Book review.


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


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?

Reviewed by Anthony Daniels;
Anthony Daniels is a practising doctor
Source: The Daily Telegraph (London), 15 May 1996