By Mark Klusener

CNSNews 24 Jan. 2002

Johannesburg -- Two researchers, an American and a South African, have agreed to take each other on in a death-defying challenge, with one being injected with the HIV virus and the other starting a lifelong course of anti-AIDS drugs to see who survives the longest.

Dr. David Rasnick of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley has accepted a challenge by a South African professor to inject himself with the HIV virus to prove it is harmless.

Rasnick holds the controversial view that HIV infection does not lead to AIDS. His research also concludes that AIDS is neither sexually transmitted nor contagious, and that anti-HIV drugs do far more harm than good. Rasnick's stance has made waves in South Africa, which has been particularly hard-hit by AIDS. He is a member of President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS Advisory Panel, formed in 2000 in an attempt to bring together scientists holding the traditional view that HIV causes AIDS, and the small handful of "dissidents" like Rasnick who disagree.

Neither side has been able to convince the other and this has resulted in rather ambiguous statements coming from the president's office in a country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world. Phillip Machanick, a computer science professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, came up with the idea of the challenge.

The two academics started their debate in the pages of a Johannesburg newspaper. Machanick finally threw down the gauntlet and challenged Rasnick to inject himself with the HIV virus if he was so sure of his position.

Machanick, meanwhile, will begin a lifetime course of a three-drug anti HIV treatment known as HAART. "My main motivation here was to challenge one of the AIDS deniers and get them to put their money where their mouth is," he said. "The specific challenge has been in the form which David Rasnick wants it, because I issued the challenge in a very general way. So I said, let's go with that. I'm not going to argue over the details," Machanick said. But it's in the details that there may be a loophole. Rasnick has specified that he wants to be treated with purified, infectious HIV, and Machanick has questioned why Rasnick is being so specific.

Some virologists are of the view that a purified form of HIV would be difficult to produce, the key issue being that a virus normally exists in some sort of medium which would automatically mean it was not pure. The medical fraternity has also raised questions about the ethics. Professor Udo Schuklenk, head of the bioethics division at the University of Witwatersrand, said the challenge was "irresponsible" and was merely giving "credibility to crackpots." Schuklenk believes the anti-retroviral therapy Machanick is to take is the lesser of the two evils, but others disagree. "It will defiantly raise some ethical questions and one is:

Would a doctor agree to help either of these gentlemen?" said Dr. Steven Toovey, a medical consultant. "In the case of the gentleman taking the anti-retroviral, these drugs do have side effects and I wonder if a doctor would prescribe them to a patient who he knows doesn't need them."

On the other hand, he said, one could raise the argument that these are two intelligent people, giving informed consent for the actions they are to take and that "the experiment is for the good of greater society." Rasnick said he doesn't see what the fuss is about. "As far as I know there is no law against person becoming infected with HIV. There is no law against a person taking the anti-HIV drugs. So what are the legal grounds for [the objections]?" he asked.