By Colman Jones

Now 21-27 Nov. 1996

If shocking claims by renegade researchers are true, current anti-AIDS strategy is fatally misdirected

London, Ontario - After years spent wading through the minutiae of AIDS science, I now find myself very close to believing the truly astounding - that the virus known as HIV, which has sucked up billions of our research dollars and tied up laboratories the world over, does not exist.

This possibility - devastating in its implications - came to me here in London, courtesy of a number of mind-blowing interviews with renegade scientists who believe that HIV is not really a microbiological entity but merely a collection of signals caused by stresses on the immune system.

If this is true, every assumption about AIDS testing and treatment gets thrown to the wind.

"HIV is a metaphor for a lot of quasi-related phenomena," says Val Turner, an AIDS analyst and senior consultant in emergency medicine at the Royal Perth Hospital in Perth, Australia. "No one has ever proved its existence as a virus."

Most HIV specialists consider this theory out-and-out heresy. I can hear the indignation in their voices when I query them.

"It can't be questioned," insists an incredulous Stanley Weiss, director of the division of infectious disease epidemiology at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark and a leading AIDS researcher. "The data is out there.

"Multiple laboratories across the world using somewhat different techniques, different approaches, different specimens, have come up with essentially the same result, which is as strong as you get in terms of causal linkage in science," he tells me.

Dogged persistence

But undeterred by conventional wisdom on the subject, a small band of "HIV non-existentialists" has doggedly persisted, their ideas finding popular support here in Britain in an alternative mag, an independent TV production company and a new book on AIDS by a former Sunday Times medical reporter.

Either these researchers have fallen victim to a fatal collective delusion or they're standing at the precipice of one of the most awesome truths about AIDS - and I want to find out which.


Climbing down a narrow set of stairs to the basement of a holistic health centre in the city's trendy Covent Garden district, I enter a tiny meeting room where about a dozen "AIDS dissidents" have gathered to listen to the story of one of their German counterparts, Karl Krafeld.

Through an interpreter, Krafeld launches into a long ramble about how the HIV theory of AIDS has become "the world's first global dogma," propagated by corporations and organs of the state.

His references to "AIDS genocide" and "planetary cultures of understanding" draw approving nods from most in the room. Not from this observer, mind you - this is the kind of New Age conspiracy rant that would normally send me bolting for the door.

But it's only the beginning of my two-week exploration into the British wing of AIDS dissidence. I've heard most of these arguments before, yet sit through Krafeld's drawn-out talk - nodding off at times due to jet lag - because it's his German translator friend I want to talk to.

New virus

Stefan Lanka is a young virologist, it turns out, from the University of Konstanz in southern Germany, where he obtained his doctorate after identifying a series of new plant viruses. He's since published several papers in scientific journals, including Virology, where he reported the successful isolation of a marine virus, ectocarpus siliculosis. He sports a boyish enthusiasm when the subject comes to HIV, which he's now convinced is no more than a laboratory artifact of cells under stress.

His chief complaint is that the virus has never been isolated in such a way that would allow for its unambiguous identification.

"No particle of HIV has ever been obtained pure, free of contaminants," Lanka proclaims, "nor has a complete piece of HIV (genetic material) ever been proved to exist."

This assertion will undoubtedly come as a shock to the thousands of lab scientists around the world who've spent the last 12 years - and billions of our dollars - dissecting every last molecule of this supposedly mythical virus.

Arguing that AIDS may involve other factors is one thing, but declaring the virus to be nonexistent stretches the credulity of even this skeptical reporter.

Lanka shrugs at my disbelief, exhibiting a calm, almost nonchalant attitude throughout our interview the next day. I watch as he confidently survives a tough hour-long interrogation from a scientific colleague who's published at many AIDS conferences. I begin to wonder whether this budding virologist with his mischievous grin might really be on to something.

I test his thesis out with Harry Rubin, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Rubin started working with retroviruses - the family of viruses in which HIV has been classified - in chickens back in the 1950s and is widely considered the father of modern retrovirology.

He says the possibility that what we call HIV might often represent the products of overactivated cells "sounds like a serious question, and it's certainly worth considering. Part of the argument is not unreasonable, it seems to me."

Rubin is not willing to accept that HIV simply doesn't exist, however. "A lot of what they're saying could in fact be true, but to jump from that and say that there is no such virus (is something else)."

Professor James Campbell, head of the microbiology department at the University of Toronto, also questions the leap being made. "The methods of purifying HIV, and all the knowledge about how it is integrated into cells, would suggest to me that a hell of a lot more is known by the experts in the field than what this one scientist is trying to suggest."

But Lanka and a team of Australian researchers headed by Perth biophysicist Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos are convinced that a vast medical empire has been built up chasing a microbiological ghost, in the process diverting attention away from the real cause - or causes - of AIDS, whatever they may be.

The kinds of questions they raise hark back to 1983, when French researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris claimed to have cultured a previously unrecognized retrovirus from the cells of a man with AIDS. This eventually led to the identification of a series of molecules, or proteins, that came to be accepted as characteristic of HIV and form the basis of HIV tests used today.

No proof

The dissenting researchers insist there was never any solid proof that these proteins came from a virus, or even belonged to a virus-like particle.

They point out that stretches of genetic material researchers believe to be HIV-related have been derived from cells subjected to artificial stimulation in test tubes and cultured mostly from cancerous cells, since those are the only kind that can grow continuously in such environments.

"Generalizations are made about the behaviour of normal cells on the basis of results obtained from highly abnormal cells," insists Lanka.

If HIV tests aren't measuring antibodies to a virus, what are they measuring? Lanka and others suggest that what is called HIV may simply be genetic information arising from within the genetic code of every cell, passed from mother to child over the centuries. If you stress cells in certain ways - either in the body or in the test tube - this HIV appears, a natural product of cells under stress.

Different strains

Accordingly, the genetic sequences that define different HIV strains around the world merely reflect the different genetic makeup of human populations. This would explain why such geographic variations in HIV's genes have remained so regionally consistent over the years.

The views of Lanka and Papadopulos-Eleopulos, virtually unheard of on this side of the Atlantic, have been given extensive coverage in the pages of London's Continuum Magazine, my next stop on this rather peculiar trek through the local AIDS fringe.

This glossy bimonthly is housed in a surprisingly small but busy two-room office, a nonprofit affair staffed largely by volunteers. The publication is aimed at "long-term survivors of an HIV antibody diagnosis or those who want to be," says the friendly and energetic Huw Christie, Continuum's editor.

"One of the differences that people would notice on opening Continuum magazine, from all other magazines in the field," Christie points out, "is that the acronym 'HIV' more often than not appears in inverted commas. That's because there is such profound doubt over whether a unique, external molecular entity known as a 'human immunodeficiency virus' exists that you can't take for granted any of the 100,000 papers over the last decade that talk about HIV as the cause of AIDS."

Last December, on World AIDS Day, the magazine took the unusual step of offering a £ 1,000 "missing virus" reward to the first person finding a single scientific paper detailing the unambiguous isolation of HIV, according to a set of rules for retrovirus isolation laid out at the Pasteur Institute in 1973.

Further private pledges have raised the stakes considerably, and the reward now stands at £ 36,000 (approximately $80,000), still unclaimed a year later. "Either nobody who's capable of looking for a scientific paper needs the money, or it can't be found," Christie suggests.

AIDS researchers argue that the 1973 isolation criteria the magazine has set forth aren't appropriate for a virus like HIV. They also point to the many published electron-microscope pictures of HIV, such as the one shown.

But these heretics remain unconvinced by photographs of so-called HIV. John Papadimitriou, a professor of pathology and colleague of Papadopulos-Eleopulos, and an internationally renowned expert on electron microscopy, argues that "You have to be absolutely certain that what you have detected is unique and exogenous (arising from outside the body), and a single molecular species.

Cell debris

"Just to see the particles in the tissues, and not look for evidence that it is an infectious virus, is wrong. Are these particles that cause disease?"

For Weiss, this notion of HIV simply representing cell debris just doesn't make any sense, "because you wouldn't have something you could grow at high levels - and then be able to sequence it, and then use those sequences to detect it in another setting."

He's referring to the technique of molecular cloning, in which apparently full-length genetic sequences of HIV can be grown within other organisms. The proteins derived from such sequences form the basis for HIV antibody tests. The fact that this cloned material reacts with antibodies in the blood of millions of people means that there must be a unique virus there, says Weiss.

However, there's a considerable body of literature suggesting that HIV tests are not always specifically measuring exposure to HIV. In a 1993 paper published in Nature magazine's sister journal Bio/Technology, Papadopulos-Eleolopulos and her team documented a wide variety of conditions - including other infections - that can trigger a false-positive test result, without any virus actually being present.

"The phenomena collectively known as HIV are nonspecific," she says.

This scientific quagmire is swirling through my head as I head out of London on a British Rail train to visit a journalistic colleague. Science writer Neville Hodgkinson has specialized in medicine for the last 20 years, writing for newspapers including the London Sunday Times.

I've come to visit him at a quiet spiritual retreat just outside Oxford, where he's spent the last two years compiling the recently published book AIDS: The Failure Of Contemporary Science, subtitled How A Virus That Never Was Deceived The World.

Hodgkinson exhaustively dismantles the entire HIV construct in his book, a radical move he admits he would have been reluctant to consider when he first started his investigation into the AIDS controversy in 1991.

"I think if I'd been told early on that the virus didn't exist, I would have said, 'Do you mind?'"

I nod in recognition - this is all pretty hard for me to accept as well, even today.

"But over the years I've been looking at this subject, my ability to accommodate different points of view on this gradually expanded," Hodgkinson continues. "I've spent time learning the fundamentals of molecular biology, which I really didn't know before, in order to be able to go with the scientists right down to the depths of where the mistake really happened."

So? "I've come to the conclusion that (Lanka and Papadopulos-Eleopulos) are probably closest to the truth, when they say HIV was always a misinterpretation of signals given off by a compromised immune system."

Outer reaches

Not all dissenters from the AIDS paradigm have joined this latest excursion into the outer reaches of the HIV critique, however. New York physician and AIDS researcher Joseph Sonnabend, a longtime critic of the HIV-only approach, believes that the virus has indeed been isolated. "Even if one admits that the criteria (for isolation) have not been 100-per-cent fulfilled, I'd say they've been sufficiently met if you put that together with all the other stuff."

Perhaps the strongest argument for the existence of HIV, he notes, is the apparent success of new types of anti-HIV drugs called protease inhibitors. Sonnabend, who has treated hundreds of people with AIDS since the early 1980s, says the results he's seen so far with the new drugs represent the most persuasive evidence yet for a role for the virus in the disease.

"I've certainly got people who are very thankful for their protease inhibitors, and they've got another year of life, maybe two years, and it's kind of hard to understand how that's working on cell debris."

But Sonnabend scoffs at recent pronouncements that these new compounds have effectively brought AIDS to an end.

"That is totally ridiculous, jumping the gun. This stuff is not a cure, it's not going to work forever. It only ameliorates things somewhat, and it doesn't work for everybody. I mean, there's obviously a lot of hype and that's distressing and destructive and ridiculous, and they're certainly not curing AIDS. That's just bullshit."

He quickly adds that, "None of this takes away from the fact that HIV may be relatively harmless on its own, and there are many people walking around who are carrying HIV but are HIV (antibody) negative because they haven't been exposed to anything else, and it's the other factors that make it activated and make it pathogenic."

U of T's Campbell also confesses, "I'm a bit wary of HIV causing AIDS by itself - I think it's much more complex than that." *