SOUTH AFRICAN AIDS DEBATE PANEL HOLDS FIRST MEETING
By Mark Gabrish Conlan
Reapraissing AIDS June 2000
In preparing to host July's International AIDS
Conference, South African President Mbeki made history as the world's
first head of state to consult with scientists who reject the HIV
explanation of AIDS. This outraged many powerful quarters that demand an
ignorance and suppression of such views. Mbeki responded by assembling
an international panel that included "dissident" scientists. Here Mark
Conlan interviews "heretic" scientists Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick.
In May, the two participated in the panel's first scheduled meeting,
where participating HIV scientists managed to suppress any debate or
presentation of facts. They also declined to engage in the Internet
discussion meant to bridge the first meeting and the second, to take
place in early July, just before the conference. Yet one CDC official
reportedly agreed to work with Duesberg on an experiment to test the
Second meeting to occur just before July's Int'l Conference
The first meeting of South African President Thabo
Mbeki's AIDS advisory panel in Pretoria on May 6-7 was a dream come true
for Peter Duesberg, David Rasnick and the other eight "dissident"
scientists in attendance who have challenged the worldwide scientific
consensus that AIDS is an infectious, sexually transmitted disease
caused by the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Though the
panelists who support the HIV-AIDS model blocked any actual scientific
debate, the fact that the meeting occurred at all represents a milestone
triumph for the dissidents. After all, the dissidents had supported
Mbeki's efforts to facilitate a debate, while the HIV scientists
participated only after urging Mbeki not to proceed. In Rasnick's words,
"It was a victory from the moment we stepped off the plane."
For the first time in the 16-year history of the HIV-AIDS model, a
head of state has publicly challenged it and essentially told scientists
on both sides of the "Does HIV cause AIDS?" question to make their
cases: to defend their conclusions in an open forum and offer evidence
that would help him decide what AIDS policy he should pursue as a
national leader. Unfortunately, the forum wasn't quite as open as it
could have been. The two-thirds of the 30 panelists who support the
HIV-AIDS model voted to separate themselves from the 10 who reject that
model. As RA went to press, the second scheduled meeting had taken place
in early July, with the HIV scientists having never participated in the
Internet discussion intended to help the two camps hash out their
The panel has gained a maximum amount of attention because South
Africa will host the massive International AIDS Conference in Durban
July 9-14, with Mbeki slated to make the kick-off speech on opening day
at an outside sports arena expected to draw over 10,000 delegates from
around the world, just days after the controversial panel's second
meeting. AIDS industry officials chose South Africa to host this year's
conference (which is held every other year) after having targeted that
nation with their considerable marketing efforts, promoting it as the
most important battlefield in their fight against HIV.
Presumably, Mbeki in this speech will reveal how the panelists'
contributions have affected his view on AIDS. It would represent an
enormous embarrassment for the HIV industry if South Africa's president
used the forum to lend credence to the view that HIV is innocent of all
Conlan interviewed Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick separately in
early June to get their story of the South African panel's first meeting
in May. The following is a composite transcript of both interviews.
Conlan: How did you first hear about Mbeki's interest in
the alternative view of AIDS?
Duesberg: I think it was in February. He had called David
Rasnick in January, and then there were some e-mails. Then came all
these reports from the press -- first in South Africa, then in the US --
from all directions, when he made it clear that he questions the virus
hypothesis of AIDS, or at least isn't sure about it, in connection with
the need for disease treatment down there.
They were supposed to decide whether to start treating with AZT
"prophylactically" or take preventive measures, and how to invest in
government health spending. I didn't even watch it so carefully until it
became very clear: until they said in the press, "Oh, Mbeki, he's siding
with Duesberg." All of a sudden I said, "There's somebody on our side.
What's going on here? He must be crazy." I never dreamed that he would
be the one national leader who would question the HIV/AIDS model, or
that anybody would question HIV in South Africa.
Conlan: When did you get the invitation to join the panel?
Duesberg: He asked me and others whom to invite. There were
tentative invitations, and we were asked to suggest topics to be
discussed, but a specific invitation wasn't issued until around the last
week of March, when I was specifically invited and asked if I would want
Conlan: What was your impression of the meeting itself?
Duesberg: It was a surprise that it actually happened, but it
was a very circumscribed, or very censored, exchange. There was a
so-called "moderator" [Canadian law professor Stephen Owen] who, I
think, was not as neutral as he was supposed to be. He was trying to
accommodate the establishment, I think, much more than any controversy,
although he was given a hard job, because he was trying to reconcile the
irreconcilable, which didn't work.
Rasnick: The panel initially consisted of about 30 members,
AIDS experts from all over the world. Two-thirds were clearly advocates
and supporters of the mainstream HIV hypothesis of AIDS -- that AIDS is
contagious, sexually transmitted, caused by HIV, and that the anti-HIV
drugs promote health and well-being. One-third of the panel was made up
of critics of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. They're also called "dissidents"
and they're called all sorts of names. Ten of us put our names publicly
to a document that says we dispute the HIV/contagious hypothesis of AIDS
(presented in this issue).
There were also about three or four African-American physicians who
were added at the last minute, at President Clinton's suggestion. He
called Mbeki and said he would like these other Americans to join in the
panel, and Mbeki agreed. This was a clear attempt, to everybody in the
room, to try to be politically correct, as if that wouldn't go
unnoticed. They were trying to go out of their way to say, "We
appreciate Black people."
Conlan: And to show, "Black people believe in HIV, and Black
people need to unite around the threat of HIV?"
Rasnick: Yes, I'm sure that was part of the signal they were
trying to send. I can tell you, from my own observation, they really
didn't participate in that panel. They were more or less observers, as
far as I could tell. But those are details. Sam Mhlongo was the only
African dissident on the panel. There were a bunch of other Africans on
the panel, but Mhlongo was the only one who was a critic of the HIV
hypothesis of AIDS. He wanted to know, first of all, if the rumor was
true about these guys -- that Clinton had asked Mbeki to include them on
the panel. Mhlongo asked the panel, and the moderator, and they just
wouldn't answer. Just as I was about to suggest that we put it on the
record that they refused to confirm or deny that these people were
latecomers at the behest of President Clinton, finally a woman who came
from Mbeki's office did acknowledge that Clinton had indeed talked with
Mbeki and asked that these people join. Mbeki graciously acquiesced and
said, "Sure, you know, come on in."
But accepting them was a good idea because it sort of put the stamp
of US approval on the panel -- that President Clinton approved of it,
you know. It said, "Oh, Clinton, he's interested in this. He cares about
this. He supports Mbeki's panel, this thing that he's doing, because
he's suggesting other people to be on it."
Duesberg: One problem with the moderator was that he conducted
it as a meeting in which the people would state conclusions and
so-called "beliefs." There was a panel of about 30 participants, and
each of them was allotted a five-minute introductory statement in which
they declared their beliefs, or convictions, or conclusions, without
scientific evidence and without debate. There was no time for -- in
fact, by now I think there was no desire to have a true scientific
debate on the issues, on why people would come to such conclusions. So
it was, indeed, a rather unscientific meeting -- although it had been
intended to be a scientific meeting.
Rasnick: That first two days of meetings went almost exactly
as I had expected. I didn't expect much, other than that we would behave
civilly and, I was hoping, professionally, towards each other as
scientists and physicians. That pretty much happened. Data were not
presented. They were not allowed to be presented. It was essentially,
"I'm right and you're wrong," type of thing. Which was O.K.; it was
really an introductory thing.
Conlan: What did you mean, "Data not allowed to be presented?"
Rasnick: Well, they had projectors, 35 mm projectors, overhead
projectors, and were ready to go. But there were always objections.
Peter [Duesberg] tried to put some overheads up, and they shouted it
down. They just did not want to see data. I wasn't too surprised, and it
really didn't bother me, because just getting people together under that
one roof, that was good enough.
Duesberg: The next day, it broke up into subgroups which
essentially identified themselves as either questioning or not
questioning HIV, and were supposed to make specific policy
recommendations. Those of us who advanced the chemical-AIDS hypothesis
that AIDS is not infectious, but caused by lifestyle and chemistry and
drugs and malnutrition, had clear recommendations -- forget about
vaccines and antibody tests; by all means, do not allow or even consider
antiviral treatments; and invest money, if there is such money, into
improving the standard of living, like nutrition and sanitation and
health standards, conventional health care.
Then we rejoined each other at the end at a press conference. Before
the press conference there was another round of statements which were
very polar, even asking, "What is actually the epidemic in Africa? Is
there in fact an epidemic altogether, or is it just tabloid rhetoric
that we're repeating here?" Believe it or not, with all these
scientists, there was not even once any documentation that we have an
epidemic -- how many are infected, and how many are suffering or have a
disease, and is it in excess of what used to occur there, the
long-established background of these diseases? That was never discussed,
and even for asking it, many immediately stated that they didn't want to
continue the discussion with somebody who doesn't believe in AIDS and
doesn't believe in HIV.
Conlan: Tell me about the subgroup that included Duesberg,
Harvey Bialy, Helene Gayle from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
(CDC), and Malegapuru Makgoba, who talked about designing and conducting
experiments and studies to test the HIV-AIDS model. Just what sorts of
experiments and studies are they talking about?
Rasnick: Let me tell you how that came about, and then where
it stands, as far as I know. It came up on the second day. The first day
was just really pretty much powder puffs. The second day was getting a
little bit more serious, and one of the guys wanted to separate the two
groups in room A and room B: the proponents of HIV and the critics of
it. We said, "No, that's not why Mbeki got us here. We've had these
discussions in room A and room B for 16 years. It was Mbeki's innovation
to bring us all together in one room, room C, to have these discussions.
That's why he did it, you know. If he wanted to continue these
discussions independently, he wouldn't have gone to all the trouble to
bring us together."
But they still went ahead and separated us out, and our side, the ten
of us, came up with recommendations based on our determination that AIDS
is not contagious. The other side has not produced anything that's
available. They went on and on and on, and what they said was
completely, totally unmemorable. I couldn't even remember it five
minutes after they went on and on and on about that stuff!
Helene Gayle, who's at the CDC, was the only one, so far as I could
tell, on the other side of the supporters of HIV, who had any sense of
humor; who was playful; who was even a nice person to be around, and
didn't frown. All the rest of them seemed to sit at attention. They even
had crewcuts and flattops! They looked really, really military, most of
the proponents of the HIV hypothesis. It was really very interesting.
But she was the only one that had a sense of humor, and was playful, and
joked around. Helene Gayle was joking around with Peter Duesberg a lot.
He loves to play around and joke a lot, too.
When it first came up that she had offered Peter a chance to
collaborate with the CDC, I thought it was a joke. I talked to Peter on
the phone a week later, when we got back, and said, "Peter, what's your
take on that? That whole thing about the CDC collaborating with you?" I
said, "I thought it was a joke!" And he said he did, too! But it became
a reality at the press conference, after the thing was over, because I
think the Health Minister and the government in general were looking for
any positive sign at all to convey to the world, that bringing together
all these people led to something constructive.
Duesberg: That "committee" is a little less clear-cut than you
name it now. It's an afterbirth of a press conference. We talked about
the possibilities of what could be done, and I made some proposals.
Helene Gayle is a Black lady who worked for quite a while in Africa, and
she has a sense of humor and is sort of charming. She's at least
sympathetic with us, concerned about African issues. She said I should
come visit and spend a sabbatical at the CDC, so they could straighten
me out -- or maybe I could straighten them out, and that sort of thing.
So I proposed, as a possible experiment that would be feasible and
doable and relevant for Africa, to take 100 AIDS patients, diagnosed
according to African standards, the Bangui clinical case definition
[which actually allows AIDS in Africa to be diagnosed without any
evidence of HIV exposure] and check them with the best methods available
for HIV to see if they are in fact even "HIV-positive." It would be very
important to know how reliable the average diagnosis is before we
offered these people AZT, which is specifically aimed only at HIV and
not against anything other than AIDS. It's not against any AIDS disease;
it's a drug administered to inhibit HIV. So if most of these AIDS
diagnoses, or even a significant percentage, were "negative," such
treatment would be a true disaster. Another experiment I proposed is
give AZT or the other antiviral drugs to rats and dogs, and maybe some
monkeys in Africa, to see how well they survive this and see what the
so-called "side effects" of these things are; rather than giving them
only to people who [test] ≥HIV-positive." Nothing is ever published
about what happens to animals when they are given these drugs.
In this country, the leading nation in the world for everything
including human rights, we don't torture animals with those drugs. We
test them in homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and junkies. Or maybe in
Africans who sign with a cross or a square on an "informed consent" form
with Robert Gallo, or with Zagury for the Lancet study, or with
antiviral drugs in the bushes of Africa. That's how these experiments
are done. So I suggested a long-forgotten standard: that we test a drug
which is known to be toxic, designed to be toxic, in animals before we
feed it to humans. But it only became reality when this Health Secretary
said that at the post-meeting press conference, to the people of the
press. I never thought that it would be mentioned again.
Conlan: If you did the experiment of testing people in Africa
who'd been diagnosed with ≥AIDS≤ under the Bangui definition, and
testing them for HIV exposure, exactly how would you measure HIV
exposure, given the critiques that have been made by the Perth Group and
others against the accuracy of virtually all the standard tests?
Duesberg: I know the accuracy of antibody tests is limited. I
know that. But even allowing that, we would just apply the standards of
European or American AIDS diagnosis, which includes some HIV tests, to
African ≥AIDS≤ patients. I assume we would take a better one, and just
apply it, and see if it is 100 percent positive, or just 50 percent
positive. Since they don't even do an HIV antibody test, and don't even
ask for a test, for diagnosis of "AIDS" in Africa, there could be many,
many people who are said to be "AIDS patients" who do not have
antibodies to HIV, or have no virus, by the standards of the tests used
in the West -- even if the tests themselves are flawed. Harvey [Bialy]
was going into this and said the tests should include polymerase chain
reactions (PCRs) as well, because, particularly in Africa, there would
be many false-positives on the antibody tests because of other diseases
cross-reacting and so on. That would be fine with me. I wasn't very
concerned about the accuracy of the test; I was just wondering, if we
applied some of the tests that are standard here, how would they come
out in Africa, where we diagnose [AIDS] without the tests?
Conlan: In other words, to see if the African people who are
diagnosed with "AIDS" meet the same standards as an American or Western
European who is diagnosed with "AIDS," never mind whether the standards
actually mean anything in terms of actual risk for immune suppression.
Duesberg: Yes, that's right. I tried to be as diplomatic as
possible, just to say, "Look here, we're treating people -- assuming,
even, that all of this is right about testing and the virus. But we are
giving them, knowingly, drugs that are inevitably toxic. Is that
responsible when we don't even know if they're "HIV-positive?" These
drugs are said to be specifically directed against this virus, and if
that is not the case, if there's not even that virus, how could we
possibly accept or work on such a procedure?
Rasnick: I don't see how the CDC can really afford to
legitimate the whole question as to whether or not HIV causes AIDS.
That's the purpose of the experiment -- to test the hypothesis that HIV
causes AIDS, either through regular animal experiments with chimpanzees,
for example, that have been discussed, with all those 150 some-odd
HIV-infected chimpanzees, let's treat them with the anti-HIV drugs. I
know what will happen -- they'll die. They'll get AIDS first, and then
That's part of it, and then the other one is some epidemiological
studies that have actually been done, and have been published, that show
that there is no correlation in Africa between HIV antibodies and AIDS.
In fact, the majority of the people the Japanese studied, when they did
a study of AIDS in Africa, didn't have antibodies to HIV, even though
they were "AIDS" cases under the Bangui definition of AIDS. But I don't
know how that's going to turn out. I'm glad I'm not part of that unholy
alliance, because it's such a mess, and it's so political. I'm really
happy I'm not involved in that.
Conlan: Where is this going to go from here? I know you're
supposed to be having these discussions on the Internet .
Rasnick: Just on our side, so far. [Note: At publication time,
the second and final panel meeting had assembled without the HIV
scientists ever participating in the Internet discussion -- Ed.]
Conlan: And the final meeting just before the official AIDS
conference in Durban. What's the outcome you hope for, and what's the
outcome you expect?
Rasnick: I wish I could give you some sort of solid answer.
I'll tell you what I hope for. I can tell you in the short term. I can't
tell you what in the long term is going to come of this, but I can tell
you in the short term I hope that this three-day meeting in Pretoria,
the next one, really is a scientific meeting, where you have equal time
allotted to the main protagonists -- those who support the mainstream
HIV-AIDS hypothesis and those who challenge it. I hope we present
arguments and data, and then have a discussion and all that. I hope that
happens. I don't know if that will happen or not.
The other side seems so really hesitant, resistant, to do anything
like that. But that's what I hope for. The media have been really active
down there. When we were down there it was on all the TVs, all the
radios, in all the newspapers. Mbeki, a head of state, is doing this,
and he's going to keep it that way. There are lots of documentary-like
TV programs on all this stuff that are supposed to air this month down
there. And then you've got the AIDS conference following July 9. At
least the media now have been primed. Most of the people who interviewed
me in the past two months, at least, have never written about AIDS
before, which is a very good sign. It means they don't have anything
they have to defend. They don't have anything at stake. The reason they
got involved in this was because it was a political and national issue,
since the head of state was involved. So they're doing what journalists
ought to do. They're doing their job. They're asking the basic, simple
questions, and basically reporting what they've learned. With AIDS, it
changes everything, so there's lots of vitriol going around, and lots of
ad hominems that you just have to expect. So I hope the media stay
active, and more of them that haven't been involved in the AIDS stuff
get involved, because, as I say, they don't have anything they have to
defend and protect, nothing they have to swallow and live down. In terms
of the world, the whole thing is supposed to be made public at some
point. Everything was filmed, videotaped. All that is supposedly going
to be transcribed -- every word of it, they said -- and the videotapes
and the transcripts are supposedly going to be made available to the
people of the world. I hope that happens.
Conlan edits and publishes the Zenger's, a monthly gay issues
periodical that devotes regular coverage to factual reporting and
analysis of HIV, AIDS, and related topics. (Contact: P.O. Box 50171, San
Diego, CA, 92165-0171; firstname.lastname@example.org).