WHAT IF HIV DOES NOT EXIST?
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.
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
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.
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
Arguing that AIDS may involve other factors is one thing, but declaring
the virus to be nonexistent stretches the credulity of even this skeptical
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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,
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,"
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,
"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
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."
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." *