COULD DUESBERG BE RIGHT?
By Tom Bethell
National Review 17 Aug. 1992
On July 20, the New York Times reported from Amsterdam that AIDS is
"generally thought to be caused" by HIV, the human immunodeficiency
virus. Earlier, the virus had been identified as the undoubted cause. But
reports, circulating at the Amsterdam conference, of AIDS-like diseases
with no trace of HIV triggered a moment of short-lived doubt. The next
reaction was to assume a new, hitherto undetected virus was the culprit.
Like Ptolemaic epicycles, hypothetical viruses began to multiply.
Another possibility is that HIV doesn't have anything to do with AIDS.
This is what Peter Duesberg of UC Berkeley has been saying for five years:
that HIV doesn't attack the immune system, doesn't cause AIDS, and is in
fact harmless. A professor of molecular biology, Duesberg is one of the
world's leading experts on retroviruses. I called him at his Berkeley lab
and asked what he thought of the news from Amsterdam, and the possibility
that we may now have one more lethal virus to worry about.
"How many different viruses are we going to have that all evolved
in the last ten years and all cause the same disease?" Duesberg asked.
"Viruses have been around for billions of years and now they're coming
out for the latest AIDS conference."
Duesberg is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was the
first to map the genetic structure of retroviruses. He is not popular with
the National Institutes of Health, the government agency that has been
funding and policing AIDS research for the last decade. For years he was
supported by an NIH "outstanding investigator" grant, but after
he attacked the HIV theory of AIDS, his grant was cut off.
Down the hall from Duesberg at Berkeley's Stanley Hall is the lab of
Professor Harry Rubin, another skeptic. He also believes that HIV has not
been shown to be the cause of AIDS. I spoke to Bryan Ellison, a doctoral
candidate with Rubin. Retroviruses have never been observed to kill cells,
he told me. If you microscopically examine healthy cells in a dish, and
a virus such as polio is added to them, the virus multiplies inside the
cells and bursts them open in a matter of hours. Soon you can see nothing
but "debris and garbage and dead cells," he said. But if you
put HIV, or any other retrovirus, into the same dish with healthy cells-an
environment where the body's immune system cannot interfere-the cells just
sit there and continue healthy growth.
Knowing this, Duesberg and Rubin were suspicious when HHS Secretary
Margaret Heckler announced in 1984 that a retrovirus, HIV, was the cause
of AIDS. What was the evidence for this? Correlation. Where there was AIDS,
there was HIV. "There is no AIDS without HIV," James Curran,
AIDS chief of the Centers for Disease Control, has said.
Duesberg responds: AIDS is defined as any of 25 existing diseases in
the presence of HIV. Therefore the correlation between HIV and AIDS is
100 per cent by definition. At an "alternative" AIDS conference
in May, Duesberg illustrated the point this way: TB+HIV=AIDS. But TB -
HIV=TB. "It was a great triumph" for the AIDS establishment to
take these different diseases "and put them all in the same uniform
labeled AIDS," Duesberg said.
Until the latest flurry of reports from Amsterdam, patients with AIDS-indicator
diseases but without HIV were not counted as AIDS cases. For reasons that
are not clear, a decision has now been made to play up the "discovery"
of such cases. There may have been thousands of them already. Robert Root
Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State University, says
that such cases were reported in the medical literature in the mid 1980s.
And according to Duesberg, in about half the AIDS cases enumerated so far,
patients were never actually tested for HIV. They were presumed to be positive
but may not have been.
I phoned the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and asked what they
thought of Duesberg's ideas.
"Up to now we have said-and we still say-that HIV causes a majority
of AIDS cases," said Chuck Fallis, a press officer. "The jury
is still out on the new virus-whether it actually causes the other AIDS
"Nothing specifically on Duesberg?" "No."
What was once "all" has now become "a majority."
"You don't ever have polio without polio virus," Duesberg
says. "A hundred cases can support a theory, but it only takes one
to destroy it."
Something has been attacking the immune system, he agrees. The T-cells
of AIDS patients do dwindle away, and there has been an increase in such
opportunistic diseases as pneumocystis in the past decade. But HIV has
never been shown physically to attack T-cells. The virus in fact is very
difficult to find, even in patients dying of AIDS. Usually only antibodies
can be detected-which is why an antibody test is used for HIV. Indications
are that HIV is swiftly neutralized by the body's defenses. Yet it is said
to kill after a ten-year (average) latency period. This has been lengthened
to account for the failure of AIDS cases to keep pace with projections.
Another oddity: researchers still have no "animal model" for
AIDS. Over one hundred chimps have been infected with HIV since 1985 --
and the virus does "take," or replicate within them-but none
has yet come down with AIDS.
Routine testing of army recruits shows the HIV-positive percentage of
the population has remained constant since 1985, and AIDS remains largely
confined to risk groups-homosexuals and drug-users. Neither finding is
consistent with a new virus spreading in the population.
Duesberg goes further and claims that drugs are the real cause of AIDS.
If he's right, the emaciated patient in the AIDS ward corresponds to the
emaciated junkie in the opium den. One-third of AIDS patients are admittedly
intravenous drug users-covering about 75 per cent of heterosexual AIDS
cases. The real figure is probably higher: drug use is illegal, and no
doubt underreported. Duesberg adds that homosexuals from the "bathhouse
culture" are (or were) heavy drug users (including non-injection drugs
such as "poppers"). In the course of their encounters they tend
to pick up whatever is going around, including HIV and other germs. But
he says that HIV itself is a harmless "hitchhiker"-a marker for
risk behavior, as the scientists say.
It's the same with needle-sharers. They pick up HIV, but, says Duesberg,
it's the drugs that are killing them, not the bugs. This would explain
why over 80 per cent of AIDS patients are male (males consume over 80 per
cent of psychoactive drugs); and why the sexually active general population
that is not addicted to drugs does not get AIDS (at a time when venereal
disease is spreading). On Duesberg's theory, needle-exchange programs are
worse than useless. Many homosexuals, incidentally, are enamored of the
viral theory of AIDS. ACT-UP member Robert Rafsky, who "confronted"
Bill Clinton in the New York primary, thinks that HIV "cloaks AIDS
activists in nobility." Duesberg's position is politically unpopular.
As he says, if drugs cause AIDS "you are responsible for your health."
Duesberg also makes the following claims: there are no cases in the
medical literature of health-care workers contracting AIDS through accidental
needle-stick. In a footnote to its latest AIDS report, the CDC says there
have been four such cases, but they have not been identified or described.
There are a few disputed cases in the courts "and they want their
money," Duesberg says. By contrast, about 15,000 cases of needle-stick
hepatitis infection are reported every year.
About 75 per cent of the 20,000 U.S. hemophiliacs are HIV-positive,
but there has still not been a properly controlled study of them. Do those
with HIV come down with more AIDS diseases, or die sooner, than those without?
It has been found that hemophiliacs in general are living longer than ever,
even though three-fourths are now infected with the "deadly virus"
and virtually all of these have been infected for eight years or more.
Since the relevant data are already in place and await only statisticians,
perhaps NIH could spend some of its research billions on a hemophiliac
"There is not a single controlled epidemiological study to confirm
the postulated viral etiology of AIDS," Duesberg wrote in 1990. True?
San Francisco's Project Inform recently put out a discussion paper, very
critical of Duesberg, referring to "studies" comparing HIV-infected
homosexuals with uninfected controls with "similar patterns of drug
use and frequency of sexual contacts." None of the latter came down
with AIDS, apparently. These studies were not identified or footnoted,
so I phoned Martin Delaney, the executive director of Project Inform, and
asked for the reference.
His "source," it turned out, was a person, not a paper. He
gave me the name of a doctor who is identified in Randy Shilts's book,
And the Band Played On, as having helped persuade CDC a decade ago that
AIDS was caused by a virus. I phoned him but so far haven't heard back.
Delaney seemed dismayed that journalists were interested in Duesberg.
I mentioned the series of articles that came out recently in the (London)
Sunday Times about Duesberg and his critics. "When the Sunday Times
publicizes what Duesberg says," Delaney replied, paradoxically, "it
has an obligation to ask, 'What is your source for this?' They don't apply
I spoke to Neville Hodgkinson, the Sunday Times's science correspondent
and author of the series. He said he had never checked anything so carefully
before publication. He was concerned that there might be a study he didn't
know about. "What was the response?" I asked.
"Anger and indignation, but no factual rebuttal," he said.
"I've never seen anything like it." He was solemnly told that
there is a "consensus" that HIV causes AIDS, and it shouldn't
"HIV Causes AIDS: A Controlled Study," was the unsubtle title
of a paper released at the Amsterdam conference. Here was the "long-awaited
rebuttal to controversial UC Berkeley Professor Peter H. Duesberg,"
wrote the San Francisco Examiner. Like the New York Times, however, it
has ignored the controversial professor. The study was of homosexuals in
Vancouver, some of whom were HIV positive, some not. "Every case of
AIDS occurred in people infected with HIV," according to Martin Schecter,
the principal investigator. But according to Duesberg, the two cohorts
"were not controlled for extent and duration of drug use." The
"positives" had been doing drugs for years, apparently; the negatives
either not at all or for a much shorter period.
Maybe, then, we don't have a study refuting Duesberg yet. If we don'
t have one soon, we may have a major scientific scandal on our hands.*
Mr. Bethell is Washington editor of The American Spectator
and a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution.