BOOK REVIEW (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH)
No disease in the history of mankind has been investigated more intensively
than AIDS, yet no cure is in sight. As to prevention, we are still at the
stage of exhorting people to behave themselves. The practical results of
research costing tens of billions of dollars have so far been exiguous.
But the dire predictions uttered by experts at the beginning of the epidemic
have not come to pass. Mankind is not under imminent threat of extinction
from AIDS, even in San Francisco. There are many diseases whose toll on
human life remains vastly greater than that of AIDS.
Peter Duesberg, a molecular biologist of distinction at the University
of California, can explain all this. The theory that AIDS is caused by
the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is mistaken, he says. Since all
research into the condition proceeds from the assumption that infection
with HIV is the cause, it is not surprising that research swallows up huge
sums without tangible benefit to anyone except the army of researchers.
Since AIDS is not an infectious disease, its failure to spread throughout
the population is also unsurprising. Prof Duesberg argues that infection
with HIV is a consequence, not a cause, of immunosuppression, and that
the immunosuppression that leads to AIDS is caused by the repeated abuse
of toxic drugs (in the case of homosexuals and drug addicts), or the infusion
of immunosuppressive proteins into the blood (in the case of haemophiliacs).
The supposed African epidemic is not an epidemic at all: it is simply that
when someone in Africa dies of tuberculosis with antibodies to HIV in his
blood, his disease is called AIDS rather than tuberculosis. The epidemic
thus spreads by definition rather than in reality; the widely predicted
depopulation of central Africa has not prevented the population there from
growing faster than that of any other region of the world.
Prof Duesberg has consistently pointed to anomalies in the HIV theory,
but has tended to underestimate the growing evidence in its favour. It
is true that such evidence does not yet amount to proof, but Prof Duesberg
is much less demanding about the standard of proof required to establish
his own theories of causation. He uses a number of arguments that are plainly
fallacious. He says early in his book that "the ultimate test of any
medical hypothesis lies in the public health benefits it generates";
this is nonsense. It would be difficult to demonstrate that Harvey's theory
of the circulation of the blood has ever had any public health benefits,
but it accords with the facts, which is what makes it true. When Prof Duesberg
says that AIDS cannot be infectious because no infection has existed like
it before, he is denying that there is anything new under the sun. Only
bad philosophers decide on a priori grounds what cannot happen. To argue,
as Prof Duesberg does, that HIV does not cause AIDS because no convincing
mechanism by which it does so has been proposed is like saying that man
cannot be a conscious being because no one has yet explained the means
by which consciousness is produced. Vibrio cholerae caused cholera long
before anyone knew how it did so.
Prof Duesberg's tone in this book is querulous and almost paranoid.
When he explains how the vast majority of the medical and scientific establishment
came to be mistaken about AIDS (ie does not agree with him), he sounds
like any Third World student of politics who sees the hand of the CIA everywhere.
After the conquest of polio, he says, the virologists and infectious disease
specialists, who were once held to be the most powerful members of the
American health bureaucracy, were nearly redundant. They had, without much
success, sought viruses that caused cancer. To stave off the collapse of
their power, they invented a viral epidemic and a vast public health scare.
In this they were ably assisted by the pharmaceutical industry, notably
Burroughs-Wellcome (my heart swelled with patriotic pride at this point),
which stood to make billions from the viral theory. Once the viral theory
had been propounded, it was the virologists who controlled the research
funds; doubters such as Prof Duesberg were treated like heretics and madmen,
and their research grants withdrawn. Ambitious researchers soon got the
message and tailored their beliefs to their career prospects. Fraud, hype
and hysteria have accompanied the AIDS epidemic from the start. It has
been difficult to keep a cool head about it.
Whatever else it does, Prof Duesberg's book dispels the idea of scientists
as unemotional calculating machines, working by using wholly rational methods.
A confrontation between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition
at Question Time in the Commons is a model of disinterested inquiry into
truth compared with the spats in which scientists indulge. Prof Duesberg's
book is a potent witches' brew of epidemiology, character assassination,
abstract reasoning, gossip, virology and blatantly ad hominem argumentation.
I enjoyed it enormously (though it wasn't written to entertain idlers such
as me), but by the time I had finished it my head was spinning and I felt
almost physically dizzy. Could it be a virus, I wonder?