THE AZT DEBATE
Peter Duesberg interview
By Carte Blanche
7 Nov. 1999
Last Thursday President Mbeki sparked off a furious debate with an address
to the National Council of Provinces. He referred to the scourge that is
HIV/Aids and stated that "there is a large body of scientific literature
alleging that this drug is in fact a danger to health." He gave the
minister of Health, Dr Shabalala-Msimang a directive to further
investigate these claims in order that South Africa's medical institutions
can act with complete knowledge.
AIDS/HIV are such frightening diseases that anything connected to a
possible remedy is sure to elicit highly emotive reactions. Here are some
David Patient, one of the worlds longest surviving AIDS sufferers, "I was
on the original trial of AZT in 1986 - I was on the drug for three months
at Duke University then I transferred down to Miami where I did a further
Charlene Smith, a rape survivor, has had first hand experience with AZT. "I
was desperate, I had been raped. I didn't know if the person has HIV or
AIDS. I was desperate to get the drugs."
"Not one of the people from that trial are still alive - I'm the only
survivor," says David.
"All I wanted to do after being attacked with a knife and raped was to
live. I felt that the antiretrovirals, AZT, 3TC and Quiksovan helped save
my life," says Charlene.
"Today you take four pills per day. I was given twelve a day on those
trials. I had physical manifestations in my body. I had fatigue in my legs,
I had something called Mastitis. I lost an incredible amount of weight, I
had thrush, shingles - there were a whole lot of manifestations," says
"I read through all the side effects, it's a long list and I was concerned
that I'd be very ill - but surprisingly the after effects and side effects
have been minimal," says Charlene.
Dr David Johnson of the Chris Hani/Baragwanath perinatal HIV unit; "When
used for mother to child transmission AZT is an absolute lifesaver. It has
the potential to save millions of babies. Do we know the long-term effects
of the drugs? No, and it is a concern."
"Glaxo Wellcome is absolutely serious about the safety of its drugs - it is
absolutely paramount to the company," says Dr Peter Moore, medical director
of Glaxo Wellcome S.A.
"I believe, from my own experience, that stopping AZT saved my life," says
"I would like full antiretrovirals [such as AZT] to be made available to
us. I'd like to know where President Mbeki got the information in his
speech," says Charlene Smith. "Last year government spent R54 million
treating prisoners who had AIDS related illnesses in private hospitals. And
yet they are denying women and children who are often gang raped - a brutal
violation to any woman. And these women are denied the opportunity to save
their lives with this drug. How dare Mbeki?"
"I have to state emphatically that AZT is not registered and we do not
recommend it for use after rape," says Dr Peter Moore.
"I support President Mbeki's call to do further research. I think we
misconstrued what he said - he didn't say 'halt it'. He said let's study it
more and understand where we're coming from. I fully support his position,"
One of the major voices claiming that AZT is harmful is Professor Duesberg,
professor of Biology at the University of California at Berkley. "I see AZT
for what it is from a molecular biologists viewpoint. AZT was designed over
thirty years ago - not as an anti- AIDS drug or an anti-HIV drug. It was
designed as chemotherapy to treat cancer. It was designed to kill human
cells. I have studied viruses and chemicals and their effects on animal and
human cells and I have found that AZT is killing cells exactly as it was
designed to do. And retroviruses like HIV have never in recorded history
(the last 100 years of it) caused a fatality in animals outside the
laboratory. AZT cannot help you for two reasons. HIV infects only one out a
thousand cells. But AZT cannot distinguish - it will keep on killing your
cells and we have no evidence to this day that HIV is causing AIDS. We do
however have plenty of evidence from the AIDS establishments that HIV is
not making it's own DNA once you are antibody positive."
AZT was the first drug to be approved in the fight against AIDS in 1987.
Amidst great public demand the drug was fast tracked through the US Food
and Drug Administration (FDA). This fast tracking concerned many scientists
who felt that the toxic effects of this drug had not been properly tested.
The manufacturers disagree, "I strongly feel that AZT had an extremely good
safety profile and is one of the reasons it is registered in more than 100
countries around the world. It's supported by the Center for Disease
Control (CDC) and is approved by the FDA," says Dr Peter Moore.
AZT was originally intended for cancer therapy - it's a powerful
non-specific drug - a form of chemotherapy, which destroys healthy and
infected cells alike. South African AIDS pioneer Dr Rubin Sher recalls the
early days of AIDS, AZT and grappling with side effects. "There is no drug
in the world that doesn't have side effects - with AZT it's mostly bone
marrow depression. In the early days we used much larger doses but, because
of the complications people were having they were reduced."
In 1994 the Concorde trial - the most comprehensive AZT trial yet
undertaken - damned the drug. It concluded that the drug was too toxic for
most people did not prolong life nor did it stave off AIDS in HIV positive
people. Nevertheless AZT continued to flourish worldwide albeit in a more
user-friendly packaging. "The Concorde study is a classic study but we must
realize that they used AZT as a monotherapy, meaning it was used on it's
own. The days of using AZT as a monotherapy are gone," says Dr Moore.
Today AZT also known as Retrovir, is often prescribed as part of a
cocktail, the doses are smaller and not taken for long. It's claimed to be
highly effective in preventing HIV transmission during pregnancy and
needlestick injuries - The controversy continues.
Dr Duesberg, you indicated that there were no studies showing that AZT had
any effect. But the Center for Disease Control have found that there is a
60% drop in mortality when people who were HIV positive do use the cocktail
- how do you respond? "I would like to say that there have been plenty of
studies showing effects. But not once has AZT cured anyone in ten years. No
one has ever been cured by the AIDS establishments and it's not likely
anyone will while on these treatments. In reality the Concorde study showed
that the mortality of people treated with AZT is 25% higher. It has shown
that AZT kills people and it's the largest controlled study of its kind."
Earlier this year Carte-Blanche ran a story on the tireless efforts of the
perinatal/HIV clinic at the Chris Hani/Baragwanath Hospital. Under the
leadership of Dr Glenda Grey, they claim to have drastically lowered the
rate of HIV transmission from mother to baby. Dr David Johnston claims AZT
to be one of his primary allies in the fight against AIDS. The group
conducted their own trials, tracking the children's progress over a few
years. They say they have encountered very little side effects and
maintained health in all the children. Their results differed greatly from
the Concorde trial. "The Concorde study addressed the question - 'does AZT
prolong life?' And it found that it didn't. But you need to understand that
the field of HIV has evolved very rapidly in the last ten years. What we
thought was good therapy at the time of the Concorde study we don't
anymore. You speak to HIV positive people who have been given that chance
of going on the drug - they consider it a lifesaver," says Dr Johnson. He
continues to petition vigorously for more affordable AIDS drugs.
Dr Duesberg, do you think it can cut transmission from mothers to babies?
"The evidence is that it reduced from 25% to 17% which is a hypothetical
gain because we don't know what HIV does. We have 25 to 30 million Africans
with HIV. Almost all of them are healthy. You need to ask the experts why
this is? And most of them don't even know they are HIV positive."
"The short or long term effects of the drug are; nausea, dizziness, weight
loss, fatigue, a lack of strength, liver dysfunction, kidney collapse,"
remembers David Patient.
"Nausea, dizziness, some palpitations - but nothing you are not able to
manage," says Charlene Smith.
"What I can tell you about AZT is that the symptoms it is supposed to
prevent are actually created," says David. "It basically annihilates
everything in sight so when we start taking AZT initially it will start to
destroy the virus but in the process it will destroy the immune system.
Your CD4 count may be going up but you're also a prime candidate for a
heart attack or a stroke. I personally don't believe AZT is effective at
Professor, our hospitals are filled with people that are dying and who are
not taking AZT - what is your solution if you don't prescribe AZT?
"I'd certainly not give them a drug that was designed to kill human cells
before I knew what was going on. I would first try to find out what the
people were dying from. According to the American CDC - thirty diseases,
most of them have nothing to do with each other, are all called AIDS. In
America dementia, TB, diahorrea, pneumonia, weight loss, yeast infection -
are all called AIDS. All of this is supposedly transmitted from partner to
But chemotherapy, which also kills cells and has side effects, is used and
recommended. Why is it that nobody is saying chemotherapy doesn't work or
that nobody should have it? "There is a tremendous difference - in
chemotherapy you have a legitimate target. You have a tumour that you want
to prevent from killing you. This is why you restrict the therapy to a few
weeks or months in the hope that the cancer dies before the patient dies.
But with HIV we have no known target, HIV does not make any DNA - it is not
replicating at the time and we are prescribing AZT for the rest of our
lives. And they have all died from taking it - nobody has ever been cured,"
says Dr Duesberg.