A Response to Claims by AIDS Dissidents That HIV Doesn't Exist

By Edward King

UK National AIDS Manual Treatment Update

In late 1995 an advertisement appeared in The Pink Paper offering a £ 1000 reward to "the first person finding one scientific paper establishing actual isolation of HIV". The advert was placed by the group Continuum, who do not accept that HIV is the cause of AIDS. In effect, they were arguing that not only does HIV not cause AIDS, but it does not exist at all.

Even the leading 'AIDS dissident' Professor Peter Duesberg has never doubted HIV's existence, although he doesn't believe it is harmful. Continuum's challenge is based on the view that the particles that are usually identified as HIV are actually harmless natural particles commonly found in healthy body tissues. Continuum told AIDS Treatment Update that they wanted to see evidence of the isolation of HIV using a method "thoroughly discussed at the Pasteur Institute in 1973", and laid down seven steps. AIDS Treatment Update in turn put this challenge to Professor Robin Weiss, director of research at the Institute of Cancer Research and an international authority on retroviruses.


The first problem in answering the challenge is that, contrary to the assertion of AIDS dissidents, there is no standard 'set of rules' for isolating retroviruses.

Professor Weiss said that while some of Continuum's proposed seven steps (involving the propagation, purification and characterisation of the virus from a tissue sample) can easily be demonstrated for HIV, he did not accept that taken together the steps were appropriate requirements for proving isolation.

Contrary to the implication by Continuum, the Pasteur Institute did not draw up such guidelines in 1973. When we asked Continuum to provide the reference for a published account of the Pasteur Institute's guidelines, they could only supply two papers which did describe research into retroviruses, but did not themselves meet the seven steps Continuum was now requesting for HIV.

Ironically, the authors of the papers cited by Continuum were also the first to describe the isolation of HIV in 1983.

Professor Weiss singled out some of the unreasonable aspects of Continuum's challenge. First, they wanted a single paper containing all seven steps. Professor Weiss points out that some of the individual steps, such as analysis of the viral particles' proteins and RNA to prove that they are unique, are major tasks requiring a research paper to themselves. "But if one put together three or four papers, all the data are there and have been published for years".

Secondly, they wanted proof that infectious HIV particles can be purified from a laboratory tissue culture using a technique called 'density gradient ultracentrifugation', in which the specimen is spun vigorously. Professor Weiss noted that "purification by this method is no problem, but HIV, unlike the chicken retroviruses Peter Duesberg has studied, loses most of its infectivity during this laboratory process".

Another step required proof that the particles said to be HIV cannot be found in the tissues of HIV-negative people who have other illnesses or live 'unhealthy lifestyles' such as injecting drug use, since this might suggest that the particles may be part of the body's natural response to stress or ill-health, rather than viral particles. Professor Weiss, who has studied such naturally existing viruses, points out that HIV particles look different. The relationship between infection with HIV (indicated by the antibodies produced by the body in response) and risk of developing AIDS is clear; among groups of drug users, haemophiliacs or gay men, it is only those that are HIV-positive who are at risk of developing AIDS.

Unattainable purity

Two of Continuum's steps required absolutely pure isolates of HIV. First, Continuum requested electron microscope pictures of viral particles that exhibit HIV's shape, size and structure "and contain nothing else, not even particles of other morphologies or dimensions". Professor Weiss pointed out that many pictures of HIV have been published. However, unlike bacteria that can reproduce themselves on a sterile dish, all viruses are parasites that have to be grown inside living cells, and it is next to impossible to remove all other debris from the culture. Other scientists have highlighted the irrelevance of this insistence on purity if the HIV particles themselves are clearly present; for example, it's like saying that it is impossible to identify a German Shepherd dog by its unique appearance, if it happens to be surrounded by a pack of poodles.

Another step wanted proof that pure particles could reproduce themselves in a laboratory culture or animal. Again, the insistence that the experiment must start with pure particles makes this unattainable. However, Professor Weiss notes that he and other researchers routinely grow HIV isolates in cultures of previously uninfected human white blood cells.

HIV's genetic material, on the other hand, can be purified. Gene cloning techniques allow researchers to extract the viral genes found in HIV-infected cells. When the complete set of genes is re-introduced into healthy human cells in culture, the cells produce HIV particles.

It would clearly be unethical to inject these particles into humans to see if they caused AIDS. However, experiments with purified SIV, the monkey equivalent of HIV, have proved that the pure retrovirus causes the selective loss of CD4 cells resulting in an AIDS-like disease. Moreover, three American laboratory workers have been infected with purified HIV in laboratory accidents. By 1993, all three had developed low CD4 counts and one had been diagnosed with PCP, proving the link between HIV,immune suppression and AIDS.


Does the failure to meet the seven steps mean that Continuum is right and HIV cannot be isolated? "Far from it", says Professor Weiss. "Today's molecular techniques for detecting and characterising viruses make the state-of-the-art in 1973 look like an ox-cart compared to a motor car as a means of transport. Continuum's challenge is simply not relevant to the issues facing people at risk of AIDS."

In conclusion, Continuum's £ 1000 is unlikely to be claimed because their challenge is inherently unreasonable and unwinnable for any retrovirus. If they have money to burn when so many AIDS clinics and services are strapped for cash, perhaps the honourable move would be to donate the sum to a good cause such as the CRUSAID Hardship Fund or The Food Chain, where it would benefit people for whom the existence of the virus is an undeniable reality. *

AIDS Treatment Update is published monthly by NAM Publications, 16a Clapham Common Southside, London SW4 7AB.Tel: 0171-627 3200. Fax: 0171-627 3101. E-mail:

For a reply by the researchers from Perth go here