WHEN JUNK SCIENCE TURNS LETHAL
By Margaret Wente
Globe and Mail (Canada) 4 May 2000
Dr. Mark Wainberg is taking a certain amount of flak these days for taking
on the HIV deniers. The renowned Montreal researcher is president of the
International Aids Society, and he thinks these people are deeply
irresponsible. He wouldn't mind seeing a few of them silenced. "These
people are doing harm," he told me. "Perhaps there might once have been
good ground to dispute the linkage between HIV and AIDS. It's indisputable
In North America, the HIV dissidents are a hardy group consisting of two or
three scientists (whom no one funds), a small band of wishful thinkers, and
a Canadian medical journalist named Nicholas Regush. Mr. Regush has a new
book, The Virus Within, which claims that another virus, not HIV, is the
probable cause of AIDS. He believes that treatment with AZT is useless,
even toxic, and he encourages HIV victims to throw away their medicine. He
also claims that the entire scientific establishment, which he brands "the
New Gestapo," ruthlessly suppresses opposing views like his.
Dr. Wainberg and other crusaders against the terrible AIDS scourge haven't
wasted much breath on the dissidents until now. They've trusted in science,
not rebuttal, to win the day. But now, the stakes are dramatically higher
than ever before. The stakes are the lives of millions, and the fate of
nations, because the dissidents have found a believer where it matters most.
The foremost critic of AIDS science in the world today is South Africa's
president, Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki has asserted his government's right to
resist "the superimposition of Western experience on African reality." He
has personally consulted the American scientists who think the HIV link is
a myth and the epidemic is overstated. He has stopped distributing AZT to
pregnant women because he thinks it's toxic. The army has stopped using it,
The president's supporters include influential African journalists as well
as the right-wing Boerestaat Party, which recently applauded his efforts to
"investigate the biggest hoax of the century."
Meantime, AIDS is poised to devastate South Africa, which has one of the
highest infection rates in the world. More than 10 per cent of the
population is infected with HIV, and 3.5 million of them will probably die
in the next decade. They will include a disproportionate number of nurses,
engineers, and other well-educated, highly productive people.
Throughout subsaharan Africa, 23 million people are now infected. Not far
behind: Southeast Asia, India, China, Latin America, the Caribbean. Those
who compare AIDS to the Holocaust, in its scope and human devastation, are
Now let's return to Mr. Regush, a former medical reporter with the Montreal
Gazette who portrays himself as a crusading investigative journalist. In
fact, he has often made a living as a medical conspiracy theorist, yet
reputable book publishers, national television broadcasters and leading
newspapers have been quite happy to give him a platform.
What is the quality of Mr. Regush's journalism? Well, in 1996, the CBC's
the fifth estate ran a full-hour program he both proposed and produced. It
was a medical exposť called, The Heart of the Matter. It insinuated that a
certain heart medication was not only unsafe, but was killing thousands of
patients, and that two Canadian doctors were hushing up the truth about
this killer drug because they had ties to big drug companies.
Both doctors took the CBC and Mr. Regush to court for libel, and both won.
Last fall, Dr. Martin Myers was awarded $200,000. Two weeks ago, Dr. Frans
Leenen was awarded $950,000 -- the highest damage award in Canadian media
history. The judge in the Leenen case slammed Mr. Regush for his "slanted
and reprehensible story line," docked him personally for $200,000 in
aggravated and punitive damages, and wrote: "Parasitic sensationalists
should not be allowed to prey upon society's obsession with scandal and to
reap personal benefit from their irresponsible actions."
Mr. Regush's career, however, is still flourishing, thanks to credulous
news directors and publishers who don't know much about science but think
controversy sells. He currently plies his anti-AZT theories on the website
at ABC News, where he is also billed as a medical reporter.
Mark Wainberg calls Mr. Regush's theories a cruel scientific hoax. "More
seriously," he says, "his book may also endanger public health if it is
taken seriously by its readers."
Speech should still be free, no matter how foolish or odious. But not every
subject has two sides worth airing. We no longer consider seriously the
views of those who claim cigarettes are harmless, or the opinions of Ernst
Zundel. And though there are many, many unanswered questions about AIDS,
the link to HIV and the benefit of AZT are really not in doubt. Those who
deny those facts are contributing to the death of thousands, maybe
millions. They don't deserve a hearing. They deserve contempt.