'Eight years ago, I went through the same experience as Mbeki'

By Neville Hodgkinson

New African Dec '00

An eyewitness account by the former science correspondent of The Sunday Times (London)

The year 2000 saw the birth of a new international sport. It became known as Mbeki-bashing. Newspapers, broadcast media, doctors and scientists, charities, UN agencies, financial institutions and politicians even up to the level of the White House joined in the fun.

The target was of course President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. The aim was to cast as much ridicule and derision on him as possible, as Baffour Ankomah and Pusch Commey described in October's New African. It didn't matter how outrageous the claims made, no one with power or influence would protest, because Mbeki had done the one thing all "right-thinking" opinion leaders detest: he questioned the HIV theory of AIDS.

During the summer, Mbeki brought together nearly 40 scientists from across the world to advise him on the causes and treatment of AIDS. Two thirds of these scientists believe HIV causes AIDS, and that the best way of fighting AIDS is to prescribe and develop drugs and a vaccine to beat the virus; one third of the panelists, the so-called "AIDS dissidents", question this view.

Normally, it would be considered not just reasonable, but highly responsible, for the president of a country to consult internationally on how to tackle a major public health emergency. Especially when that country is said by UNAIDS to have 4.2 million HIV-infected people - the largest number in the world. And especially when 15 years of AIDS science have failed to deliver anything of value in terms of prevention or treatment.

AIDS science is not normal, however, and the criticism of Mbeki, both inside and outside South Africa, could hardly have been more virulent - and ill informed.

"Under pressure to spend millions to prescribe AZT, President Mbeki indulges AIDS flat-earthers," said Time magazine on April 21, in response to news that Mbeki was defending his right to include "dissident" scientists on his panel. AIDS was threatening to wipe out a quarter of South Africa's population by the year 2010, yet the government was backing away from its treatment responsibilities by refusing to make available the antiviral drugs AZT or nevirapine to rape victims and pregnant women. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people would suffer because of Mbeki's "misplaced distrust of medical authority", the magazine's medical correspondent declared.

Perhaps it is the very bankruptcy of AIDS science that causes the AIDS industry, and its media advocates, to defend the indefensible with such vigour. But truly, there is not a single study showing either AZT or nevirapine to have saved lives. On the contrary, AZT is a poison that was essentially marketed by the US National Institutes of Health, with the grateful collaboration of a drug company that went on to make billions of dollars from it, during a period of immense political and social pressure to come up with an AIDS treatment. It was never properly tested and it has been responsible for swathes of deaths. Babies exposed to the drug during pregnancy have been clearly shown in several recent studies to be more likely to die than when mothers are left untreated.

As for nevirapine, after several drug-related deaths during trials in South Africa, the Health Department there has been proceeding cautiously. It is right to do so: earlier this year, European drug watchdogs issued a public warning of "severe and life-threatening reactions", urging that patients should be "intensely monitored" during the first weeks of treatment - impossible in a poor country like South Africa.

Thus, Time's article was dangerously wrong. But it was part of a world trend, which grew into a crescendo of opposition, which became a chorus of defamation of the political leader who dared to question HIV/AIDS doctrine. World reaction to his efforts on behalf of his people culminated in the London Observer declaring in a huge headline "Mbeki 'lets AIDS babies die in pain' ", followed a week later by the London Sunday Times nominating Mbeki "an enemy of the people".

Today, around the world, AIDS campaigners greet Mbeki's name with sniggers. The pressure in South Africa has been such as to force him to withdraw from the public debate, leaving the handling of the advisory panel's report to his ministers.

To most newspaper readers, especially in the United States and Europe, he must seem monstrous, though some may be surprised at how quickly he acquired this hate status when only last April Newsweek described him as "Washington's favourite African leader", "urbane and brainy", and "the West's best hope for a continent mired in poverty, corruption and disease". It was of course his contact with scientists who had challenged the HIV theory that caused worldwide consternation. But why?

Thanks to New African's coverage of the scientific controversy over AIDS, many of its readers will be aware that Mbeki has good reason for questioning the HIV story. But New African is a rarity, not just in having reported the differing perspectives, but in continuing to do so in the face of much criticism.

I can't say the same for the newspaper I used to work for. Eight years ago, as science correspondent at the Sunday Times, I went through the same experience as Mbeki. "Hodgkinson-bashing" began when the newspaper published a two-page article I had written headed "AIDS: Can We Be Positive?" The article did no more than set out the "dissident" perspectives on AIDS. It appeared in April 1992, after several weeks of research.

Previously, I had reported AIDS exclusively from the conventional standpoint - "deadly new virus spreading surreptitiously among sexually active people, set to kill millions, etc". I therefore found it hard to grasp the possibility that this might have been wrong, and checked the arguments scrupulously.

Yet the response was hysterical. The editor, Andrew Neil, and myself were accused of risking millions of lives by questioning the HIV belief, and told the case against the virus had long been settled.

That wasn't true then, any more than it is now.

Five years previously, when Peter Duesberg, an eminent American molecular biologist, first argued against HIV as the cause of AIDS in the journal Cancer Research, there wasn't a single response from his peers. Later, when he persisted in raising questions, the scientific mainstream did everything possible to silence him, cancelling his research funds, refusing all new grant applications, and boycotting meetings at which he was to speak.

Andrew Neil, who had already run articles questioning the alleged heterosexual spread of AIDS, was struck by the lack of reasoned responses to the "Are we positive?" article. He became increasingly determined to shed light on what was happening, and sent me across the world on the story over the next two years, publishing more than 40 articles on different aspects of the debate.

During that period, Neil and I faced a welter of criticism. Our assailants included the World Health Organisation, the European Community's AIDS Task Force, Britain's Medical Research Council and Chief Medical Officer, representatives of the three major political parties, the giant drug company Wellcome, a group of Nobel prize-winning molecular biologists, the editor of Nature, numerous science and medical correspondents, the gay press, New Scientist, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, leaders of AIDS charities, an Oxford professor of poetry, the BBC, and the New York Times among many others.

The attacks were emotional in tone and content. We were accused of encouraging the spread of HIV through a free-for-all lifestyle, of promoting ignorance and illness, of discouraging HIV-positive people from taking their medicines, of an "appeal to the dark ages", of weakening resolve to fight "the most sinister, terrible disease to afflict mankind since the plague", as one of the UK's top scientists put it.

I became the first journalist I know of to have a press award scheme founded in his dishonour, after I had spent weeks in central Africa and reported evidence that the "AIDS epidemic" there was largely an illusion, stemming from several major African killer diseases having been mistakenly redefined as AIDS. Britain's Health Education Authority wrote that my "wilful misrepresentation" of AIDS in Africa had prompted the authority to create new awards for excellence in HIV, AIDS and sexual health journalism. At one time AIDS specialists branded me a danger to public health and began a concerted campaign, through Nature magazine, to stop me doing any more work on these lines.

In July 1994, after a new editor made it plain that I would no longer be welcome to give so much time to the story, I left the newspaper to write a book on the controversy. The deeper I researched the issue, the more convinced I became that the roots of the problem lay in the HIV test.

All AIDS scientists agree that it is difficult (some say impossible) to isolate the virus from a patient's blood. Because of this, it never proved possible to validate the HIV test by checking whether the antibodies it detects truly relate to HIV infection. The manufacturers know this perfectly well, and they clearly state that their tests cannot be used to prove HIV infection.

There is a strong link between testing positive, and risk of developing a range of different illnesses. But according to the "dissident" scientific argument that now makes most sense to me, this has nothing to do with the hypothetical entity "HIV".

Antibodies detected by the "HIV" test become elevated because of a variety of challenges to the immune system. Most importantly, in the context of malnourished communities, these challenges include well known infections such as those responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy. There is clear evidence that millions of people who have been exposed to the TB bacterium are liable to test positive with the "HIV" test. Other known triggers for testing positive include heavy exposure to blood and other body fluids, including semen; certain auto-immune conditions; and even pregnancy.

Years of study have convinced me that there are so many different reasons for testing positive (some 70 different conditions have been documented in the medical literature) that NO ONE SHOULD EVER BE TOLD THEY ARE INFECTED WITH HIV on the basis of the tests as they stand today.

Diagnosis of HIV-positivity is an unwarranted assault on the individual that ruins lives and often kills. Being told you are infected with the world's most feared virus acts like a curse on an individual, implanting the idea that you will soon die. This idea can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when toxic antiviral medicines are prescribed in the belief that any attempt to defeat such a deadly enemy is worthwhile. At the same time, lives are lost when doctors fail to treat common infections that are the real problem, because of their minds are so dominated by "HIV".

My book, published in 1996 under the title "AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science - How a Virus That Never Was Deceived the World", set out in detail the arguments in support of the above claims. There was no response to it from the scientific or medical communities.

The mainstream media also largely ignored it, and the Sunday Times disowned me with a hostile review published long before the book was even out. Despite this, an abusive article appeared in the London Observer (yes, them again) headlined "Sunday Times Science Editor Awaits Flat Earth", with a secondary heading "Neville Hodgkinson's two masters". It accused me of being a member of a "bizarre religious cult" preaching the imminent arrival of a flat earth, and of worshipping a naked, hairy man with snakes around his neck whom I had never seen.

According to the newspaper, this was why I had espoused such strange views on AIDS, along with pressure from the other of my "masters", Andrew Neil. It was utter fantasy (although it's true that for 20 years I have practised meditation with a highly respected spiritual training organisation), with fabricated quotations. The newspaper later published an apology and correction.

A Marxist journal, in a half-sympathetic article about my work, described me as a "pariah of my profession". Sales of the book were poor and the publishers, Fourth Estate, have taken it off their list. I have tried to interest several British newspapers in taking a new look at the controversy, without success.

In July this year, I flew to Johannesburg to attend the second of the AIDS Advisory Panel hearings as an observer, in case I could help in any way. It was a good experience for me, seeing the views that have for so long been suppressed given an airing in an expert forum, although it was also frustrating to see the continuing divide and mutual incomprehension among the scientists taking part. They obviously felt this frustration too, and I respected their courage in at least being present. It was plain that at the scientific level, these are decent people who believe they are acting appropriately.

However, an arrogance is evident among some HIV believers that is born, I believe, of desperation. This was clearly exposed in extracts from a diary one of them kept, published later in South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper. There was no indication of willingness to learn. The anonymous writer referred throughout to those who believe in the HIV theory as "round-earthers", and the rest as "flat-earthers" or "denialists".

The article also revealed why an Internet discussion, in which the scientists had been asked to post the evidence for their positions and respond to one another's assertions, had been a flop, with work done by the dissident scientists going unanswered: "Most round-earthers decided that to play with their new friends was a waste of time and made them feel intellectually compromised by even entertaining their half-baked ideas."

The huge gulf between the different points of view arises from the years of looking at AIDS through different spectacles. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on HIV research and treatment in the US alone, and that kind of money commands a strong hold on the intellect. It's not just a question of protecting research grants, charitable activities, professorships, pharmaceutical profits, and political and academic credibility; it's also the sheer intellectual effort invested in the HIV concept that makes it so hard for people to shift their perspective.

Equally, after years of abuse and neglect, the "dissidents" have a strong emotional as well as intellectual investment in their own position. In Johannesburg, some found it almost intolerable to hear contrary viewpoints expressed and had to let off steam from time to time, pacing or storming out of the room.

So, there will not be any consensus emerging from the panel hearings. The government scientists responsible for pulling together a report have a tough job on their hands, and are unlikely to please anyone.

For all that, the initiative represents a huge step forward. Documented evidence was presented that no one has truly isolated HIV, including Professor Luc Montagnier, HIV's purported discoverer and a participant at the first session of the inquiry. True isolation means taking infected material from a patient, purifying virus from that material so that you can clearly identify what it is and work with it free of contaminating materials, and demonstrating that it has the infectious characteristics expected of a virus. This has not been achieved.

Some AIDS scientists say they isolate the virus every day, but by this they mean that they detect genetic or biochemical signals assumed to mean it is present. The problem is, that assumption may be false, because without directly linking those signals to isolated virus you do not know the meaning of the signals.

For the first time, in a genuine scientific forum, those who argue this way were able to set their case before some of the world's top HIV protagonists. A request to participants that they provide the necessary evidence for isolation brought no response. Montagnier admitted it was "very difficult" to isolate the virus from blood, and he and others claimed instead that HIV particles have been visualised in lymph nodes. But the point was pressed home that without isolating such particles, and characterising them as an infectious agent, their identity and characteristics remain uncertain.

Inability to purify HIV underlies the problems that have arisen with all the tests for diagnosing infection with the virus, including so-called "viral counts" (measures of genetic activity assumed, but not proved, to relate to HIV).

The dissidents managed to get across some of their arguments on this, and one central outcome of the panel hearings was an agreement that a group should research the validity of the HIV tests.

So, where does the science stand today? The answer is, in a state of confusion. Nothing in the above should make us throw sexual hygiene to the winds in the belief that AIDS is an illusion. Rather, we should recognise that people are almost certainly acquiring immune deficiency, and testing HIV-positive, for a variety of reasons, some of which were unrecognised before the advent of AIDS.

Despite the failure to isolate a specific virus, it remains possible that the products of the disordered immune cells include particles that play a part in the disease process, while not being the primary cause. It is also possible that these particles could be transmissible in sperm. Repeated exposure to such products through unprotected passive anal intercourse with a diseased partner may predispose to an autoimmune response, in which the body's defences against infection become confused and start to self-destroy. Passive, unprotected anal sex is certainly a major risk factor for AIDS.

There is a desperate need for a humble, open, inquiring approach on all sides of this debate - in other words, for scientists to start acting as scientists again, rather than as propagandists for a particular point of view, orthodox or "dissident".

If the dissidents - ridiculed, censored and deprived of research funds - have overstated their case at times, the same is true, only far more damagingly, on the side of orthodoxy.

Newspapers cover so many issues that they can't be expected to get everything right. Politicians and civil servants, too, don't usually find the time to study medical issues in detail - they have to take their lead from scientists. But when scientists behave as propagandists, however well intentioned, and try to stamp out honest, intelligent questioning of the kind Mbeki initiated, we are in trouble.