Group touts unorthodox AIDS theory on Hill

By Mary Lynn Jones

The Hill 28 July 1999

A group decidedly out of the mainstream of scientific thinking about the cause of AIDS is taking its case to Capitol Hill this week, hoping to convince lawmakers to take up its cause.

Two officials of the International Coalition for Medical Justice were scheduled to meet with several members and staffers Tuesday and today. Exactly which lawmakers was unclear: Several offices, including that of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), denied the claims of the group that they had scheduled meetings.

The 9-month-old medical ethics legal defense and education organization is asking members to demand a General Accounting Office (GAO) audit of the AIDS industry. The group wants to determine where National Institutes of Health and Center for Disease Control funds were allocated, and whether some funding should be reallocated to look into whether other factors could contribute to AIDS.

Additionally, the coalition is questioning whether proper scientific standards were followed in isolating HIV as the cause of AIDS. The group is also interested in a conference to bring together scientists to discuss how to treat people with AIDS.

Deane Collie, the coalition's executive director, said her group is not ruling out the view that HIV could be the cause of AIDS. But the group does promote the work of Peter Duesberg, a controversial molecular biology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote "Inventing the AIDS Virus." In it, he argues that AIDS is caused by other factors such as drugs, including ones used to treat AIDS.

Robert Leppo, a venture capitalist who is one of the coalition's major donors, met Tuesday with Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and was scheduled to talk Tuesday afternoon with Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.). Among other meetings, Leppo is also slated to speak with aides to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) and Ann-Marie Lynch, staff director for the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. Collie is expected to sit in on some of the meetings.

Congressional offices said it is their general policy to meet with groups that request interviews and to consider various points of view on issues.

But the fact that members and staffers are meeting with representatives from a group that promotes such an unorthodox view has enraged more mainstream thinkers.

Daniel Zingale, executive director of AIDS Action, said the view that HIV does not cause AIDS is like saying that clouds don't cause rain. While he said there are many mysteries surrounding AIDS, and a wide range of opinions about where to go next in treating the disease, the notion that HIV does not cause AIDS is not one of them.

Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and chairman of the AIDS Vaccine Research Committee at the National Institutes of Health, asserted that "there is no other known or suspected cause of AIDS or AIDS-like syndrome." He said a GAO audit questioning the link would be a "total waste of money."

The coalition also put in a request to meet with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), but that request was still pending as of press time Tuesday.

Collie said she got a "great reaction" when she called offices asking them to meet with Leppo. She attributed that to the recent attention on health care issues, because of debate on the Patients' Bill of Rights, and frustration over the lack of a vaccine or cure for AIDS.

"It's time to start asking the hard questions," Collie said.

But Baltimore dismissed the idea that other factors besides HIV could be involved. "It's not that the question hasn't been thought about," he said. "I thought there was no opposition left. The evidence is so clear."