By Marten du Plessis

Financial Mail (South Africa) 10 Nov. 1999

President Thabo Mbeki's common-sense stand on the issue of AZT may be the catalyst for a more open discussion of the HIV/AIDS issue.

Just as the tobacco companies maintained for so long that two packs a day constituted the breakfast of champions, so has Glaxo-Wellcome continued to insist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that AZT has beneficial uses.

AZT is a highly toxic chemotherapy that lays waste to the immune system and produces the symptoms of AIDS. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that treatment with AZT has been responsible for many of the deaths attributed to HIV and AIDS in the US. (A detailed account of the AZT controversy appears in the coming issue of noseweek.)

As this becomes more widely known, it may create a climate where people - particularly practising physicians - are ready to hear the reservations of those who doubt that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

In SA, few people realise there are serious arguments against this seemingly monolithic theory, or that the sceptics include hundreds of eminent scientists and activists - as well as two Nobel prize-winning biologists.

Those who have a justifiably high regard for the achievements of science and medical research might be surprised to find out just how unscientific some of the politics in HIV science has been.

In 1984, Dr Robert Gallo announced he had discovered antibodies to a supposed new virus in 36 of 72 patients at risk for AIDS, and that this virus was "the probable cause of AIDS".

Even though Gallo had not long previously made the exciting, if erroneous, discovery of a virus that supposedly caused leukaemia, he managed to side-step the scientific safeguards of peer review and prior publishing for his AIDS announcement.

Thousands of virologists who had spent the previous 20 years searching for what were thought to be the virological causes of cancer were rapidly running out of career options.

US medical bureaucrats were battling a rampant budget-cutting Reagan administration.

For both, the discovery of a new virus requiring research, management and federal funding - and holding out the promise of prestige and awards - was the equivalent of a gold strike that may have prompted a too hasty acceptance of Gallo's claims.

It later emerged that Gallo had not discovered a virus at all, but had simply "misappropriated" a sample of a supposed retrovirus sent to him in the interests of scientific co-operation by French researcher Dr Luc Montagnier.

Montagnier had claimed a year earlier to have identified a new retrovirus, but not that it was the cause of AIDS.

A bitter dispute arose between them that eventually had to be settled in negotiations between Presidents Reagan and Mitterrand.

Gallo and Montagnier agreed to share credit as co-discoverers of HIV, and also to share royalties from the HIV test patented by Gallo.

The controversy led to a congressional investigation which reported in 1990 that Gallo "had created and fostered conditions that gave rise to falsified/fabricated data and falsified reports".

So what's that got to do with today? Well, say the critics, Gallo's dodgy science remains the basis on which billions of dollars have been spent on HIV research.

In "discovering" HIV, Gallo identified, or misidentified, those proteins and nucleic acids supposedly unique to HIV, which are used as markers for HIV in the HIV test and research.

But, as Etienne de Harven, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Toronto, recently observed, "the specificity of viral markers depends on the success of viral isolation and purification, but the virus (HIV) has never been properly isolated".

Montagnier conceded in 1997 that the virus had not been purified, and HIV experts showed in electron photomicrographs published in 1997 that there is no such thing as purified HIV.

Other researchers have found that the supposedly unique protein markers of HIV are found in places where HIV is not diagnosed.

In 1998, HIV researchers in Tanzania were surprised to find that simply providing pregnant HIV-positive women with multivitamins resulted in healthier babies and a noticeable increase in post-natal immunities.

Sceptics accept that there is a high correlation between having AIDS and testing HIV-positive, but they say this result is frequently a result of ill-health and never a cause.

It is increasingly apparent that many people who test HIV-positive never develop AIDS. In the US, what they most frequently have in common is an avoidance of AZT.

All the dire predictions about AIDS have failed absolutely. This is despite the fact that the US Centers for Disease Control has been quietly expanding the definition of AIDS to include more and more indicator diseases.

All this argues for the thorough reappraisal of the theory as requested by the HIV sceptics in the form of an international, independently adjudicated debate.

But the AIDS establishment is outraged by any suggestion of a debate. The current tactic is to compare those who question the HIV hypothesis to those who deny there was a holocaust.

But it's a debate we really need, particularly before we start giving AZT to pregnant women.

Du Plessis is managing editor of noseweek.