CAST OUT FOR AN AIDS HERESY
By Charles Bremner
Times (London) 11 May 1992
Charles Bremner meets a Berkeley professor who has been ostracised
for expounding a view that has shocked the 'AIDS establishment'.
Peter Duesberg does not look like a deluded crank as he sits over breakfast
in a little house in a pleasant Californian university campus and states
categorically that the world has got it completely and tragically wrong
Witty, grey-haired and wiry for his 55 years, Professor Duesberg, a
German by birth, speaks with the blithe self-assurance of a dissident who
has seen the light, endured banishment for his views and now senses vindication
around the corner. AIDS, according to his controversial thesis, is not
an infectious disease, it has nothing to do with the HIV virus and thousands
of healthy people are being killed by taking the anti-AIDS drug AZT.
The sharp increase in the 1980s of the diverse, long-standing diseases
lumped together as AIDS stems, he says, from damage to the immune system
inflicted by excessive use of recreational drugs, particularly the nitrites
or "poppers" and other psychoactive (mood-altering) drugs favoured
by homosexuals. "It's so embarrassingly clear that I don't see how someone
can argue around it", he says. "The fallacy of the AIDS virus will
turn out to be the most colossal mistake in medical history".
At this stage the leaders of the "AIDS establishment" - government-funded
researchers, the drug companies and militant homosexual organisations
- would like to read and turn the page. Professor Duesberg is a publicity-hungry maniac, they say. He is a flat-earther, but his ideas are more
than loony, they say. They are dangerous because they sow doubts about
such cardinal tenets as the need to practise safe sex and support the campaign
for "AIDS awareness".
He has already had enough publicity, they feel, thanks to some conservative
American magazines which have been quick to give credence to doctrines
which are not just politically incorrect, but downright heretical.
On the lush, hillside campus of Berkeley, the academic grove where he
is a professor of molecular and cell biology, some of his students call
him "crazy old Duesberg" and Dr. Robert Gallo, the American who
is credited as the co-discoverer of the HIV virus and a former friend,
was quoted saying that he cannot discuss the Duesberg hypothesis "without
Dr Gallo would probably not have to do so at all, were it not for the
fact that the professor has distinguished credentials. He is a world-leading
virologist and did pioneering work mapping the structure of retroviruses,
of which HIV is one; he is a member of the American Academy of Sciences
and, until the controversy caused him to lose it, he held a $350,000 per
year "Outstanding Investigator" grant from the National Institute
of Health (NIH), the American government body which oversees the expenditure
of billions of dollars on AIDS research. The grant, awarded for the pursuit
of his cancer research, is intended to enable brilliant researchers to
"venture into new territory "and "ask creative questions".
Professor Duesberg deserves his ostracism, say his opponents. Michael
Fumento, who earned the wrath of the homosexual community for his book,
The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, which charged the "AIDS establishment"
with exaggerating the risks of the disease for heterosexuals in order to
build political pressure for more funding, has publicly accused Professor
Duesberg of his bad faith, saying in this month's American Spectator. "It's
a big game with this guy and I don't think this is very funny."
Yet, far from fading under four years of ridicule, Professor Duesberg
is enjoying something akin to a glimmer of vindication. Over the past year
or so, some mainstream AIDS researchers have been coming round the notion
that the HIV virus may only be a part of the cause of AIDS. The disease
seems to require the presence of a "co-factor", some micro-organism
they believe, which works with it to trigger the destruction of the immune
system, allowing the body to be invaded by the AIDS diseases.
A turning of the tide may have come, Professor Duesberg believes, with
the change of heart of Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, the man who
first identified the HIV virus. Dr Montagnier now subscribes to the idea
that HIV is not alone responsible for AIDS and he is due to attend an alternative
AIDS symposium in Amsterdam this week along with others from the 50-member
Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis.
After years in which no major scientific journal has given Professor
Duesberg any platform, an article in Britain's Nature last September, written
by its editor John Maddox, suggested, though still sceptical, that there
might be a grain of sense in his theories. Any mention of them in print,
however, still elicits fury from those Professor Duesberg sees as the priests
of the official AIDS "church".
My interview with him was at the home of one of his three daughters,
a biology undergraduate at the University of California at Riverside, about
60 miles east of Los Angeles.
His daughter had invited him to give a seminar there; fellow students
suggested they should not tell their professors for fear of a veto.
In dismissing HIV as irrelevant and calling AIDS non-viral, Professor
Duesberg is still far beyond the consensus of the "co-factor "school.
But, he says, the fact that eminent scientists have now opened this door
is an admission of defeat.
"The idea of co-factors is a euphemism" he says in the German
accent which has not left him since he came to America in 1964. "It
is very difficult to say you were wrong when you are spending three billion
dollars a year and 180,000 people have been given AZT. They're trapped
in so many ways."
The grounds for the professor's break with orthodoxy are well enough
known, thanks to the publicity over the past year or so. His doubts began
within a couple of years of the official acceptance, in 1984, of the theory
that the HIV virus triggered the immune system disorder which allowed the
development of pneumonia's, cancers, dementia and other "opportunistic"
There were many anomalies which seemed to contradict the notion of a
viral epidemic, Professor Duesberg says. Among these were the fact that
people have died of "AIDS" with no trace of HIV antibodies in
their system. According to the professor, this has received some corroboration
with evidence that some patients who suffer from Kaposi's sarcoma, the
previously rare skin cancer which suddenly reappeared with homosexual AIDS
patients, have not been HIV positive.
The most glaring failure of AIDS to follow the epidemiological norm,
Professor Duesberg claims, is the restriction of the condition in America
and Europe almost entirely within the high-risk groups of male homosexuals
and drug users. The disease has failed to explode, as widely predicted,
into the general population, including heterosexual women and teenagers;
at the same time, venereal diseases have soared, indicating no drop in
unprotected sex, he says. According to the latest figures from the Centres
of Disease Control, the American government's main monitoring body, 86
per cent of AIDS patients are homosexual or intravenous drug users, or
Then there is the question of why the HIV infection level in the American
population has remained around the million mark, according to a consensus
of authorities. This would not be consistent with a viral epidemic, say
the professor and his supporters. A study in the United States forces between
1985 and 1989 showed as many women as men to have been carrying HIV antibodies,
yet men develop AIDS four times as much. In Africa, Professor Duesberg
says, about 15 per cent of the population is estimated by the World Health
Organisation to carry the HIV virus, but only 41,000 cases of AIDS have
been reported. Another enigma comes from the huge difference between the
African and North American versions of AIDS. Professor Duesberg suspects
that diseases long endemic to Africa, such as slim disease and tuberculosis,
are attributed to AIDS and HIV though there is no connection.
Specifically in Professor Duesberg territory, no virus has ever behaved
in the way HIV is supposed, by its advocates, to do. It is present in only
tiny quantities, it triggers an antibody reaction which indicates that
it has been neutralised and yet it is said to become active years, or decades
later. "There's absolutely no precedent anywhere in biology, or even
microbiology, that a microbe causes a disease only after it is neutralised... The
AIDS virus remains dormant. Even among those dying of AIDS. It makes no
sense." Professor Duesberg says. His critics say viruses have been
known to remain dormant and than re-activate despite the presence of antibodies
which suggest they were "conquered". The virus, says the professor,
is just one of many that have been around for centuries but which have
only been detected since the development of highly sensitive tests, rather
as new stars were "discovered" with the improvement of telescopes.
The fact that HIV is actively present in one out of every 10,000 T-cells
shows, he says, the nonsense of claiming that they invade the body. "To
take over, you 've got to get in there and invade a large number of cells.
It's like you invade a country with soldiers. You're not going to claim
you have captured the US by invading Riverside with 50 Chicanos... They
have hyped up HIV into this super-rapist but in reality the damn thing
can hardly get an erection."
Nothing demonstrates the failure of the virus-AIDS hypothesis better
than its results, he says. It has saved not one life, not predicted the
spread of AIDS correctly, and not led to any useful medication or vaccine.
AZT is the drug of choice for AIDS patients and is acknowledged to cause
side-effects such as anaemia. But the evidence of controlled trials is
that it prolongs life. Professor Duesberg insists that the adoption of
AZT is one of the scandals of the AIDS story. The drug is a "DNA terminator",
that is, it has an adverse effect on the chemistry necessary for life and
destroys the immune system. It's as if you used a neutron bomb to try to
kill a harmless rabbit."
AZT was approved in the United States in 1987 in a leap of faith after
some highly flawed research, Professor Duesberg and his supporters believe.
Using another of the arguments that outrages his opponents, the professor
says the use of AZT obscures the evidence because the drug itself induces
AIDS diseases. He believes that if Magic Johnson, the celebrity basketball
player who is HIV positive, develops AIDS, it will have been caused by
AZT not HIV. He says he has tried to warn Johnson, but does not know if
his message has got through.
The same may apply to Arthur Ashe, the former tennis champion, who recently
announced that he has been HIV positive for three years. According to Professor
Duesberg, if Ashe does have an immune system disorder, it is likely to
have been acquired during the two big heart operations he underwent, not
from HIV infection during blood transfusions. He says procedures that are
traumatic to the body, such as surgical operations or blood transfusions,
have been recognised to play a role in weakening the immune system.
He believes that Kimberly Bergalis, the young Florida woman who was
said to have been infected by her dentist, was diagnosed as suffering from
AIDS because she had a yeast infection and was then found to be HIV positive.
"The most serious consequence for her was that she was treated with
AZT." Professor Duesberg says. By accepting the HIV hypothesis, the
AIDS establishment had locked itself into a closed logical loop, says the
professor. AIDS is defined as a syndrome of 15 old diseases in the presence
of HIV, a standard criteria for an infectious pathogen, or disease causing
agent. So if someone dies of an AIDS-type condition without HIV, it will
not be listed as AIDS. Among the diseases are several such as Kaposi's
sarcoma, lymphoma, wasting disease and dementia, which have no association
with microbes or viruses. Professor Duesberg is also scathing about the
repeated revisions of the estimated latency period, as the HIV positive
population has, he says, shown no sign of succumbing to AIDS diseases faster
than the non-HIV population, a claim that is vigorously challenged by the
orthodox. At first, the experts talked of months from infection. Now they
say 50 per cent are expected to contract the disease within a decade. "It's
like moving the goal posts, or in the middle of Wimbledon, you keep raising
the net because you are losing" says the professor with one of the
metaphors that make him eminently quotable and infuriate the critics who
accuse him of playing to the media.
The AIDS community has answers for all the professor's objections, but
he throws them back with something approaching glee, warning the laymen
not to be intimidated by their jargon".
He says it all reminds him of his Catholic childhood in Germany when
the church had a similar reaction to anyone who challenged the faith. Rather
than denounce him and banish him they should just allow him to state his
case in a serious forum and then prove him wrong, he says.
It would, for example, he says, be easy to carry out a controlled study
of say, 100 haemophiliacs to see if those with HIV succumbed to diseases
any faster than those without. There is no evidence, the professor says,
that haemophiliacs are dying more from immune system-triggered diseases
than they were before. Large transfusions of blood were long known to destabilise
the immune system, as malnutrition has been.
The whole AIDS establishment, which spends three billion dollars a year,
would prefer to tune him out for political reasons, he says. "AIDS
more than any other disease has been politically correct from the very
beginning. It was linked to gay liberation. Gays were not to be blamed
for anything. A viral cause is God-given, but a man-made cause is not politically
correct. Of course there's patriotism in it too. The NIH is a colossal
institution, and it had to show something for its money to the president."
Though some New York homosexual groups have warmed to Professor Duesberg's
ideas, the majority are ferociously opposed to his theory that the surge
in AIDS-type diseases is a direct consequence of the abuse to the human
system from self-administration of toxic drugs such as heroin, nitrites,
cocaine, amphetamines and the rest of the armoury of the modern age. The
link to homosexuality sprang from the explosion of drug consumption in
the wild free-for-all of gay liberation in the 1970s, he says. Yet no studies
have investigated the long-term effects of psychoactive drugs on animals
comparable with the time periods and dosages used by AIDS patients. It's
very testable what I'm saying. Why don't we test street drugs and see what
it does to the immune system?"
This is how Professor Duesberg arrives at his conclusion that safe sex
and clean needles in themselves do nothing to halt the spread of AIDS,
a view that incites apoplexy among AIDS workers. The screening of blood
for HIV antibodies is itself a "toxic" practice, says the professor,
because a positive outcome amounts to a psychological death sentence. The
only way to prevent AIDS, he says, is to educate people out of abusing
Now, with the last of his NIH funds drying up, Professor Duesberg has
succeeded in lodging an appeal against the suspension of the grant and
he believes he may land fresh official funding for work in his cramped
laboratory on the first floor of the Stanley Hall at Berkeley.
It may not take long for history to judge whether he is a brilliant
visionary or a dangerous distraction in the pursuit of a remedy to the
most mysterious and terrifying disease of this era.*