Peter Duesberg: Aggressively questions the orthodox linkage between HIV and AIDS

By Ivor Powell

The Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg) 3 April 2000

The man at the centre of the HIV/AIDS controversy in South Africa, Peter Duesberg, aggressively questions the link between HIV and AIDS.

QUESTION: If you were told tomorrow that you were HIV-positive, what would you do?

Answer: I wouldn't get worried about this, not the least bit.

The speaker here is German-American scientist Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and doyen of the AIDS dissidents.

He is also a man at the centre of a controversy in South Africa after it was reported that President Thabo Mbeki reportedly wants to approach him to serve on a scientific panel to review existing research on HIV and AIDS.

Recipient of the 1971 California Scientist of the Year Award, as well as the United States National Health Institute's Outstanding Investigator Award in 1986, and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Duesberg might have appeared the ideal candidate. After groundbreaking work on influenza and isolating, for the first time, the cancer gene, he was even rumoured to be in line for a Nobel Prize.

That was before the self-styled Galileo of the modern age chose to go off on a scientific tangent, aggressively questioning the orthodox linkage between HIV and AIDS. After that time, his federal funding was cut off, his post-graduate students drifted off, the invitations for foreign fellowships dried up, to the extent that his own Internet curriculum vitae lists no honours after 1992.

But, unrepentant, Duesberg claims he would go even further than just measured unconcern if diagnosed with HIV. He claims he is willing to inject himself with the virus in order to prove his heretical hypothesis that it does not cause AIDS.

There are usually restrained scientists who have, somewhat ghoulishly, gone on record to say they wish he would -- "if I could get a grant for it. I will write down the way I am going to do it, I want it to be reviewed and then the bet is on. If I am wrong, and I am dead five years later or have AIDS, then I have done my contribution to science," says Duesberg.

But of course he holds he will not be wrong, believing as he does that the orthodox connection between HIV and AIDS is nothing but a gross, overblown and dangerously unrigorous myth.

To Duesberg's mind:

  1. HIV is not the cause of AIDS, but a harmless retrovirus;
  2. HIV and AIDS are not infectious;
  3. AIDS cannot be thought of as a single disease and different causes need to be isolated in relations to different affected groups;
  4. in the developed world at least, long-term drug use and drugs used in the treatment of HIV are the primary causes of AIDS; and
  5. existing theories on HIV and AIDS are based on unproven circumstantial evidence, and cynically sustained by a conspiracy between the medical establishment and drug companies with a vested interest in the hypothesis.

That was the theory in its original form, as adumbrated in the late 1980s. Subsequently, however, Duesberg has been forced to revise it -- especially in view of AIDS statistics in Africa, where the recreational use of hard drugs (in interviews Duesberg specifically excludes marijuana) would hardly provide a plausible explanation.

"African AIDS and American and European AIDS," he asserts, "are totally different things. They have the same name but that is all they have in common."

As opposed to the form of AIDS prevalent in the developed world, Duesberg blames the African epidemic on "malnutrition, parasitic infection and poor sanitation".

For other risk groups, like haemophiliacs -- who equally fail to fit his First World AIDS profile -- Duesberg has, similarly, to postulate other causes again in a seemingly descending spiral of justification.

Despite his fine rhetoric, however, it is still possible to question Duesberg's real commitment. In recent years, largely as a result of the conversion of millionaire San Francisco financier Bob Leppo to the dissident position and, latterly, the adoption of the cause by a right-wing lobby in the United States Congress, money is not the problem it once was. If Duesberg were serious about the challenge, it is at least arguable that the requisite funding could be found.

Instead, the Duesberg position on HIV/AIDS has tended to play more as a propaganda war than as any positive or scientifically based contribution to scientific knowledge. In July last year it culminated in a blitz on the US Congress, where a white bag emblazoned with a red cross was distributed to every member of Congress. Inside was Duesberg's book, Inventing the AIDS Virus, with an excerpt from fellow sceptic and Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis's Dancing Naked in the Mind Field along with assorted other documents calling for a reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS hypothesis and an audit of government research spending.

Dramatic as it might have been -- one imagines the late German conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys might have eaten his heart out -- the gesture does not appear to have had much effect. Duesberg's support group in the US, the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, numbers only around 600 members, a little more than half of them practicing scientists. Not a single statutory scientific research body in the world -- though several, including South Africa's own, have considered the dissident theory -- has given it any credence whatsoever.

And at least until President Thabo Mbeki announced his intention to revisit AIDS research, support for the Duesberg position was limited among politicians to the right wing, apparently seduced by Duesberg's essentially moralistic counter-hypothesis.