By Neville Hodgkinson

Continuum Sept./Oct. 1996

Neville Hodgkinson summarises the historic scientific paper which disposes of the illusion of HIV.

Publication in this issue of Continuum of the article by Eleni Eleopulos and colleagues is an historic event. Their tremendous work refutes the idea that a new virus, "HIV," which came to be known as the cause of AIDS by the scientific community and the world, has ever been shown to exist.

This is not idle word play. It is devastatingly important to people who have been told they are likely to die because of their infection with "HIV;" to people taking demonstrably dangerous and potentially lethal drugs in the hope of slowing the progress of this non-existent virus; to the doctors prescribing those drugs, and the medico-legal organisations who represent them; to politicians everywhere, but especially in poorer countries, who have switched scarce resources into fighting a mythical epidemic of "HIV disease;" to communities genuinely stricken by AIDS, who need to look again at the real causes of the syndrome; and to the world of science, which will need to address the question of how it can re-establish credibility with the public after not just allowing such a terrible mistake to occur, but actively obstructing efforts to question the "HIV" hypothesis.

Eleopulos's disposal of the HIV illusion takes us into the deep waters of modern molecular biological techniques, where even the pioneers are in uncertain territory, though they all too rarely admit as much. But the paper, with its 251 references, is a definitive demonstration that not a single scientist has proven the existence of "HIV" as a unique and distinguishable molecular entity. It is the fruit of years of work. The authors are a group of scientists well-respected by their immediate colleagues, and with a history of publication in leading peer-reviewed journals, though on the "HIV" issue they have faced much obstruction, over many years, in seeking to make their views known to the scientific community. That community now has a clear obligation to respond to this paper, to grapple with its implications and answer its challenge.

The paper is structured partly as a response to points raised by Peter Duesberg, the Californian scientist who has fought courageously to point up inconsistencies and fallacies in the conventional view of AIDS. In previous issues of Continuum Duesberg has defended the idea that the virus is a genuine entity, albeit in his view harmless. In doing so, since he has not been involved directly in "HIV" work, he has had to rely on the assertions and assumptions of other workers in the field. Eleopulos strips these assumptions bare and demonstrates a circular reasoning at the heart of the defense of the "HIV" concept.

The essence of the critique lies in its insistence that before you can make sense in talking about a new virus such as "HIV" was supposed to be, you have to first isolate it, which means obtaining it separated from everything else. Only then can you determine whether it does indeed have the features characteristic of a particular infectious agent, including shape, physical constituents, and ability to reproduce. Although viruses are only capable of multiplying within the cells of their host, they do also have an independent existence as particles, which can be seen with an electron microscope. Each particle comprises a unique stretch of genetic material-the virus genome or genes-coated with protein molecules. Procedures for isolating and analysing these particles have been used for decades.

The main isolation technique has been to spin the biological material to be examined through a density-graded centrifuge (the further the materials travel down the test-tube, the greater the density). This is a key stop in separating and isolating any particles present, including viruses, since it causes them to band at characteristic densities. The particles can then be examined microscopically and biochemically, and used in biological tests to see whether or not they are infectious.

In the early 1980s, when AIDS was first recognised, scientists theorised that a new infectious agent might be responsible, and began a race to identify it. A front-runner theory was that it could be a retrovirus-a theoretical member of a family of microbes in which a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, allowed the genetic material of the virus to become integrated with the DNA of its host cell. Peter Duesberg, a world leader in the field, had won renown for linking an animal retrovirus with cancer. He later insisted however that the risk was brought about by a mutant human gene picked up by the retrovirus, and that essentially human retroviruses were benign, naturally present packages of genetic material-a claim that calls into question the appropriateness of the term "virus," since by definition viruses are disease-producing particles.

In the early 1980s Robert Gallo, a US government researcher who was also a pioneer in the field, claimed to have discovered the first human retrovirus by linking "retroviral" phenomena to certain forms of leukaemia in humans, although whether the presence of those phenomena is a cause or an effect of the leukaemia condition remains unproven.

What is known today, however, is that the human genome itself contains many stretches of genetic material with characteristics of so-called retroviruses. These sub-genomes are in the DNA of all our cells, and under certain circumstances they replicate, sometimes becoming incorporated into particles. The existence of these harmless endogenous (arising from within) gene packages makes it all the more important to isolate a putative exogenous (originating from without) disease-causing retrovirus, in order to distinguish it from the naturally-occurring phenomena.

Eleopulos demonstrates that such isolation has never been performed with "HIV." When cells taken from AIDS patients and AIDS risk groups are put through a variety of laboratory processes and then the fluid in which they have been grown is centrifuged, a lot of material, including gene segments of varying lengths, falls with the density band characteristic of retroviruses. Crucially, however, "HIV" researchers have never been able to find pure particles at that density with an electron microscope.

Very occasionally, a stretch of genetic material with a length characteristic of retroviruses is found amidst all the other material, and fished out for analysis. These long stretches have formed the basis for claims about HIV's genetic structure. However, in 10 years of research, only 19 "full-length HIV" genomes of this kind have been sequenced, and no-one has ever established whether or not these too are an endogenous product of normal cells, or a genuine infectious entity. Their extreme rarity is strong evidence against the latter. Furthermore, not one such genome has ever been sequenced from cells taken freshly from patients; they have only been found in material subjected to drastic manipulation in the laboratory, mostly involving being cultured in cancerous cell lines. These are exactly the circumstances in which naturally present, endogenous mechanisms of genetic activation are most likely to take place.

Most analyses of so-called "HIV" genetic material are based on small segments of the purported virus genome, typically covering between 2% and 30% of it, since the longer sequences are so rarely found. There is not even any fixed pattern to the composition of these segments-they vary by 40% or more. No two identical "HIV"s have been found, even from the same individual. In other words, there is no evidence for the presence of any unique molecular entity like a virus.

Peter Duesberg, in support of his retrovirology colleagues' claims that "HIV" had been isolated, points to studies in which "full-length" genetic sequences have been taken from the soup of materials obtained as described above, then passed into bacteria, and reproduced as pure copies. He claims that this means isolation "by the most rigorous method science has to offer." Logic seems to have deserted him on this issue, however. The point is not to isolate a genetic sequence, which can in any case be done by picking it out of the banded materials, but to isolate virus, which means to obtain virus particles separated from everything else and show that they have the characteristics of an infectious, replicating, disease-inducing microbe. Reproducing a stretch of genetic material through molecular cloning techniques does not mean you have an infectious microbe.

Duesberg further argues that because this cloned material reacts with antibodies used in the "HIV" test, that confirms the existence of a unique retrovirus. Eleopulos, however, has long ago demonstrated that the antibodies themselves are non-specific-that is, although they are certainly found much more often in AIDS patients and people at risk of AIDS than in healthy people, people can test positive as a result of activation of the immune system by a variety of microbial and toxic influences, including auto-immune processes.

So often, the correlation between the presence of "HIV" antibodies in a patient with AIDS itself has been taken as evidence for a viral cause of the syndrome, but this idea is torpedoed by a 1996 study cited by Eleopulos. Reihnard Kurth, a world leader in retrovirology at the Paul-Ehrlich Institute in Germany, showed that 70% of "HIV-positive" patients, compared with only 3% of blood donors, had antibodies which reacted with a molecular entity called HTDV/HERV-K. This "retrovirus," however, is not only present in AIDS patients, but "in all of us," as Kurth put it-it is one of those endogenous retroviral-like gene segments referred to above. The fact that such segments are activated in AIDS patients, perhaps with concomitant appearance of antibodies, does not make them the cause of AIDS, nor does it mean the presence of an infectious virus.

In the late 1980s, to try to rescue the concept of an "HIV genome," researchers began using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to look for "HIV" sequences. This immensely sensitive technique can find the genetic equivalent of a needle in a haystack, and multiply in into a stack of needles. On the basis of such methods, scientists such as New York's David "It's the virus, stupid" Ho (he once wore as badge proclaiming his faith to this effect) have developed theories that there is actually a mass of "virus" destroying AIDS patients' T-cells, even though it cannot be detected by standard techniques. The mathematics through which he reached this conclusion have been demonstrated to be faulty, but even if that were not the case, PCR does not involve isolation or even detection of "HIV." It simply measures the presence of certain genetic segments, which have been postulated to belong to "HIV" but never demonstrated as such, because "HIV" itself has never been isolated.

Duesberg argues that "HIV" is confirmed as a unique entity by the detection of HIV-specific genetic segments in most antibody-positive people, but not in "uninfected" humans. Eleopulos demonstrates that he has overstated the evidence from one study on this point, and failed to quote others that show less of a correlation. But their specificity tested against the only meaningful measure, isolation of the virus whose segments they are supposed to be detecting. Failure to see this is one more example of the circular reasoning that has bedeviled "HIV" research from the start.

When in 1993 Luc Montaigner and his group first described the procedures and observations that made them believe they might have cultured an AIDS virus, Gallo did not believe them. Nor did Nature, which turned their paper down. Nor did the British virus expert Robin Weiss, who in a 1986 patent application referred to Montaigner's "HIV strain" as a "so-called AIDS virus isolate." But Gallo's group did no better, other than to use leukaemic cells to produce a range of proteins that came to be known as characteristic of HIV, without proof that they were coded by "HIV" genes, or that they belonged to a retrovirus-like particle. Nevertheless, these proteins became the basis of a diagnostic test that purported to demonstrate infection with a deadly virus, an unvalidated test that has brought unnecessary misery to millions.

There was no intent to mislead, but judgment became warped in what Gallo has called the "passionate" phase of the race to find "the virus" assumed by these virus experts to be causing AIDS. Although Gallo is now known to have twisted the facts in support of his claim to have come first in that race, he and Montaigner and Weiss believed in what they were doing. Fame and fortune were to follow, but they also hoped humanity would benefit from their findings. Unfortunately that has not been the case, and it is now time to end this tragic episode in the history of science.*