THE SELF-STYLED GALILEO OF THE MODERN AGE
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
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:
- HIV is not the cause of AIDS, but a harmless retrovirus;
- HIV and AIDS are not infectious;
- AIDS cannot be thought of as a single disease and different causes
need to be isolated in relations to different affected groups;
- 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
- 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
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
As opposed to the form of AIDS prevalent in the developed world, Duesberg
blames the African epidemic on "malnutrition, parasitic infection and poor
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