Rethinking AIDS May 1993

Interview with molecular biologist and former Harvard and Johns Hopkins professor Charles A. Thomas, Ph.D.

RETHINKING: If HIV does not cause AIDS, what does?

THOMAS: I think that Duesberg and Root-Bernstein have it right. Anything or process that destroys the individual's ability to mount an immune response to adventitious disease such as those listed by the CDC as "AIDS indicator diseases." This could be the use of street drugs such as cocaine, heroin, amyl nitrite (poppers), amphetamines, which are known to be immunosuppressive. It could be malnutrition and lack of essential vitamins. Being the recipient of whole blood or blood products, such as required by hemophiliacs, inhibits the immune system. Finally, there is much evidence that repeated and multiple infections are immunosuppressive. The immune system just gets worn out and can't respond.


THOMAS: DNA synthesis and cell division are essential to mount an immune response. AZT kills replicating cells. AZT in a sense can be a cause of AIDS diseases. The patient loses hair, and the proliferating intestinal epithelia are destroyed.

RETHINKING: But AZT kills the HIV...

THOMAS: AZT kills any bit of DNA that tries to replicate. It is a crazy way to attempt to kill the HIV virus because so few Lymphocytes are carrying a copy of HIV (1/10,000) and the viral copy is only about 1/100,000 of the size of the host cell DNA. Besides, where is the evidence that the incorporated virus is doing any harm at all? Yet Burroughs-Welcome's figures indicate that 200,000 people world-wide receive AZT every day at the cost of $2,300 per year.

RETHINKING: How do you explain the death of Kimberly Bergalis, who was a virgin and did not do drugs?

THOMAS: Kimberly Bergalis, according to the general press, was a young lady who was found to have antibody to HIV; she had become infected at some time in the past. Whether she displayed other AIDS symptoms, I do not know, but she was put on AZT. She responded just as described above; the AZT killed her.

RETHINKING: How do you explain Ryan White?

THOMAS: According to accounts in the press, Ryan White was an 18-year-old hemophiliac who died in April of 1990 of unstoppable internal bleeding which may have been exacerbated by the AZT he was taking. Not an unusual way for hemophiliacs to die. To prove that HIV was the cause of his death would require the comparison of similar hemophiliacs both with and without antibody to HIV. Notwithstanding, his death proved to be the impetus for the passing of the Ryan White Comprehensive Research Act in 1990 which is giving more than $550 million to hospitals and clinics around the country.

RETHINKING: Well, what about Magic Johnson, said to be on AZT?

THOMAS: I don't know whether he actually is or not. He is smart enough to know it is useless, toxic and avoid taking it. My own bet is that Johnson is not taking AZT; he would never be able to play the basketball he does. However, if he is taking it, it would not surprise me if he were more robust to its ill effects than Kimberly or Ryan.

RETHINKING: How did Kimberly Bergalis become infected with HIV?

THOMAS: I don't know, and probably neither does anyone else. Thanks to the publicity that this case received, everyone thinks that she was infected by her dentist David Acer, who was HIV+. This led to testing 1,100 of his other past patients, 4 or 5 of whom proved to have antibody to HIV+. Divide 4.5 by 1100, and you get 0.4%. Subsequent testing of many thousands o~ patients of other dentists showed that 0.4% of them were positive. The frequency of HIV+ has been repeatedly measured in the general population since 1985 at 0.4%. There is no reason to think she was infected by her dentist.

RETHINKING: How do you explain babies with AIDS?

THOMAS: According to the CDC diskettes as of the end of 1991, there have been a total of 1,328 babies (age<l) recorded as having AIDS since the beginning of 1981. This is a very small number covering a period of 11 years. It turns out that 1,260 (95%) of these came from "mothers at risk." This category is mainly drug abusing mothers. Babies born to drug abusing mothers who do not have HIV also die from the same diseases, but they are not considered AIDS victims.

RETHINKING: How do you explain the transfusion and hemophiliac cases who are dying from AIDS?

THOMAS: If you focus on the transfusion recipients, those having antibody to HIV are actually living about as long as those without HIV antibody. More work should be done on this point (because recipients of multiple transfusions become immunosuppressed and also are more likely to acquire HIV), but the available evidence indicates that exposure to HIV does not hasten their deaths. There are about 11,000 HIV+ hemophiliacs in the U.S. that have been infected for 10 years. Of these only 1,713 (15.6%) have developed AIDS. The bulk of the remainder will die natural deaths before they come down with AIDS diseases. Bob Maver has covered this in the second issue of Rethinking AIDS.

RETHINKING: We have been told that there is a rampant explosion of heterosexual AIDS among teenagers; how can this be controlled?

THOMAS: Well, actually, an analysis of the CDC data to 6/30/92 shows that there were only 872 cases of teenage (13-19) AIDS over the past 11 years. The majority of these are homosexual, IV drug abusers and hemophilia cases. The number of cases of heterosexual teenage AIDS not involving these other risk factors is only 16 over an 11 year period. Hardly an explosion, and hardly numbers warranting a "safe sex" campaign involving tens of millions of teenagers.

RETHINKING: What about Africa?

THOMAS: I don't know anything about AIDS in Africa, and can only wonder if others do. Remember that people are dying all the time in Africa of CDC-approved AIDS diseases (dysentery, for example) as a result of malnourishment, infections, etc. Now about 10% of the population (plus/minus 10%) is estimated to have antibody to HIV. That could be true or it could be a high estimate due to sloppy testing. Anyhow, if you score HIV+, and die of a CDC-approved disease, you die of AIDS. That's why the numbers are so high in Africa. One interesting point: while about 3% of the HIV positive people come down with AIDS each year in the U.S., in Africa only a tiny percentage do so. This is because the percentage of HIV+ (10%) is so much larger than in the U.S. (° 4%)

Africa is interesting in another way: the percentage of males and females who are HIV-positive is the same. AIDS disease affect both sexes at the same rate. In the U.S., 80% of the AIDS cases are in 20-44 year-olds, 90% of whom are males. It looks like AIDS disease are being caused in a different way in Africa than in the U.S. (and Western Europe).

RETHINKING: Don't chimpanzees get AlDS when infected with HIV?

THOMAS: No they don't and that's a problem. About 80 chimps have been tested. The HIV infects these animals, multiplies, elicits the formation of antibody, and then disappears, just like in humans. Even after many years not one chimp has come down with AIDS diseases. This means we have an animal model for HIV, and it does not seem to cause AIDS. In this respect they are just like the 1,000,000 Americans who have been infected with HIV and who are not coming down with AIDS either.

RETHINKING: Everyone agrees that there is plenty of HIV virus in semen and that's how it spreads.

THOMAS: Well, actually there's not. The best work done at the Women's and Brigham Hospital in Boston shows that by the most sensitive PCR and culture procedures, no virus can be detected in 90% of the semen samples taken from men with AIDS. This is not surprising. In the HIV-immune individual, HIV is present only in a tiny minority of white blood cells, and these cells are screened out of the seminal plasma, just as they are from breast milk and saliva.

RETHINKING: so safe sex is ridiculous?

THOMAS: There is no safe sex. Including gunshot wounds, marital discord, litigation and economic cost, sex is one of the more dangerous activities. But that is not what you meant. It is well-established that sex-particularly receptive anal sex- can transmit a number of venereal diseases which may contribute to the "infectional overload" mentioned above and immune depression, but it is an extremely inefficient way to transmit HIV. Sex is no more dangerous today than 20 years ago - or 1,000 years ago.*