VIRUSMYTH HOMEPAGE


CBS "60 MINUTES" ON AIDS

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

Zengerís 24 January 2001


On January 21, 2001 the CBS news program 60 Minutes broadcast a segment on AIDS whose theme was essentially one of stark terror. We were supposed to become excited at the prospect that the highly-touted combination "cocktail" therapies for AIDS no longer worked for many patients, either because HIV had supposedly evolved "resistance" to the medications or because the unwanted "side" effects were either life-threatening in themselves or so horrendous patients could no longer stand them. We were also supposed to become frightened at alleged dramatic increases in the rates of new HIV infections in San Francisco, where most of the segment was filmed, and we were supposed to be shocked at the so-called "AIDS denialists," clinging to the "discredited" idea that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS and using that as an excuse to "confuse" people about the AIDS message and encourage them to have unprotected sex. And in reporter Lesley Stahlís in-studio tag, we were told that even if weíre heterosexual and live far from San Francisco, we shouldnít feel safe from AIDS because "San Francisco has been the canary in the coal mine throughout the AIDS epidemic: that itís the first to see the rise in new infections, but it isnít going to be the last." (Just how the actions of San Franciscoís Gay men are going to bring increased HIV infection rates to the straight heartland was never mentioned, but in this AIDS "reporting" genre it doesnít have to be.)

In other words, it was about par for the course for the mainstream media when they choose to address our issues at all. It wasnít that different from the hatchet job Newsweek did August 21, 2000 on Christine Maggiore, founder and director of the Alive & Well group in Los Angeles, though at least Maggiore got more space in that article than the leaders of ACT UP San Francisco, Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli, did in the 60 Minutes piece to explain the alternative point of view about AIDS. It emphasized once again the extent to which "HIV/AIDS" has become a secular religion in the United States, beyond public controversy or challenge. For the benefit of anyone who may choose to respond to the 60 Minutes piece, I offer a link to a complete transcript, prefaced with my own analytical comments on the piece and its errors and omissions. 60 Minutes may be contacted by phone at (212) 975-3247, or by letter to 524 West 57th St., New York, NY, 10019. 60 Minutes does not have a direct e-mail address, but the general e-mail address for comments on CBS programs is audsvcs@cbs.com.

1) At the beginning of the piece Lesley Stahl says that in 1996 "everybody thought" that the protease inhibitor/nucleoside analogue "combinations" or "cocktails" would either cure AIDS or make it "a chronic, manageable illness." Later on in the piece, Dr. Michael Saag of the University of Alabama at Birmingham said the cocktails are showing "longer-term toxicities that we really didnít anticipate," and that they were so obsessed by what the combinations did to so-called "viral load" counts that the AIDS doctors didnít stop to think of the fact that they were essentially prescribing their patients open-ended chemotherapy and "it might have side effects."

Well, excu-u-u-u-u-se me! We so-called "AIDS denialists" have been warning about the potential toxicities of these drug regimens since they were first announced, with breathtaking hyperbole, at the 1996 international AIDS conference in Vancouver. At the conference itself, ACT UP San Francisco staged a demonstration that successfully disrupted a forum on the new medications. ACT UP San Franciscoís protesters "demanded an immediate end to the practice of treating AIDS patients with dangerous chemotherapeutic agents," according to the groupís press release issued immediately after the action. "The activists asserted that the therapies hyped during the week-long conference such as AZT, ddI, ddC and protease inhibitors impair the immune systemís natural ability to fight HIV and control the opportunistic infections that kill people with AIDS." The release also demanded that "AIDS researchers replace the current Ďkill the virus with toxic drugsí treatment paradigm with an immune-based therapeutic strategy that focuses on improving overall health and strengthening the cellular immune response that is deficient in AIDS."

ACT UP San Franciscoís activists werenít the only one warning of the potentially catastrophic side effects of "cocktail" combination therapy. The now-defunct New York Native published an article by veteran AIDS journalist John Lauritsen exposing the shaky research on which the claims for combination therapyís effectiveness were based, and Native editor-publisher Charles Ortleb accompanied Lauritsenís piece with a full listing of all the potential side effects mentioned in the label inserts for the first two protease inhibitors to win FDA approval. This author also published the side effects listed in the label inserts in his own publication, Zengerís Newsmagazine, and two months later did an interview with protease expert David Rasnick, Ph.D. in which Dr. Rasnick correctly predicted that among the most serious unwanted effects of the drugs would be damage to the gastrointestinal system. In this case, while the mainstream AIDS researchers were steadfastly insisting that these regimens would have no adverse effects at all, it was we so-called "denialists" who were giving accurate information about the toxicities of these drugs.

2) During the segment, Lesley Stahl refers to "the drugs that have saved Jeff Gettyís life." There is absolutely no valid scientific evidence that the cocktail therapies have saved anybodyís life. The advertisements for these drugs say as much; they typically contain statements like, "At present, there are no results from controlled trials evaluating the effect Ö on the clinical progression of HIV. Ö The long-term effects Ö are not known at this time either." (Abbott Laboratories, Kaletra ad, Frontiers newsmagazine, January 19, 2001, pp. 72-74.) The reports that "people on the verge of death got out of bed and went back to work" are only anecdotal evidence. Without valid, placebo-controlled clinical trials, there is no way of knowing whether these so-called "deathbed recoveries" had anything to do with drug therapies or were natural remissions ó or, even if they positive results are drug-associated, whether the drugs work by blocking HIV replication (as theyíre supposed to) or by killing the organisms that cause the opportunistic infections that actually sicken and kill people with AIDS.

Whatís more, without valid, placebo-controlled clinical trials thereís no way of knowing whether people who test "HIV-positive" live longer if they medicate or if they donít. These studies havenít been done on the basis that, since the drugs are presumed to be effective, it would supposedly be "unethical" to withhold them from a patient population in a classic double-blind study design. But members of organizations like ACT UP San Francisco, Alive & Well and H.E.A.L. [Health, Education, AIDS Liaison], who reject the HIV/AIDS model and have already decided not to use HIV medications under any circumstances, could be used as a control group for such studies. That would be the only way to answer the question patient Harry Wingfield raises in the piece ó whether heís going to die from HIV, from the direct toxicities of anti-HIV drugs or from a heart attack or stroke because the drugs have vastly elevated his blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The only placebo-controlled trials that have been done on AIDS medications since the 1990ís ó the Hamilton/VA AZT study in 1992, the Concorde trial in 1994 and a privately reported protease inhibitor trial announced at the 1997 Gordon conference (and reported on by Dr. David Rasnick in the June 1997 Zengerís) ó have shown that the drugs have absolutely no statistically significant effect on life expectancy or quality of health either way. Indeed, to the extent to which there were positive results, people in these studies who stayed off the drugs until they actually developed AIDS symptoms lived longer and healthier lives than those who took the drugs immediately after testing "HIV-positive." Thus the statement of Dr. Saagís that "we absolutely can prolong survival" simply is not supported by the available research evidence, and only research involving "HIV-positive" people who have never taken drug therapy at all can yield an answer to the question of whether the drugs prolong life, shorten it or do neither.

3) Lesley Stahl and Jeff Getty repeat the lie that the reason the drugs start "failing" after a time ("failing" being described as no longer raising T-cell counts or lowering so-called "viral load" counts, surrogate markers that have never been shown to have an actual correlation with lifespan or quality of health) is because HIV evolves resistance to them. HIV is one of the simplest viruses known to man. Most of its genome is taken up by the basic instructions it needs to tell itself how to enter a cell, infect it and use that cell to replicate itself. As Dr. Rasnick pointed out in the above-cited Zengerís interview, the alleged "mutant strains" of HIV were in fact dead ó they had altered so much in the process of evolving resistance to the drugs that they were no longer able to enter a cell, infect it and replicate. And a virus that canít do those things is a dead hunk of protein you donít need to worry about.

4) The claim that HIV infection rates are rising in San Francisco is based on highly dubious research by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Its sources are an alleged increase in gonorrhea infection rates (gonorrhea, a genuine sexually-transmitted disease, being used as a leading indicator for the supposedly sexually-transmitted HIV) and a new, so-called "denatured" HIV antibody test ó not licensed by the FDA for this purpose ó that purports to be able to tell when a person has been exposed to HIV. (Thatís all an antibody test can tell you, by the very definition of the term ó not whether a person has an active viral infection, but only whether a person has been exposed to a virus and developed an immune response.) When the Bay Area Reporter, a Gay-oriented publication, publicly questioned these statistics, the response of the San Francisco Department of Public Health was to stop releasing gonorrhea infection statistics altogether and demand that all future inquiries from the Reporter be in writing. The claim that San Francisco is experiencing an explosive increase in HIV infection rates must therefore be regarded as dubious and unproven at best.

5) Typically, the only representatives on the 60 Minutes segment who challenged the belief that HIV causes AIDS were ACT UP San Francisco members Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli. Lesley Stahl commented that "scientists call their claims Ďspeciousí and Ďa dangerous, deadly form of denial.í" Not the 1,100 scientists who have signed the petition of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis. Not the 11 members of South African President Thabo Mbekiís AIDS advisory panel. Not Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis, whose polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology is the basis of the so-called "viral load" tests (which Mullis believes are an invalid and fatally flawed view of his invention) and the claims by the National Institutes of Health that HIV has met the classic scientific criteria for proving that a microbe causes a disease (which it hasnít). In the early 1990ís a competing network, ABC, did two segments (on Day One, March 28, 1993; and Nightline, April 4, 1994) in which scientists on both sides of the HIV/AIDS debate were fairly represented and the segment reporters actually presented the issue objectively instead of acting shocked that anyone would believe the supposedly "discredited" (actually never scientifically tested) theory that AIDS is a chronic, multifactorial breakdown of the immune system over time from various toxic, infectious and psychological factors rather than a single illness from a single virus.

Stahl accuses us of regarding the maintenance of the HIV/AIDS model as a "conspiracy." I would merely describe it as a public-private partnership devoted to maintaining a very lucrative industry merchandising anti-HIV medications ó the normal actions of a capitalist enterprise trying to keep itself in business. In order to keep HIV at the center of the AIDS universe, mainstream scientists have had to invent ever-more bizarre theories of HIVís "viral dynamics" to avoid confronting the reality that HIV simply does not behave in the ways genuine disease-causing viruses behave. These models have long reminded me of the extent to which medieval astronomers made their models of planetary motion more and more complex to keep the earth at the center of the universe ó and it was exactly this mind-numbing complexity that led Copernicus to consider the possibility that maybe the earth wasnít the center of the universe after all. If Jeff Getty is getting more and more people coming up to him after meetings insisting that HIV and AIDS do not exist, itís because more and more people are seeing for themselves that the "scientific" claims and justifications for the HIV/AIDS model simply do not make sense.

6) Regarding the term "AIDS denialists": This is just another example of the HIV/AIDS propaganda machine using language in an Orwellian fashion, both to shut out debate on the question and to vilify their opponents. Until last year, both scientists and lay activists who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS were generally referred to either as "reppraisers" or "AIDS dissidents." Once Mbekiís highly publicized effort to re-evaluate the evidence for and against the HIV/AIDS model by recruiting scientists and experts on both sides made it no longer possible for the HIV/AIDS mainstream to ignore us, the mainstream coined the term "denialists" in early 2000 to give us as negative a public image as possible. After all, "dissidents" conjures up associations with the brave people in the former Soviet Union who resisted Communist tyranny, while "denialists" makes us sound like those nuts who believe the Nazi Holocaust didnít happen.

7) In what is supposed to be the emotional show-stopper, Jeff Getty challenges us, "If you think AIDS is all a lie and a myth and a conspiracy, come live in my body for a week, and put up with what I have to deal with to stay alive." No, thank you, Jeff. After youíve spent years pickling your body with various toxic drugs ó you couldnít tell Lesley Stahl how many because there are so many you canít even keep count of them all ó and after youíve had baboon marrow shoved into your bones in yet another pathetic high-tech attempt to treat whatís really a low-tech condition, I wouldnít want to live in your body because Iím all too aware of what youíve done to make it sick.

8) Perhaps the worst sin in this 60 Minutes piece is one of omission. Partly this is due to the fact that the piece was actually edited and assembled last November, scheduled to air December 3, then bumped at the last minute for an interview with former vice-president Al Gore regarding the Florida election controversy, and this development has occurred since. But surely Lesley Stahl should have mentioned in her postscript to the piece that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health have decisively rejected David Hoís "viral dynamics" model of HIV and the "hit hard, hit early" treatment strategy derived from it. Now doctors are being urged not to give people combination "cocktails" from the moment they test "HIV-positive," but instead to wait until patientsí T-cell counts drop below 350 per milliliter of blood and their "viral loads" (measured by the branch DNA system rather than by the more sensitive but less specific PCR) rise above 30,000.

Even within the context of the HIV/AIDS model and the belief that the drugs work at all, this is still a major favorable advance in patient care. It acknowledges that many people who tested HIV-positive but were otherwise totally healthy were being given these drugs too early and getting sicker than they otherwise would have due to the drugsí toxic effects. Surely any responsible reporter addressing this issue would want to publicize this important change right away so doctors who actually treat people with AIDS and HIV would get the word immediately and stop writing prescriptions that would cause their patients unnecessary illness. Instead, Stahl ignored it and used her postscript instead to spread yet another degree of AIDS terror without any facts presented in her piece to back it up.

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