BOOK REVIEW (SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE)
What is one to make of Peter Duesberg, the distinguished University
of California at Berkeley virologist and pioneer cancer researcher who
has cast himself as the most stubborn medical naysayer in the contentious
history of the AIDS epidemic?
Duesberg's heterodox thesis is uncompromising: The AIDS epidemic, he
holds, is an artifice, if not an outright fraud, perpetrated by a vast
conspiracy that links the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
and the National Institutes of Health to glory-fixated scientists grasping
for government grants and to profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies peddling
deadly wares on unsuspecting victims.
"The long arm of the AIDS establishment reaches even the president
of the United States," Duesberg declares.
There is much more in his indictment: HIV, the infectious virus blamed
as the primary cause of AIDS with virtual unanimity by the world's scientific
community, is only a harmless "passenger virus" that never hurt
The real causes of the syndrome are not viruses at all, he adds, but
the risky lifestyles of homosexuals, their nitrite stimulants called "poppers"
and the spreading use of injection drugs in many heterosexual communities
-- any of which can ravage a healthy immune system and create the syndrome
called AIDS. AZT, the first antiviral drug marshaled in an attempt to limit
HIV infection, is instead the epidemic's most dangerous killer, Duesberg
"Ironically, HIV positives have no reason to fear," he concludes
in his passionately argumentative book. "As with uninfected people,
those who stay off recreational drugs, take care of their health, and avoid
AZT will never die of `AIDS.' "
As for AIDS in Africa and Asia, where the epidemic has spread to uncounted
thousands of men and women, Duesberg insists that the disease is due simply
to poverty, malnutrition, contamination, bad medical care and all the other
old plagues that can destroy the human immune system. Hospital records
of AIDS patients and positive tests for HIV throughout the Third World
are a product of either misdiagnosis or fakery, he insists.
"The HIV/AIDS hypothesis is a hell of a mistake," concurs
biochemist Kary Mullis, a Nobel laureate, in his preface to "Inventing
the AIDS Virus." Molecular biologist Walter Gilbert, another Nobel
laureate, calls Duesberg "absolutely correct." The author has
many other supporters in science, too, yet the overwhelming majority of
researchers working on AIDS strongly disagree with him, and the Duesberg
controversy has been raging for years.
Unfortunately, Duesberg's own book is far from a reasoned argument for
his thesis. It is a badly marred, enraged polemic by a long-respected scientist,
a member of the elite National Academy of Sciences who has turned fanatic
after many years of rejection by former and equally eminent colleagues.
The book carries too many inconsistencies and exaggerated claims to make
it acceptable as part of the legitimate debate over the many unknowns that
still thwart efforts to stem the epidemic. For example, Duesberg dismisses
the fact that more than 4,000 American hemophilia patients infected with
HIV from contaminated blood transfusions have developed AIDS, yet hemophiliacs
are hardly drug users, or profligate in anything. Nor are children noted
as cocaine users or heroin addicts, yet the virus has attacked nearly 7,000
youngsters under 13 who have contracted AIDS since the epidemic began,
and nearly 4,000 are dead.
Although Duesberg indicts AZT as the epidemic's major killer, the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's detailed year-by-year reports
show that by the end of 1986 -- well before AZT became available -- 39,746
people had already developed full-blown AIDS and 12,346 of them had died.
Whatever killed them, it certainly wasn't AZT.
Far too many questions still frustrate the epidemic's battlers after
nearly 15 years of research. There is still no cure; no vaccine is in sight;
no one knows precisely how the elusive virus causes the disease; and no
one understands why some people, infected by HIV for a dozen years or more,
can remain completely healthy and symptom-free.
Still, much progress has been made since 1981: AZT, a cancer drug known
long ago to be toxic after prolonged use, is proving effective in combination
with newer drugs that are its chemical cousins. Alone, AZT is apparently
preventing HIV infection in infants born to some HIV-positive mothers if
the mothers take the drug before and during pregnancy.
Other powerful new antiviral drugs known as protease inhibitors have
arrived and are working. And many of the most dangerous opportunistic infections
that can overwhelm immune systems weakened by HIV are now treated successfully
so that thousands of AIDS patients are living longer and in better health.
This is the positive evidence that Duesberg ignores or denounces, yet
his theories are attracting increasing support from a mixed bag of contrarian
AIDS advocates, journalists and even a few researchers of genuine distinction.
They will applaud "Inventing the AIDS Virus," but this book,
however passionate, can only confuse an already confusing global tragedy.