By Neville Hodgkinson

The Sunday Times (London) 22 May 1994

An authoritative new study has uncovered powerful evidence that the "AIDS test" is scientifically invalid, misleading millions into believing they are HIV positive when they are not infected with the virus.

The findings, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, provide practical evidence that HIV tests may be triggered by other factors, such as leprosy and tuberculosis. They have heightened concerns that the spread of AIDS in Africa has been wildly exaggerated.

The discovery was made by a team headed by Dr Max Essex of Harvard University's School of Public Health and a highly respected AIDS expert. One of the originators of the hypothesis linking HIV with AIDS, Essex was also a leading exponent of the theory that the virus originated in Africa.

Essex, working with scientists from the University of Kinshasa and the health ministry in Zaire, stumbled across the apparent flaws in the tests during an investigation into whether leprosy patients, and those in close contact with them, were at increased risk of being infected with HIV.

After detailed examination of 57 patients, using more precise testing methods than usual, the team decided only two were carrying HIV and none of a group of 39 contacts. But about 70% of the patients and 30% of the contacts were HIV positive, according to two leading versions of Elisa, the most common test.

The team also found that another, supposedly more sophisticated test kit called Western Blot was equally unreliable. It gave a positive reaction in 85% of the patients who were negative with the other tests.

After laboratory investigations, the scientists concluded that proteins from the leprosy germ to which millions of Africans are exposed were causing cross-reactions with the HIV test, creating false positives.

Because of this, the researchers said that the Elisa and Western Blot tests, mainstay of HIV testing worldwide, "may not be sufficient for HIV diagnosis in AIDS-endemic areas of central Africa where the prevalence of mycobacterial diseases is quite high".

The findings provide dramatic support for a report last year in the journal Bio/Technology, in which Australian scientists conclude that the "HIV test" had never been properly evaluated, misleading cross-reactions were common and the test was meaningless except as a marker for many illnesses.

The Australian report showed that although most healthy people test negative, many of those facing chronic challenges to the immune system that have nothing to do with HIV were liable to produce a positive result. It cited evidence that these challenges probably included some of the conditions known to lead to AIDS, such as chronic drug abuse, repeated transfusions of blood or blood products, and multiple infections.

Eleni Eleopulos, a medical physicist and AIDS researcher who led the Australian team, said the study "confirms that we have to question all the HIV tests, especially in AIDS patients who have all types of infectious agents in them".

Dr John Papadimitriou, professor of pathology at the University of Western Australia in Perth and a co-author of the Bio/Technology study, said the Zaire research demonstrated that the HIV tests were inadequate: "Why condemn a continent to death because of HIV, when you have other explanations for why people are falling sick?"

African doctors have also begun to question the orthodox view: "Europeans and Americans came to Africa with prejudiced minds, so they are seeing what they wanted to see," said Professor PAK Addy, head of clinical microbiology at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana.

In an interview in New African magazine, he said: "I've known for a long time that AIDS is not a crisis in Africa as the world is being made to understand. But in Africa it is very difficult to stick your neck out and say certain things.

"The West came out with those frightening statistics on AIDS in Africa because it was unaware of certain social and clinical conditions. In most of Africa, infectious diseases, particularly parasitic infections, are common. And there are other conditions that can easily compromise or affect one's immune system."

He added: "The diagnosis itself, merely being told you have AIDS, is enough to kill, and is killing people." *