Book review.


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


Current theory holds that AIDS is caused by HIV. At least one scientist calls this crazy.

To his friends, Peter H. Duesberg is a "prince of science" and he certainly possesses impressive credentials. A professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, Duesberg is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, whose associates are elected to the organization by the 1,600 fellow members. He is also a recipient of a seven-year Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, the federal government's premiere medical agency.

But to his detractors, who are legion, Duesberg is at best a maverick who refuses to accept facts held as dogma by his colleagues or at worst a kook who perversely refuses to submit to the obvious, perhaps out of a desire to grab headlines.

For the past decade, the 59-year-old Duesberg has been the nation's most outspoken opponent of the long-accepted-as-fact proposition that HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS, the well-known acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV destroys the body's natural immune system - the incubation period can be 10 years or more - leaving the body vulnerable to opportunistic diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and cancer, which kill the victim.

The persistent Duesberg recently renewed the battle with Inventing the AIDS Virus, a closely argued 711-page book in which the Berkeley professor (and pioneer researcher in retroviruses, the family of viruses to which HIV belongs) details his arguments and challenges fellow scientists to answer them - a possibility he deems remote. Scientists, he tells Insight from his laboratory in Berkeley, "have sacrificed academic freedom and self-correcting debate to conformism."

Duesberg's beef with the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: It's "sloppy science." The claim that AIDS is caused by HIV was announced, suddenly, at a 1984 NIH press conference held by scientist Robert Gallo and Margaret Heckler, President Reagan's secretary of health and human services. The discovery was made public, Duesberg points out, without the standard scientific practice of peer review, whereby scientists who specialize in a given field evaluate the research of their colleagues.

Why did the scientific establishment rush to judgment?

Groups such as NIH were under enormous pressure to find the answer to the growing number of AIDS cases in the early 1980s, Duesberg says. It then became impossible to admit there might be doubts about HIV and AIDS because billions of federal dollars were pouring into research establishing their connection. "The commercialization!" exclaims Duesberg. "Twenty years ago, it would have been regarded as an intolerable conflict - a commercial interest in the science you're doing. But now laboratories cost a lot. Universities come surrounded with biotech companies like a metastasizing primary tumor. Professors are half-owners or hold consultantships amounting to half their income or more. Scientific independence has been sacrificed to federal money."

Had researchers examined Gallo's papers themselves, Duesberg writes in his book, "they might have objected that some of his AIDS patients had never been infected by the virus. They would have pointed out that no virus had been found in any of Gallo's AIDS patients, but only antibodies against it." These objections are basic, Duesberg insists, because in both instances, AIDS researchers have discarded views long held by science concerning viruses and ignored traditional methods of scientific inquiry.

"Ever since Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccination, the presence of antibodies in a body has been a sign of defense against the disease," says Duesberg. In the case of AIDS, however, the presence of HIV antibodies (which is what the AIDS test uncovers) is taken as a sign that the virus still is potent. HIV-AIDS science thus ignores the first postulate of famed 19th-century scientist Robert Koch: To verify the causative agent of a disease, "the germ must be found growing abundantly in every patient and every diseased tissue." But the virus rarely is found in the blood or tissues of AIDS victims, although HIV antibodies abound.

In Inventing the AIDS Virus, Duesberg discusses numerous instances in which victims have died of AIDS-linked diseases but had no HIV infection. Researchers have written these victims out of the AIDS literature by redefining AIDS, he claims, carefully excluding everyone without HIV - even those originally diagnosed with AIDS. Having diagnosed the causes of AIDS incorrectly, medical science is using the wrong approach to cure the disease, according to Duesberg. Its most mistaken therapy is the use of the drug AZT. (See sidebar.)

Is Duesberg right? Almost to a man and woman, the many thousands of researchers involved in AIDS studies would say not. As Gallo and two colleagues wrote in a 1988 issue of Science, "Biology is an experimental science, and new biological phenomena are continually being discovered," arguing that a completely new virus such as HIV should not be expected to conform to rules established for entirely different organisms. Redefining AIDS as time passes, Gallo and his colleagues claimed, was part of the process of learning what the disease is. Two years later in the British journal Nature, two prominent virologists admitted that "Duesberg is right to draw attention to our ignorance of how HIV causes disease, but he is wrong to claim that it does not."

For the vast majority, the HIV-AIDS connection is received fact, the basis for further investigation. Alvaro Muoz, a professor of epidemiology who first began to study AIDS 10 years ago as a faculty member at Harvard University and who now is at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, last year worked out a mathematical model involving subjects who have tested positive for HIV but not come down with full-blown AIDS. Muoz says that he and his colleagues found that about "10 percent of homosexual men with HIV infection will not have AIDS-defining diseases after 20 years," a finding, Muoz says, that will help concentrate scientific study on these individuals - called "long-term nonprogressors."

Nevertheless, Muoz believes HIV causes AIDS, as does Francisco Sy, head of the International Society for AIDS Education at the School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. Sy, who sometimes uses the word "pandemic" and sometimes "epidemic" to describe the AIDS phenomenon, says HIV is "a virus capable of spontaneous changes in its genetic makeup," able to create "new strains, new varieties - I don't know what the right word is." Sy says the virus' complexity makes him "pessimistic about science coming up with a therapy, a cure."

Duesberg finds such talk objectionable. Despite its "newness" and its malleability, he sees no reason - yet - to assume that it so readily violates rules that govern the behavior of every other virulent and pathogenic organism studied by science, from those that cause the common cold to polio. What does he think causes AIDS? Duesberg blames lifestyle - drug use, a record of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and malnutrition. He points out that the most at-risk groups (in the United States) are intravenous-drug users and homosexual men, many of whom had longtime involvement with recreational drugs, particularly "poppers" (nitrite inhalants) and cocaine. Duesberg points out that the association of drugs and AIDS isn't his alone. "It was the earliest finding of the Centers for Disease Control," he notes, adding that extensive recreational drug use along with promiscuous sex were common denominators among the earliest homosexual AIDS victims.

The controversy has left Duesberg a scientific persona non grata with few graduate students, all of whom are about to finish their work with him with no funding. But he does take hope from the support of 100 scientists who have formed the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis. Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, supplied an introduction to Duesberg's new book and minced no words in his support: "No one has ever proved that HIV causes AIDS. We have not been able to discover any good reasons why most of the people on earth believe that AIDS is a disease caused by a virus called HIV."

Interestingly, there is one point at which Duesberg and strong advocates of the virus theory meet. Both encourage people to avoid recreational drugs. Says South Carolina's Sy, "This elusive virus is hard to get. It's not like TB you can get from a cough. It is a human behavior problem. We need to go to the root of the problem. We need to have people ask themselves why they have behaved the way they have behaved. Are multiple sexual partners necessary?"

Meanwhile, Duesberg insists he remains open to explanations for AIDS derived from good science: "I don't want to reject anything a priori. But if no scientific law is found [to explain the evidence], it is just basic logic that it cannot be there. I'm not totally stubborn." His point, he says, is that "in science it doesn't help to defend [any hypothesis] beyond reasonable evidence."


Peter Duesberg believes that treatment with AZT, the most common AIDS therapy (often administered to people who test positive for the HIV virus) is the worst thing that can be done for victims of the disease.

AZT is a potent chemical that is shipped in containers labeled with skull and crossbones. The treatment was developed 30 years ago for cancer patients, then abandoned as too dangerous. Giving it to AIDS patients, whose bodies have been ravaged by drug abuse, is like throwing gasoline on a fire, according to Duesberg.

In his book, Inventing the AIDS Virus, Duesberg describes a disease known as SMON, which broke out in Japan in the 1950s. "In many ways, SMON anticipated the later AIDS epidemic," Duesberg writes. "For 15 years the syndrome was mismanaged by the Japanese science establishment, in which virtually all research efforts were controlled by virus hunters. Ignoring strong evidence to the contrary, researchers continued to assume the syndrome was contagious and searched for one virus after another."

In the end, scientists found that the SMON epidemic was caused not by avirus but by the misuse and overuse of the drug clioquinol for treating disorders of the stomach. Once clioquinol use was abandoned, SMON disappeared.

Review by: Stephen Goode
Source: The Washington Times, March 11, 1996.