment turns a blind eye to drug toxicity in its single-minded pursuit of HIV." Duesberg's own requests for funding to test his drug-toxicity thesis have been turned down.

Professor Duesberg's challenge to conventional thinking on AIDS is not a solitary quest. More than 400 scientists and writers have formed the Group for the Scientific Investigation of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis. Luc Montaigner, the French scientist who first isolated HIV, now believes that HIV alone cannot cause AIDS. The journal Science devoted eight pages in December 1994 to what it called "the Duesberg phenomenon."

But Science was not impressed. And Nature has both blasted Duesberg and refused him the opportunity to respond. The editor of the Lancet calls Duesberg "perhaps the most vilified scientist alive." Many of his colleagues--at Berkeley and elsewhere--become apoplectic at the mention of Peter Duesberg, seeing him as a scientist who once did first-rate work but is now a third-rate publicity seeker. "I will certainly not contribute to his further publicity," declared Professor Randy Schekman, former head of the division of biochemistry and molecular biology, in turning down a request to comment on Inventing the AIDS Virus.

Whether Duesberg is right or wrong, he has paid a price for his stand. Since his challenge to the HIV-AIDS hypothesis, Duesberg's promotions in pay have been blocked, his teaching assignments have been restricted, and, most damaging to a scientist, his federal funding has been eliminated.

Six senior faculty members at Berkeley agreed to read and briefly comment on Inventing the AIDS Virus. Their reflections follow.

This is an important book. Peter Duesberg reaffirms his belief, fully documented and referenced, that HIV cannot be the cause of AIDS. He also delivers a withering indictment of the modus operandi of the modern biomedical investigator.

In the decade following the announcement that AIDS is an infectious disease caused by the retrovirus HIV, billions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of papers have been published in an effort to prove that what Duesberg thinks is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, confusion reigns about the precise definition of AIDS, and the malady has not moved out of the high-risk groups.

What is to be done? Citizens and taxpayers should demand an investigation of the federal AIDS program. At the state level, a probe is needed of the extent to which private, profit-oriented industry has penetrated and perverted our central mission--which should be the generation of knowledge for its own sake. In this examination, Inventing the AIDS Virus might be exhibit A.

J.B. Neilands, professor emeritus of biochemistry, and an authority on microbial iron metabolism.

For readers who want to give Duesberg a fair trial, I have one piece of advice: don't begin by asking if HIV is the cause of AIDS. That question tends to mislead because the definition of "AIDS" is itself an artifact of the HIV theory. Begin instead by asking how some 29 old diseases came to be treated as a single syndrome, and how it can be that the same virus supposedly causes disease almost entirely in males on one continent but afflicts men and women equally on another. Ask why the total number of HIV-positive Americans hasn't increased an iota since testing began, and why the government agencies go to so much effort to convey a contrary impression. Follow the history of the virus hunters--laid out here in the book's early chapters--and see how their obsession led them to fix on a retrovirus as the pathogen before the evidence was in.

If you read this book with an open mind, you will be impressed and fascinated. It is a splendid book not only because it tells so much truth about AIDS, but because it is a classic contribution to the history and sociology of science.

Phillip Johnson, Jefferson E. Peyser Professor of Law at Boalt Hall and author of Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance.

My reactions to this book are frustration, sadness, and concern. Frustration because after extensive dialogue, Duesberg doesn't seem to understand many fundamental facts and principles of infectious disease epidemiology. For example, in arguing on page 177 that "HIV is one of the many harmless passenger viruses that cause no clinical symptoms during the acute infection," he states that, among other common infections, persons become "antibody positive" to "polio" only after a clinical illness. However, it has been known for at least 80 years that the vast majority, more than 90 percent, of naturally acquired poliomyelitis infections are silent.

I am saddened at the spectacle of a renowned scientist maintaining a stubborn position despite the demonstrated weakness of his theory and the overwhelming evidence in support of an alternative. Nevertheless, Duesberg isn't alone in his unorthodoxy. Examples of eminent scientists who were wrong on important public health issues include Max Pettenkofer, who maintained that cholera was non-infectious for 20 years after the demonstration of the infectious etiological agent, and R.A. Fisher, who argued until his death that the data for a causal association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer were spurious.

I am concerned that some may eschew behaviors which reduce the risk of infection by HIV on the basis of Duesberg's alternative theory of AIDS etiology. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the evidence that HIV is causally associated with AIDS is overwhelming, that AIDS is highly fatal, and that HIV infection is preventable.

Warren Winkelstein, professor emeritus of public health and founder of the San Francisco Men's Health Study.

When, some seven years ago, I first heard of Peter Duesberg's claims, I found them indulgent and dangerous. Here was a Berkeley professor playing with people's lives--and their heads--in the middle of an epidemic in which their practices made a vital difference. Eventually, as Duesberg's voice remained alive and as the epidemic continued, I decided to go talk to him.

Duesberg outlined a controlled experiment on hemophiliacs and stated that he would formally print a retraction of his views if someone could assemble the facts to prove him wrong. As detailed in his new book, Duesberg's main claim was that it was the foreign proteins in the blood-clotting factor, factor VIII, that were causing immunosuppression, not HIV. Patients taking purified, recombinant factor VIII would have a stronger immune system and would consequently be healthier.

I contacted an acquaintance, a professor of biostatistics at Berkeley, and we went looking for the data. We were neutral, simply eager to contribute to settling this unsettling affair. We are still waiting. More accurately, we have given up. We never were allowed access to taxpayer-funded data. We waited in lunchrooms of prestigious hospitals before realizing that our host was not going to appear with the data and was too embarrassed to join us for lunch. Our phone calls were never answered.

After the passage of more than 15 years and the expenditure of more than $30 billion, surely we must establish whether the HIV hypothesis is true or false. Duesberg has "put up." It's time for others to either make him "shut up," through scientific evidence, or for them to engage in the highest of scientific virtues: rethinking their positions in the face of new evidence.

Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology, author most recently of Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology.

The implications of Professor Duesberg's opposing hypothesis are tremendous. Virtually all research (basic and clinical), treatment, activism, and funding for research are based on the dominant theory that HIV causes AIDS. This means that all activity is directed at preventing the spread of HIV and eliminating or inactivating HIV. If Duesberg is correct, all of this activity is useless and is costing enormous sums of money and untold numbers of lives.

Can a few scientists be right and the vast majority be wrong? In his book, Duesberg reviews many episodes in science where this has occurred, but never on this scale. He also points out that as "bigger science" develops there is a larger economic and social incentive for investigators and others to work only within a certain "accepted" framework.

Science is supposed to be a collection of objective facts, but facts do not turn into knowledge until they are interpreted by humans, each of whom has a bias. Professor Duesberg presents little or no direct experimental evidence to support his claims or to confirm his analyses of existing data. Although he makes a persuasive argument, without having conducted my own review of the enormous body of literature, I cannot determine whether his hypothesis is right or wrong. However, his attack on the dominant theory is logical and testable. If he has indeed been prevented from testing his theory, this is truly a tragic misuse of science and one which we must diligently try to remedy.

Sheldon Margen, M.D., professor emeritus of public health, chairman of the editorial board of advisors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

The federal medical research establishment has laid it down that the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS. It seems virtually impossible, on Duesberg's evidence, for HIV to do any such thing. Nevertheless, the definition of AIDS is manipulated so that HIV antibodies are always found in people diagnosed to have it.

Even people ignorant of virology will have no trouble following Duesberg's exposure of the circularity of the Centers for Disease Control's argument. He shows that the number and nature of AIDS diseases have been changed to save the doctrine; when too many people died of Kaposi's sarcoma (once considered the typical AIDS disease) without carrying the required antibodies, the CDC dropped it from the official AIDS list. Probably the most vicious consequence of this vicious circle is the feeding of AZT and other highly toxic chemicals to persons who are HIV positive but who do not have symptoms of any AIDS disease.

The establishment considers that HIV, though necessary, may not be sufficient to cause AIDS. A "co-factor" may be involved. Duesberg has discovered this co-factor: it is the establishment itself. HIV, he says, causes AIDS only under the influence of the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, their corresponding agencies abroad, and interested drug companies.

The major lesson of Duesberg's book is that big science cannot be trusted to police itself. Instead, the establishment has sought to suppress Duesberg by the methods of the priests of old: censorship, ostracism, excommunication, and refusal of sacraments--in this case, invitations to meetings, outlets for publication, and money for research. A more effective method would be to try to discredit him: support the research he proposes and, if it proves him wrong, expose him.

John Heilbron '55, M.A. '58, Ph.D. '64, professor of history and history of science and former vice chancellor of the Berkeley campus.

Review by: Russell Schoch
Source: California Monthly June 1996