By Peter Chowka

Natural Healthline 1 May 2000

On April 30 the Washington Post, in a front-page feature story, reported that the Clinton Administration for the first time in the country's history has designated a disease as a threat to national security. The disease is AIDS — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

The decision means that the secret National Security Council, "which has never before been involved in combating an infectious disease, is directing a rapid reassessment of the government's efforts" to combat AIDS internationally. These efforts include increased funding for public health measures abroad such as the wider dissemination of toxic drugs like AZT. Deputy White House press secretary Jim Kennedy told reporters on April 30 that the disease is "a legitimate and ongoing health concern with the potential to destabilize government."

The unprecedented actions by the Administration were taken because of reports by the medical Establishment, the United Nations, and U.S. intelligence agencies that Africa and, to a lesser extent, south Asia and the former Soviet Union, are particularly at risk in the years ahead for destabilization caused by the deaths of millions of people from AIDS. A January 2000 CIA report says, "At least some of the hardest-hit countries, initially in Sub-Saharan Africa and later in other regions, will face a demographic catastrophe as HIV-AIDS and associated diseases reduce human life expectancy dramatically and kill up to a quarter of their populations over the period of this Estimate." AIDS, the report goes on, has "a particularly strong correlation with the likelihood of state failure in partial democracies" and could result in "revolutionary wars, ethnic wars, genocides and disruptive regime transitions."

Charles Geshekter, PhD, a three-time Fulbright Scholar, professor of history at California State University at Chico, expert on African history, and advisor to the U.S. State Department and several African governments, commented, "It's a bit frightening and a bit scary to see that they [AIDS orthodoxy] will now bring in 'national security.' Because that means you're going to begin to call in the FBI, you can call in the CIA. If people [critics of the AIDS Establishment] are talking about things which are decided to be a national security issue, they in fact can be spied upon and civil rights protections can be suspended."

The elevation of AIDS to a threat to U.S. national security and other recent actions by supporters of the AIDS-HIV status quo are taking place as the most significant international political challenge to AIDS-HIV orthodoxy is underway - in South Africa, the site of the next international AIDS conference in July.

Roots of the HIV-AIDS challenge

In 1987, Peter H. Duesberg, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, first challenged the idea that HIV causes AIDS. Several years earlier the HIV-AIDS hypothesis and all of the scientific and medical baggage that goes along with it had been accepted largely without question by the medical Establishment.

During the past decade, hundreds of other reputable scientists, a small number of activists, and a few independent writers and journalists have joined Duesberg in challenging the HIV-AIDS hypothesis. To the extent that the debate has been heard at all, it has generally been confined to the popular media, including the alternative press, several network television programs, and most consistently in the pages of SPIN — a monthly music magazine — in probing articles by journalist Celia Farber.

Generally, the challenge to HIV-AIDS orthodoxy has been marginalized by the medical and political powers-that-be and has failed to impact public policy. Today virtually all of international AIDS policy - both scientific and political - is based on HIV being the exclusive cause of the set of symptoms defined as "AIDS."

That situation may change soon, or at least the issue of the HIV-AIDS challenge will be more out in the open, as the point of view of the AIDS "dissidents," as they are called, has now been publicly embraced by the new President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa is considered the most influential nation in all of Africa. Twelve percent of the country's population of 44 million people reportedly tests positive for the HIV virus and millions of residents of South Africa and other nations on the continent, according to official reports, have already died of AIDS. Not surprisingly, the issue of Mbeki's involvement in the HIV-AIDS controversy is hot in scientific, diplomatic, and public policy circles and will likely heat up even more as the next semi-annual International World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in July 2000 approaches.

Spin and counter spin

In a lengthy article in Newsday (March 29, 2000), mainstream science writer Laurie Garrett wrote, "[Mbeki's] comments [challenging HIV and conventional AIDS treatments] have raised red flags in Washington and at the United Nations AIDS Program in Geneva. Officials are concerned that American fringe elements that dispute the very existence of AIDS have gained Mbeki's ear. And they are discreetly voicing two fears: First, that such notions may spread across Africa, the continent hardest hit by the pandemic, imperiling public health efforts. And second, that the World AIDS Conference, scheduled to convene this July in Durban, South Africa, may be endangered because of resulting tensions."

In a speech in Washington, D.C., Mark Wainberg, MD, president of the International AIDS Society, said, according to Garrett, that the actions of the HIV skeptics warrant criminal prosecution. Garrett quoted AIDS vaccine researcher John Moore of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Manhattan saying "a charge of genocide would not be inappropriate." Dr. Seth Berkley, head of the New York-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, likened critics' non-belief in HIV "to those that believe that the Holocaust did not occur."

In a commentary at, Nicholas Regush, an author and producer for ABC-TV, wrote, "As science appears to be the new 'religion' in our culture, those deemed to be in disagreement with its 'articles of truth' should expect they might be portrayed as heretics. A brazen example of this attempt to squash unorthodoxy can be seen in the. . . [suggestion] that Canadian virologist Mark Wainberg, president of the International AIDS Society. . .that actions of those skeptical of the prominent theory that HIV causes AIDS warrant criminal prosecution. That's right, criminal prosecution. Wainberg believes those who argue that HIV is not the cause of AIDS are, in effect, promoting the spread of HIV and hampering efforts to prevent HIV infection. . .This tone and view is [sic] all too reminiscent of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, which considered those who disagreed with its teachings to be a threat to society."

In an interview in the New York Press (March 10, 2000) with Celia Farber, who now writes about AIDS for Gear magazine, and author and publisher Charles Ortleb, Regush said, "From very early on with AIDS, I began to see that the science was not being followed very carefully. There was a rush to judgment on many fronts, a lot of speculation... I smelled a rat from the very beginning, and kept up with it ever since."

Mbeki's new challenge

An opening salvo in the anti-HIV campaign of President Mbeki, the second post-apartheid head of state of South Africa who succeeded Nelson Mandela, came on February 28, when the country's minister of health announced that an expert panel would be convened to review the evidence that HIV causes AIDS as well as allegations by the HIV dissidents that the anti-AIDS drug AZT is toxic. On March 14, South Africa's Deputy President Jacob Zuma said that the commission will "look at these issues to get rid of misinterpretations and misrepresentations or differing opinions. If there are differing opinions they must be scientifically investigated so we can get at the truth." According to news reports, Duesberg has been invited to participate, along with Dr. Sam Mhlongo of the Medical University of South Africa in Capetown. According to Garrett, "Mhlongo has said the epidemic was concocted by drug companies to hook South Africa on costly anti-HIV drugs."

On April 3, Mbeki sent a personal letter to President Bill Clinton and other world leaders including British Prime Minister Tony Blair defending his controversial approach to his country's AIDS problem. Mbeki said he would not allow the West to dictate Africa's response to AIDS and defended his contacts with leading AIDS dissidents including Duesberg.

"Our search for these specific and targeted responses," Mbeki wrote, "is being stridently condemned by some in our country and the rest of the world as constituting a criminal abandonment of the fight against HIV-AIDS. Some elements of this orchestrated campaign of condemnation worry me very deeply. It is suggested, for instance, that there are some scientists who are 'dangerous and discredited' with whom nobody, including ourselves, should communicate or interact.

"In an earlier period in human history, these would be heretics that would be burnt at the stake! Not long ago, in our own country, people were killed, tortured, imprisoned and prohibited from being quoted in private and in public because the established authority believed that their views were dangerous and discredited. We are now being asked to do precisely the same thing that the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed did, because, it is said, there exists a scientific view that is supported by the majority, against which dissent is prohibited. The scientists we are supposed to put into scientific quarantine include Nobel Prize Winners, Members of Academies of Science and Emeritus Professors of various disciplines of medicine! Scientists, in the name of science, are demanding that we should cooperate with them to freeze scientific discourse on HIV-AIDS at the specific point this discourse had reached in the West in 1984.

"People who otherwise would fight very hard to defend the critically important rights of freedom of thought and speech occupy, with regard to the HIV-AIDS issue, the frontline in the campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism which argues that the only freedom we have is to agree with what they decree to be established scientific truths.

"Some agitate for these extraordinary propositions with a religious fervor born by a degree of fanaticism, which is truly frightening. The day may not be far off when we will, once again, see books burnt and their authors immolated by fire by those who believe that they have a duty to conduct a holy crusade against the infidels."

Mbeki criticized the West for believing that it had all the answers in the fight against AIDS. "We will not, ourselves, condemn our own people to death by giving up the search for specific and targeted responses to the specifically African incidence of HIV/AIDS. It is obvious that whatever lessons we have to and may draw from the West about the grave issue of HIV-AIDS, a simple superimposition of Western experience on African reality would be absurd and illogical." Mbeki's government has refused to give AZT to HIV-infected pregnant women or rape victims.

The Washington Post, which published Mbeki's letter, wrote in an editorial, "South Africa is in the midst of a medical holocaust.... No serious medical scientist doubts the causal link between HIV and AIDS. And no serious political leader should either."

Prof. Charles Geshekter

Geshekter has made fifteen trips to Africa since the early 1970s, most recently last December. He has criticized HIV-AIDS orthodoxy based on his expertise as an internationally respected historian and field researcher. In a telephone interview on April 30, Geshekter told me about AIDS in Africa, "I argue that it's got nothing to do with sex and everything to do with political economy, institutional breakdown, and the impoverished level of services" in Africa. In 1994, Geshekter organized, at San Francisco State University, perhaps the only public forum that brought together defenders and critics of AIDS orthodoxy to debate the issues. On March 14, 2000, the Toronto Globe and Mail published his article "The plague that isn't: Poverty is killing Africans, not an alleged AIDS pandemic."

"The United Nations calls it the 'worst infectious disease catastrophe since bubonic plague,'" Geshekter wrote. "U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer advocates spending $3-billion to 'fight AIDS.' And delegates at last month's National Summit on Africa in Washington pleaded for more money to wage war on AIDS. But the scientific data do not support these claims. The whole subject needs a healthy dose of skepticism.

"I'd argue that wearing red ribbons or issuing calls to condomize the continent will do little for the health of Africans. . . . Once AIDS activists consider the non-contagious, indigenous-disease explanations for what are called AIDS, they may see things differently. . . . Traditional public-health approaches, clean water and improved sanitation above all can tackle the underlying health problems in Africa. They may not be sexy, but they will save lives. And they will surely stop terrorizing an entire continent."

In the April 30th telephone interview, Geshekter told me, "I was in South Africa in December [1999], I met with the Minister of Health, I actually toured the so-called ground zero — the epicenter — of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, I was there on the ground with 'me own eyes,' in KwaZulu Natal, went all about that area, and met with a number of members of the AIDS orthodoxy."

Although Geshekter has not met Mbeki, he knows a lot about the president's background: "He's very well known as an intellectual. He's had graduate training in economics at the University of Sussex in England, which is an excellent university. He has long been known in the African National Congress (ANC) as a shrewd, critical thinker, as a person who challenges received wisdom, as someone who I think does thorough investigations of a scholarly sort, of an academic sort, before taking a position on almost any issue. [He was] a negotiator from overseas for the African National Congress [the party that is now in the majority in South Africa] in exile.

"As a member of the ANC in negotiations for the transfer of power from the apartheid state over to this multiracial democracy, one of the things that he had to do was to be prepared to say the unsayable, and to go into areas on topics that no one else wanted to go [to], such as opening up talks with the rulers of the apartheid state in 1985-86. This is something that people on the ANC side did not want to do under any circumstances.

"I think what you're looking at is a president who is extremely bold, who does have a kind of chess player's sense of the long term view, of the long term kind of strategizing, and is prepared to take bold steps and initiatives in order to break with old patterns which seem to be going nowhere. So, to that extent, if he looked at the economics of AIDS and public health in South Africa, and he looked perhaps at the rural area where he comes from, which is a very desperately impoverished area in the Eastern Cape or the Transkai, he'd probably be concerned about some of the stuff that was being alleged about AIDS in Africa - how it's defined, 'sex has got a lot to do with it,' 'it's a virus that's loose,' there's a massive behavior modification scheme, a lot of the hustle about drugs into bodies, a lot of what I call the 'medicalization of poverty' argument rather than looking at the deeper institutional forces, the environmental forces, the political economy forces that are behind the fact that people don't have enough to eat, don't have any rural electrification, don't have access to clean toilet facilities. All of that would be very very well known to Mbeki.

"I think we need to be clear that his interest in AIDS is one of many topics that concerns him in which he is prepared to offer new, bold breaks from the past in order to move things into the future.

"The ANC, of which [Mbeki] is one of its top figures these days, is a South African political organization that is born in dissidence. They disagreed from the beginning with the terms and conditions of the Union of South Africa that was formed in May of 1910. The ANC was formed in 1912 as a reaction to what was clearly the disenfranchisement of Africans as voters and political participants in South Africa. When the ANC decided to reach out to try to negotiate their way out of apartheid, the people that they dealt with were the dissidents - they talked with dissidents in the Dutch Reform Church, in the Afrikaans Church, they talked with intellectual leaders, political leaders, guys from the apartheid state in banking, in manufacturing, in the arts, and so forth. The ANC was interested very specifically in talking to dissidents, not to the members of the orthodoxy, because the orthodoxy basically said 'white power' and 'white supremacy forever.' But there were people within that Establishment who really had doubts about that and felt that this was leading the entire country down the road to ruin. Those were the people that Itabo Mbeki reached out for. So his dealing with so-called dissidents is something that has a long pedigree in the ANC and in his particular case is probably the key to understanding how a race war that everyone was predicting was unavoidable for South Africa in the 1970s and '80s — how it never happened. So that's the context in which I then put his interest in AIDS.

"He was aware that this biennial [AIDS] conference was slated to come to his country — the first time this was ever going to be held on African soil. Also I think [that] ratcheted up the stakes about what this was about, what were the policy prescriptions that were going to be recommended. He stumbled upon evidence that raised doubts, as we all know, about the safety and efficacy of the drugs that were being prescribed to people as 'anti-retrovirals,' anti-HIV drugs. Mbeki stumbled upon some critical thinking about that and began to say, 'What's going on here?' The more he asked questions, when he got shrill, personal attacks, invective, and vilification, and not good answers, I think it made him press even further."

In fact, since Mbeki's government has adopted a contrarian view on HIV-AIDS, it has come under increasing attack — by the medical Establishment, the media, and other governments. "The medical and scientific Establishment," Geshekter commented, "is going to try to depict him as someone who is out of his element — that this is not the sort of thing that a president ought to engage himself in, because it is something that scientists and doctors know all about - and that he's crossed over the line from being a visionary, a political leader, and an inspiration by example for his people into an area that is not in his competence.

"The fact that [Mbeki] is splitting the two words [HIV and AIDS] is driving the orthodox world crazy. They want those two acronyms kept forever yoked by a backslash essentially, with one key on their computer that you hit — 'HIV/AIDS'. "

Geshekter submitted a proposal for the presentation of an abstract at the July international AIDS conference, co-authored with two African doctors and Meredith Turshen, PhD, of Rutgers University, "A Critical Reappraisal of the Epidemiology of HIV and AIDS in South Africa, Uganda, and Tanzania." One of the Africans, he pointed out, is the editor of the South African Medical Journal. The other one is the chair of family medicine at the National Medical University. The abstract was rejected.

Geshekter laughed when I asked him about the organization and coordination of the AIDS "dissidents." "If only you could have a split screen," he said. "On one side you would see this very heterodox mixture of [dissident] scholars, academics, and activists. . .you'd see how disconnected and uncoordinated we all are." They talk and compare notes occasionally, he admitted, while insisting "We basically go about our business, like free radicals. On the other side of the screen you would see this enormous structure with the ear of the White House, the CDC, NIH, WHO, UNAID, and all of the media — you could have a snapshot of the bank accounts, the amount of money that's involved, the papers they put out . . . . The discrepancy in terms of the numbers, the level of coordination, the institutional support, the public legitimacy — the discrepancy could not be greater. It's absolutely astonishing. That's why, when these [pejorative] things are said about the [AIDS] dissidents in Newsweek or the Washington Post or wherever, we've got to look at each other and laugh. We're amused by all of this.

"Most of us know full well that we are outside of the ruling paradigm. We have argued that the ruling paradigm cannot in fact sustain criticisms. We understand that. So this business of the 'cold war on AIDS,' or it's now a 'national security' issue, strikes us maybe as a sign of the utter desperation of this whole [HIV-AIDS] theory, which seems to be so rock solid and so strong and so deeply entrenched and yet let Tahbo Mbeki talk for twelve minutes to Dave Rasnick, PhD [a leading AIDS dissenter] and the whole thing is going to come unraveled, the whole thing is going to come undone. Now that doesn't strike me as something which is powerful. That strikes me as something which is unbelievably precarious and fragile and almost like with the slightest little tick, it could fall apart!"

Describing himself as an "AIDS realist," Geshekter added, "Just a word of caution: I would not, under any circumstances, be overly optimistic at this point. Don't get me wrong: there are some interesting developments - very interesting developments. They're more than they would have been, or could have been imagined, say, a year ago. But I'm just cautioning against over optimism because of the sheer scale — the size — of the AIDS orthodoxy and the fact that the AIDS conference will be in South Africa. We should not lose sight of the fact that the agenda for the AIDS conference in South Africa, I could probably say, is already scripted — which is to announce at the closing session of the conference that as a result of this latest AIDS conference, all of the criticisms, all of the objections, and all of the fears and anxieties of the president of the host country [Mbeki] have in fact been answered and allayed by the very best science that the world has to offer and therefore his concerns are hereby answered."

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