HIV Is Real, But Harmless

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

Reappraising AIDS Feb./March 1998

University of California microbiology professor Peter Duesberg, Ph.D. is increasingly a man caught between a rock and a hard place. Having done more than any other individual to create the scientific critique of the idea that the 30 old diseases lumped together as "AIDS" can all be caused by a single retrovirus, HIV, he now finds himself becoming alienated from the movement he did so much to create.

Duesberg's authority to challenge the HIV/AIDS model in the first place came from his decades of experience researching retroviruses as possible causes of cancer, and his conclusion from that experience that no such virus could possibly act the way a virus would have to act to cause AIDS. Retroviruses were selected as possible causes of cancer precisely because they don't kill their host cells; AIDS, according to the mainstream view, results when HIV infects and kills enough CD4 T-cells to deplete the immune system. But with HIV politically proclaimed to be the cause of AIDS in 1984, and billions of U.S. and other countries' taxpayers' dollars allocated to find treatments, vaccines, and cures for "HIV disease," the scientific mainstream could no more suffer Duesberg's contrary voice to be heard than the judges of Colonial Salem could suffer a witch to live.

Unable to get U.S. government funding for his research since 1990, largely shut out of the major medical journals, and threatened with expulsion from the National Academy of Sciences for his apostasy on AIDS, Duesberg is used to criticism from the scientific mainstream. Now, however, he's getting it from other alternative AIDS theorists as well. The hot new topic in the alternative AIDS movement is the assertion by Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and her colleagues in Perth, Australia that because HIV was never isolated in pure culture according to the rules laid down at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1973, the virus almost certainly doesn't exist at all -- and the even more far-reaching assertion from German virologist Stefan Lanka that no retroviruses exist, that all the evidence offered for their existence is erroneous, and that Duesberg has in essence spent his entire career involved in a gigantic mistake chasing a nonexistent class of viruses.

Duesberg has responded to this challenge in the way he always has: forthrightly and without compromise. I began this interview with the intent of discussing his presentation at the recent alternative AIDS conference in Colombia October 2-5, 1997. But we soon started talking about Duesberg's ironic position of defending the existence of HIV and the work of the original "HIV/AIDS" researchers -- Luc Montagnier, Robert Gallo and Robin Weiss -- in isolating HIV and proving its existence, even while he continues to reject the idea that HIV causes AIDS or any other human disease.

Conlan: What was your impression of the AIDS conference in Colombia?

Duesberg: The conference was a dream from a so-called dissident, or from an open-minded, point of view. They allowed all sorts of viewpoints, particularly the views of those of us who question HIV as the cause of AIDS. But there were others, too. There were some of their own people who are doing HIV tests. They had some questions, but not all of them questioned HIV outright as the cause of AIDS. In that regard, it was almost an historical conference. It was like in the old days, where the question was on the subject, not on the personalities. What can be done about AIDS; and is HIV the cause or is it not? And, of course, the emphasis at this particular conference was on whether HIV is the cause of AIDS, in view of the fact that the HIV/AIDS hypothesis doesn't work, in that it doesn't explain the existence of HIV-free AIDS.

Of course, the conference didn't carry much weight because it wasn't reported in the non-Colombian press, as expected. But, apparently, it made its way to the aristocracy in America after all, because a week later they organized, in the same place, at the same university, an orthodox "HIV/AIDS" conference, where they invited twice as many people. I would assume this was well bankrolled from America, through the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] or something like that, or Fauci at the NIAID [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases].

In fact, I predicted that to some friends here. I said it was going to be like the Warsaw Ghetto rising, when they just sent in an SS division and cleaned it out. That's almost how it was. They thought it would be unchallenged if we could win there in Colombia with that conference, and I said, "It's going to be like the Warsaw Ghetto rising. Here comes an SS division, and there's peace again." And that's just about how it was.

Conlan: What would you say were the high points of the conference?

Duesberg: Kary Mullis was certainly very good. I came a day late, because I had teaching here, so I couldn't stay the full length of the conference. I'd say the high points were Kary Mullis' talk; David Rasnick's talk, of course; and some of the local speakers as well, questioning HIV and AIDS. From my point of view, there were no absolute surprises, because I know the field quite well and was prepared for questions on HIV. I talked on drugs, and there were other people who actually had evidence on drugs causing disease -- from Colombia, even. Well, it's the country which much of the cocaine comes from.

Conlan: Was there any new evidence presented that might support the risk-AIDS hypothesis?

Duesberg: Rasnick and I reported some. And Mullis, in fact, seems to be moving a little closer in this direction himself. A negative highlight, in my opinion, was that Stefan Lanka from Germany was there to defend the idea that HIV doesn't exist at all, or its existence has not been proved. Frankly, I think he did a very poor job on that. It was almost embarrassing, in my opinion, to have him there. Eleni [Papadopulos-Eleopulos] didn't come, unfortunately -- or fortunately, I don't know which you would call it. If she had come, then at least there would have been a debate.

The evidence presented against the existence of HIV was really naive, to say the least. Almost embarrassing. And that wasn't just my impression. That's what one of the organizers, Dr. Roberto Giraldo, said. That's what Kary Mullis said, and that's what David Rasnick said. I would have no problems saying HIV doesn't exist if the evidence for that would be halfway convincing. But I'm afraid that's not so. Actually, I'm not afraid that HIV exists, because I think retroviruses are not too much to be afraid of.

I think there's a certain inconsistency on the part of those who so passionately argue that HIV doesn't even exist, because the same people base much of their arguments on the fact that the antibody tests are not reliable. Well, the fact that the antibody tests are not reliable means that there are antibody tests, and there's an antigen. Antibody tests do nothing 100 percent reliably; but by acknowledging that they're not reliable, they're acknowledging that an antigen exists, and the test exists. The test is not completely random. It's not 100 percent reliable, which most antibody tests aren't. And if HIV doesn't exist, why even bother about an unreliable test for a nonexistent antigen? If it didn't exist, then it shouldn't even be unreliable. It shouldn't be there at all.

Conlan: As I understand the argument, Eleopulos and Lanka and the other people who have this point of view are saying that the so-called "HIV antibody test" is really testing for nine proteins, all of which could be accounted for by normal human body proteins or the proteins of other infectious agents. They say that when you have people who are already immune-suppressed -- through drug use, age, stress, or whatever -- they are more likely to test positive for having these particular proteins, and therefore more likely to indicate positivity on the HIV antibody test. They're saying that the mere fact that you get positive results on some of these tests and negative results on others doesn't mean that there's necessarily a single antigen that is generating the nine proteins the test tests for.

Duesberg: The major problem with this idea is that any protein is made from some kind of a nucleic acid, RNA or DNA, and is eventually coded for by a DNA. So if this were true, then this DNA should be in all people. If it's just a disease-related matter of expressing it or not, it's like differentiation or development. You have lots and lots of genes, and at any given time only some of them are expressed. But the genome would be the same in all humans and in all cells, regardless of whether it's a liver cell, or a nose or throat, skin or toenail. The information is the same. If these antigens appeared following a disease state, drug use, sexual transmission, or any of these exogenous factors, you would predict that the genome, the genetic information, in all of them would be the same. It's only a matter of turning it on or turning it off, or making it from the template DNA.

That is not the case. HIV viral DNA is reasonably well-defined, as well as you can define it. It's been cloned and sequenced. You can make a so-called probe, and either detect it by Kary Mullis' ingenious polymerase chain reaction, or sequence it, or do a Southern Blot, or any of these methods to determine if it's present in a cell, or in a human body, or not. Those results, I think, have determined very clearly that HIV DNA or RNA, that makes some of these proteins, is not to be found, at least in the U.S., in most people. It's in 1 million people, but it's not in the other 259 million.

So it's not an intrinsic element of the human genome. That's true for quite a few other viral and microbial agents. In fact, that's how you can tell them apart. You cannot explain these antigens as just an expression or non-expression of a pre-existing piece of information. The information is not there in most people.

There is, of course, an additional complication, in that in most people with HIV, there is not any expression of the antigen either. Like all retroviruses, if your immune system is only marginally working -- and I am saying "marginally" is plenty good for this -- then it's totally suppressed. Then all you have is antibodies against the virus, and no virus is there to be seen. And they are not seen in most AIDS patients. Even dying AIDS patients are typically virus-negative.

Conlan: The other argument they make is that the HIV has never been isolated by the 1973 Pasteur Institute criteria.

Duesberg: I've already responded to that in Continuum magazine. You have to to back to Koch's postulates, the basic rules [founded by German biologist Robert Koch in the 1870's] to identify a microbe as the cause of a disease. First, you have show the association between the microbe and the disease. So if it's tuberculosis, you have to find the tuberculosis bacterium in every case of tuberculosis. If you ever find tuberculosis without it, then you don't even have to look any further. Then that microbe cannot be the cause. Or you have two types of tuberculosis: one with one microbe and one with another; and then they should be different, in some way or another. That's Koch's first postulate.

Koch's second postulate is often under appreciated. It says that the microbe has to be purified away from the host and grown in a "pure culture." What that really means, in terms of identifying it as the cause of a disease, is that you've purified it away from other microbes. Koch was the one who has actually developed the method for that type of biological culturing on an agar dish.

Let's say you spit on an agar dish and you let it grow up, and you actually see little colonies of bacteria. Some of them are white, some of them are purple, some of them are yellow, and so on. It's indicative of different strains of bacteria that all of us, no matter how clean we are, have in our saliva, in our hands, all over our bodies. And, of course, their hidden everywhere. So these will grow up, and of course it will be a colorful mixture.

But Koch's method says you have to dilute that out to have single, little colonies, dots growing up on this agar dish, each of which come from a single bacterium. Then, instead of having a mixture of colors and sizes and shapes and morphologies, you dilute it out to get at the so-called "endpoint" a white colony, or a purple colony, or a smooth colony, or a rough colony, of whatever that is. Each of these colonies originated from one single bacterium. Or you can do the same thing with viruses in cells, indirectly, and then you get a so-called plaque or focus from a single virus. So there should be only one microbe in your test tube, and you can do that by doing this biological culturing that Koch outlined 120 years ago with his agar cultures and Petri dishes, where you get a single colony.

Now you grow that single colony, purified from colonies of other microbes, and you can test it according to Koch's third postulate. That is, you inject it or inoculate it into a suitable experimental animal, including humans. Not every human is going to die from a microbe. That pure culture should now produce the disease, either in humans or in animals. Then you know you have identified the cause. What I am saying is that the requirements of purity in terms of Koch's postulates are not what Eleni and Lanka are now calling for. They are saying it has not been purified free of anything chemical that could be in there. That's not what matters. The only thing that matters for the identification of a microbe as the cause of a disease, compared to other microbes that could have been in the same body or the same test tube in the same laboratory, is that there is no other microbe in that test tube.

If you have a test tube with dozens of microbes, and you reached in and inoculated that into your experimental animal or human, the first time it might get a pneumonia; the second time he might get diarrhea; and the third time he might get the flu. In other words, we had three different microbes at least. But if, every time you reach into that test tube and do your functional tests in an animal or in vitro in a cell culture, you get the same answer -- the same disease -- that means you have now a unique microbe in there, free of other possible microbial causes of disease. Not necessarily free of a toothpick, or pubic hair, or a broken condom, or a bread crumb, or any of those things.

The culture doesn't need to be chemically pure. That would be necessary if you wanted to do an X-ray crystallography, or you wanted to determine its hydrogen or carbon composition to the next decimal point. Then you would need it chemically pure. But to identify it as a pathogen, as a functional microbe thing that causes a disease, all you need to do is to make it free it from other possible microbial pathogens. That's Koch's second postulate.

So they are claiming way above what the standards are for the identification of a virus, or any microbe, as the cause of a disease. The standards are only that it's free of other possible microbial causes. By the time when Koch, with his own postulates, identified tuberculosis bacillus [as the cause of tuberculosis], believe me, it was not chemically clean. They didn't have the methods at all at the time for chemical purification. They didn't have sucrose gradients, as Eleni always talks about; they didn't have gels and they didn't have any of those things. They didn't even know what proteins were at that time.

It's only a more functional purification that is called for for this. And that standard was met satisfactorily even by Montagnier in 1983, because his test tube of so-called "AIDS viruses" has been sent around all over the world. And it has been confirmed that only one single virus was in that test tube by Robert Gallo in the United States and Robin Weiss in the United Kingdom. When they put Montagnier's isolate in their own cultures, the virus they isolated as the so-called "cause of AIDS" was exactly the same virus as Montagnier did. If Montagnier had incompletely purified this HIV from other things and had sent a test tube with five different microbes around, Gallo would have found something different from Montagnier, and Weiss would have found another microbe. But they all found the same thing, indicating that whatever Montagnier did at the time met these criteria perfectly.

When I made this point publicly, Gallo wrote a furious letter to me, saying that I was slandering him. I said, "What do you mean, Bob? I'm defending HIV, and I'm showing that you have actually confirmed the isolation of HIV from Montagnier. So that's all the better for HIV, isn't it? That says nothing nasty about you." But he didn't see it that way.

Conlan: What did he see it as? Because it sounds like what you're saying is that you and Gallo agree that HIV exists, and that Montagnier isolated it properly, and he and Weiss properly confirmed the discovery. Your only argument with them is that they say it causes disease, and you say it doesn't.

Duesberg: What he didn't like, of course, is that I said that the purification standards had been met quite well in 1983 by Montagnier; and when Gallo and Robin Weiss checked it out, they came up with exactly the same virus strain. Of course, he would like to hear that he discovered it independently. That's why Gallo was furious.

Conlan: One thing that's troubled me through all of this is the statement that there are multiple strains of HIV. One of Eleopulos' big claims is that no two HIV isolates have ever matched each other genetically, and that even different isolates from the same person have different genetic makeup. The HIV/AIDS mainstream uses this to say, "Well, that's because HIV is so incredibly mutagenic that it can go through all of these incredible changes, and still cause the same disease the same way." And Eleni is saying that, "The fact that every so-called 'HIV isolate' is different is proof that the virus really doesn't exist, and that there is some other explanation for what they're actually coming up with in these 'isolates.'"

Duesberg: I'm afraid that if you followed that line of logic, then we wouldn't exist, either! What you are just describing, or she is describing to you, is nothing but what is called genetic polymorphism. No two human beings are alike, in that regard. We all differ from each other in numerous so-called point mutations, and minor mutations. It's called genetic polymorphism. It's true for humans, plants, viruses, bacteria, and everything alive.

But there are many things you can't mutate and expect to remain a human, or even an HIV. It's a bit like a car. You can change the color of a car, or you can change the shape of the fenders or the taillights easily. But if you start leaving out the brakes, or leaving out the transmission or the engine, then you may have created an interesting mutant, but it won't function as a car. You will never see it on the freeway. It's somewhere in a garage. And the equivalent in biology is it won't be around. It doesn't exist anymore.

So there is a range, a small range, in which you can mutate a-round without too much penalty. But as soon as you exceed it you are gone, and you are not an HIV any longer, or a human any longer. If you lose some significant human gene, then you are either dead or you are a monkey or what have you. You are not part of the species any longer. There's a lot of variability, but you're on a very tight leash in biology. If you get beyond that leash, then you have lost the essential characteristics that allow you to function as a life form.

It's true that viruses can vary much more than cells -- human, animal, plant or bacterial cells alike -- because cells are actually the responsible species that have to maintain a reasonable economy in everything to keep things going. A virus is only a parasite. All it needs to do is to take care of its own replication. So a virus has more flexibility to mutate than does a cell. It has to maintain a much smaller budget and a much smaller economy.

But the rules in general are still the same. You can mutate certain things, and when you go beyond that, then it's over. It doesn't exist anymore. And, in that regard, HIV is exactly -- and I'm pointing out exactly -- the same as all other viruses. You'll find the same thing with flu and with polio and with measles and with mumps and with other retroviruses in chickens and in mice.

There is nothing special about HIV in that regard. Nothing. It has exactly the same mutation rate -- I can give you a number if you want it. It's 10,000 nucleotides per replication. And since it has 10,000 nucleotides in it, every time you replicate HIV there is one point mutation that sets it apart from another.

But if that point mutation hits a site that is essential for replication or for structure -- if it makes it wheels square, so to speak -- then that virus is finished. You'll never see it again. It does occur. There's one copy of it somewhere in the human body. And yet it won't run. It sits there. It's gone, finished.

Conlan: Where does genetic polymorphism come from in an organism that doesn't reproduce sexually?

Duesberg: It comes from the replication of the nucleic acid, and that's also true for human cells. There are constant new mutations in your body, once you have been conceived. You generate new mutations. Cancer is said to be one of them. There are others as well. There are mutations going on in your body every time you make a cell.

You see, every time your genome is copied, a few typographical errors are made. They're called submutations. And when this affects the germ line, then you see it in your baby or in your offspring. Then it's easier to see, because now every cell in that new product, in that new baby or bacterium or plant or whatever it is, will have that mutation in it. Whereas if just one of your 100 trillion cells mutates, there are so many others that haven't got that same mutation that you will hardly ever see it. That's how we get away with staying roughly constant, pretty much the same, for most of our life -- except, of course, for aging.

A virus actually has a life cycle that is only 24 hours. Essentially, it's going through a new generation every 24 or 48 hours. The replication step itself is where the mistakes or variations are generated. Mistakes or not; I mean, sometimes they are advantageous. That's a necessary spot built into replication to allow for adaptation, through adaptation to new environments, different temperatures, different nutrients, or different hosts, all of these things. That's supposed to be how nature can slowly evolve an organism into another direction, by these spontaneous mutations.

Conlan: One of the things that has struck me, regarding the use of protease inhibitors as an HIV treatment, is that they're saying that the limited effectiveness of the drugs is due to the virus mutating around them.

Duesberg: They keep saying this, yes. They have no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. They have no evidence at all that there's a mutant that is resistant to the drugs in vitro. They just say that. And they said that with AZT. They said it with the other DNA chain terminators [ddI, ddC, d4T, 3TC]. When the people's bodies finally break down from the effects of these drugs, they say, "Now the virus has become resistant to it, and the drugs have lost their efficiency." What really is happening is the host is breaking down. The toxicity of the drugs builds up to a point where it cannot stand it anymore. And, of course, they say it was the virus -- rather than the entirely inevitable and predictable toxicity of these damned drugs.

Conlan: How do you answer the people who say, "Well, I've started on the triple-drug combination and I'm feeling much better. I've got out of my deathbed and I'm interviewing for jobs. I'm going to be able to be a productive member of society again and not have to depend on Social Security. My life is wonderful since I've started taking these drugs." Why would that happen?

Duesberg: There is, of course, a placebo or a psychological effect of a new drug, on a new attention and a new hope, that gets you moving for a while. And, as we know even from AZT, these drugs have some accidental beneficial effects because they eliminate the microbes that are growing in you. They kill those, too.

Then there are the other elements, which are often not taken into consideration, which often initially seem to be beneficial. When you go into a new drug program -- without acknowledging this, of course -- you often change your lifestyle. That is, you now might not take street drugs for a while, or not anymore at all. You say, "O.K., I'm changing, I'm working now, I'm not using drugs, the old days are over, I'm changing my lifestyle."

But all of the "success stories" are anecdotal. I'm not saying that they're all wrong. I'm saying that what we need here is a controlled clinical study in which a group of people, for a set period of time, is given one drug; and hopefully these people are matched in all regards, including past or present recreational drug use; and one is treated and one is not. And such a study does not exist.

Even publications like the New York Times are now acknowledging that in over 50 percent of the people who take these drugs, the virus is "breaking through" after six months. In other words, it's failing now. The placebo effect, the psychological and possibly others, is over, in over 50 percent of the patients. And San Francisco General Hospital has reported that fewer than 50 percent are benefiting anymore from the drugs anymore. The others are dying as usual, possibly dying faster than usual. If this study were properly controlled, I would predict they are dying from the drugs. So the reports are not as unanimous, and not as clear, as these anecdotes that one always hears from the early days, from Vancouver and elsewhere when they were first introduced, and everybody said, "Oh, it's wonderful. It's helping them."

I think we are just rewriting the history of AZT. AZT was also once introduced as the drug that was going to "cure" it. First they said AZT was "prolonging life," and then they said it was no longer prolonging it but making life more pleasant while you're dying. A year ago they started to say, "Well, it wasn't quite as good as we thought it was, but if you mix it with another unknown drug, like a protease inhibitor, and throw in yet another DNA chain terminator, like 3TC, then it's a wonder drug." Now we hear, "Well, it's a wonder drug only for about half of those who take it," and possibly, in reality, many more. Because what I have heard and read in a conference in Germany, where I was only a few months ago, is that the compliance of these insane schedules of drug taking, where you wouldn't believe it -- you probably know it anyway -- with this triple therapy, where they start at 4 in the morning, and then there's one before and one after breakfast, and one at dawn, and one after lunchtime, the compliance is extremely bad. And the primary reactions for many of them are so terrible that they throw up.

Then there's often false reporting. Many of the patients are intimidated by their doctors to take the drugs, and they get a lot of benefits, like Social Security and Medicare only on the condition that they take the drugs. So what some patients do is they get the prescriptions and don't have them filled, or they get the drugs and throw them away. That was acknowledged there, too. They said that the compliance was "not good." In seven out of 10 in this one study, they said that the compliance at six months was "non-compliance." They took so little of it, or they took it so irregularly, that anything that happened could not have been a result of this.

Conlan: In fact, there was an article in one of the gay papers in San Diego where the reporter was paraphrasing some of the people he'd talked to at UCSD, as saying that one reason why the drugs could only work with 90 to 95 percent compliance with the regimen was that the resistance mutations would develop if the drug were withdrawn. When I ran into this reporter, I said, "That goes against everything that I've ever heard of about evolution. A drug-resistance mutation would be naturally selected for only when the drug were present. And if the drug were withdrawn, one would expect the levels of resistant virus -- assuming there were any -- to decline." And he looked at me and said, "Well, I wondered about that myself, but that's what all the experts told me." Are you one expert who's going to tell me that my common-sense view of this was probably correct?

Duesberg: I would say it's very correct. Common sense is a major part of science. Most scientists have lost it. Owing to strenuous education, they have lost common sense completely.