The HIV virus is thought to be the cause of AIDS, but there's strong evidence that it isn't. The frightening truth is that no one knows for sure, and few scientists are admitting it. Are precious time, money and lives being lost while we fight a harmless virus?
HIV is called "the AIDS virus," and medical experts have made it the keystone of their battle against AIDS, building all their efforts to fight the disease around it. But what if they're wrong? According to Professor Peter Duesberg of UC-Berkeley, years of time and millions in research dollars have been wasted on the belief that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the cause of AIDS. The real cause of AIDS, Duesberg says, is still unknown, and HIV is just a latent, and perfectly harmless, retrovirus that most but not all AIDS patients happen to carry.
"To say that HIV is the cause of AIDS is to cast aside everything we know about retroviruses," says Duesberg, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has been studying retroviruses for twenty years. The HIV theory, he says, is inconsistent, paradoxical and absurd – little more than a by-product of a decade-old search for a retrovirus that could be called the cause of cancer.
HIV was hastily postulated as the cause of AIDS in 1984, when a National Institute of Health (NIH) scientist named Robert Gallo identified it as HTLV-III, the third strain in a family of viruses believed to have originated in Africa. Gallo, who was made director of the National Cancer Institute's search for the cause of AIDS in 1982, was propelled by several provocative links between HTLV-III and the disease. Most strikingly, something was stripping AIDS patients of their protective white blood cells known as T-cells, and HTLV-III was found to attack these cells. Gallo was unable to isolate the virus, however, because once it destroys a T-cell it mysteriously disappears. So he measured its presence by testing for HTLV-III's antibodies. Antibodies were detected in 80 to 90 percent of the AIDS patients tested. With no other plausible cause in sight, Gallo's virus, later called HIV, became "the AIDS virus" and Gallo was soon entangled in a lawsuit filed by the Pasteur Institute in Paris who also claimed to be the first to isolate it. While scientists raced to develop a test that would detect HIV, and people all over the world worried about whether they had been infected, important scientific rules and standards were completely ignored.
One such standard measure, used to determine whether a particular micro-organism is the cause of a disease, is a set of three laws known as Koch's postulates.
The first law says that the suspected micro-organism has to be present in all cases of the disease. HIV is not. Between ten and twenty percent of all AIDS patients show no traces of HIV whatsoever, not even its antibodies. Another law says that the micro-orgamsm must be able to be taken from a host, animal or human, and further spread in pure culture. This cultivation can only be done in 50 percent of all AIDS patients. The third law says that inoculations of pure cultures of the micro-organism into animals must produce in them the same disease. HIV has been injected into thousands of laboratory animals, and not one has developed AIDS.
Peter Duesberg is so convinced that HIV alone cannot cause AIDS, that he told his old friend Gallo that he wouldn't mind being injected with it. His argument is compelling, and he has been waiting for almost a year for anyone in the scientific community to come forward and refute it. No one has. Many won't even speak with him. Spin did.
SPIN: You have defied the entire medical establishment by claiming that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. What convinces you?
DUESBERG: Koch's postulates were postulated at a time when we couldn't do what we can do now. Now we can detect things at lower concentrations and activities, and we are falling into a trap where we are saying that they are critically relevant. The incidence of the virus HIV is so low that Koch would never have seen it. This is what they are overlooking. That the "AIDS virus" is at incredibly low concentrations and activity. That's why I am saying that HIV can't be the cause of a fatal disease, because it is so inactive. In fact, HIV is found in far more healthy humans than sick humans. This is very embarrassing to many people. They'd rather ignore it.
For a parasite or a virus to be pathogenic, it has to meet three criteria:
One. It must be biochemically active. In other words it must do something to get something done.
Two. It would have to affect or intoxicate more cells of a host, an animal or a human, than the host can spare or regenerate. Stated otherwise, you would only suffer from influenza virus if it kills or infects a significant portion of your lung cells, the polio virus if it gets into your nervous system, or if the hepatitis virus takes hold of a large part of your liver. You wouldn't notice an infection that involves 0.01 percent of your cells. That would be what you would call a latent infection. We all get them. Most of us have a latent tuberculosis infection, for example.
Three. The host must be genetically and immunologically permissive. It has to let it happen, so to speak. It has to accept the pathogen. It cannot be immune to it.
The HIV virus, the so-called AIDS virus, does not meet one of thkse criteria. For instance, the virus is never active – not only in those who have no symptoms, but also in those who develop full-blown AIDS and die from it. Even in people who are dying of AIDS, the virus is hardly detectable, measured ojly by locating its antibody. An antibody to a virus is like a vaccination; it has been traditionahly, and still is, the ultimate weapon against a virus. It is an indication of a past disease, not of a future disease. If you have antibodies, you should be congratulated. You are safe. You don't have to worry about it any more. But somehow, they have convinced the public to believe that the disease is yet to come, which really makes no sense; it's absurd. Once the antibody is made, the show for the virus is over. The time for the virus to strike and cause disease is before immunity, not after immunity.
That's why vaccination works. Now, that's what we find in the patients. If you look for direct evidence of the virus, there is very little. It is only possible to isolate the virus in 50 percent of the patients.
SPIN: What is the difference between isolating the virus and detecting it?
DUESBERG: Detecting the antibody to the virus is what you can do in 80 to 90 percent of all cases. So 10 to 20 percent don't even have antibodies. With polio or hepatitis, you can isolate copious amounts of virus. Here, it is different. You have to use techniques which were developed to detect or activate so-called latent viruses, viruses that are not active. It involves taking millions of cells from a host, in the form of tissue culture, an expensive method, and then when they are removed from the immune system of the host, you add some uninfected cells. Then you wait a couple of weeks and hope that during that time, something kisses awake the sleeping beauty, the resting AIDS virus. If one of them in that time becomes active, the whole culture will become infected, because now there is no immune system. By then you have amplified or multiplied the tissue culture enough to detect it in a cell culture, and then you can say "Aha! I have isolated the virus." All you have really done is, out of billions of cells you have activated at least one virus. But in 50 percent of all AIDS patients, not even that much can be done. Even in millions of cells, you cannot activate one virus. That's how low the viral content is.
For direct biochemical evidence of the virus, we look for the so-called pro-virus, a DNA copy. Biotechnology has developed a technique of detecting one gene in a billion cellular genes. By this method you find HIV in no more than 15 percent of the AIDS patients. And whatever virus is there is mostly inactive.
So then, HIV is only found in one of hundreds of thousands of cells. And even if the virus does kill those cells, its impact is minimal. The virus takes one or two days to infect one T-cell out of tens of thousands. That's 0.1 to 0.01 percent of your T-cells. But you normally regenerate about five percent of your T-cells every two days. They die and you get new ones. So the effect of HIV killing the T-cells is like poking a needle in your finger and losing a minute amount of blood every day. It's just totally inconsistent with what we know about that virus that it could possibly explain the depletion of T-helper cells.
There's one more inconsistency – retroviruses need a division in order to replicate. Unlike all other viruses which kill cells when they replicate, retroviruses need the mitosis – the living cell. That makes it very difficult to explain how this virus could be responsible for the loss of T-cells. It is impossible already, on the basis of its inactivity, and the low numbers of cells it infects. Retroviruses like HIV need living cells in order to replicate.
SPIN: How is it possible for the entire scientific community, in the face of a serious epidemic, to turn their backs on scientific dogma and accept, without scrutiny, that this is the AIDS virus?
DUESBERG: It gives a lot of comfort to say here's the virus and this is the cause. If you say who's done it you'll feel much better, even if it's a monster. If you really want to talk about it, there is more behind it. There is a lot of vested interest behind it. Retrovirologists have generated a whole reserve army of people, thanks to the so-called virus cancer program which was generated in the Nixon era. Like polio, we thought, now we'll get rid of cancer.
There is a reservoir of people who have been looking for cancer viruses for the last couple of years and haven't found them. But they really have made names and careers for themselves, and have developed tremendous skills – and I'm one of them. We are the veterans of the virus cancer program, and we are looking for a cause – but we haven't really found one. So you show us a new windmill and we are marching. And that's what's happening with the AIDS virus. I have worked with retroviruses for twenty years and I came more and more to the realization that they are not quite as important as the retrovirologists would have liked them to be.
SPIN: How has ,your theory been received – or I should say not received – by the scientific community?
DUESBERG: Those who are really direct targets of this – who are working closely with it and making these major claims that HIV is what causes AIDS – have not responded at all directly. And indirectly, well, I know them. Like Bob Gallo, for instance, we are old friends. I spoke to him two weeks ago, and he said, "With friends like you, who needs enemies?" And he literally runs away from me. Usually when you challenge a major hypothesis, you get a rebuttal, but here it's total avoidance. They don't want to talk, they don't want to be seen by me. A few examples: I was at the National Institute of Health (NIH) two months ago, in the same building where Gallo works. We went to the movies, and I said, "Look Bob, I really don't believe these claims. I am really convinced now that it can't be so. You have to find another explanation." He's certainly not a shy person, but ever since, he just doesn't want to be seen arguing or talking about it with me, not even at a party. There was a party with mutual friends of ours who invited us because they wanted to see us debate it, and he refused to come. We were both invited to a memorial meeting for a colleague. Gallo said, "Is Peter Duesberg coming? Because if he comes, I don't want to come on the same day." It's very strange.
SPIN: If it is not the virus, do you have a theory about what causes AIDS?
DUESBERG: First of all, when we say, what could cause AIDS, we should say, what could cause the multiple symptoms that are now are called AIDS? I think we are doing a major disservice by using that catchy word AIDS. Such divergent symptoms are all disguised under this one term. A lot of things can go wrong when you lose your immune system. They say that the AIDS virus kills the immune system and then you get all these opportunistic diseases. But one of the symptoms of AIDS is dementia, one is Kaposi's sarcoma, another one is lymphoma, or leukemia, or pneumocystis carinii or diarrhea. Some of these are consistent with immune deficiencies. But dementia is not caused by an immune deficiency, and certainly not lymphoma or Kaposi's sarcoma. Tumors are not known to be consequences of an immune deficiency. So, the first thing I would say is that I don't think we are looking at a disease entity. We are not looking at polio, or pneumonia, or hepatitis, or surgical cancer – all defined diseases. We are looking at a bank of old symptoms. Not one of them is new. And I think it is highly unlikely that they are all caused by this virus, particularly in view of how inactive it is.
So, I think we have to go back from the bench to the patient and see what AIDS is in the first place. And once we have a better picture of what AIDS is, we can go back and figure out whether it is caused by a virus or even a germ. I for one doubt that it is even a germ, that is, a contagious agent – something that can be transmitted. Casual contact is not enough to cause this disease. To get AIDS, you need intimate contact, that is, contact that involves the exchange of human cells. Once you have exchanged human cells, you have exchanged as much as you can possibly exchange. And also, it has to be done many, many times before the disease is transmitted. This exchange excludes almost nothing, and it certainly doesn't prove the germ theory. A virus, by definition, is a "cell-free infection," something that can be transmitted without transmitting cells – from sneezing or towels or whatever.
SPIN: Has there ever before been a virus that depended on the transfer of cells?
DUESBERG: No. All viruses can be transmitted cell-free. The virus can sit and wait somewhere, on a toilet seat or something, or whatever you touch. Some are more difficult than others to transmit, like herpes virus, which you can get by kissing, or Epstein-Barr virus. But that is still not enough for AIDS. Other viruses, like polio, measles, or flu, can be transmitted in a swimming pool – highly cell-free.
SPIN: Do you think AIDS could be caused by environmental factors?
DUESBERG: I think lifestyle has a lot to do with it. AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and most of us, being so trained to think in biological terms, immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be a virus or a bacterium. But "acquired" doesn't mean it is biologically transmitted. You can acquire lung cancer from smoking cigarettes, and a number of diseases, as well as immune deficiencies, from shooting up heroin, and even from anal intercourse. It's not great for your health to do that every day.
SPIN: But the puzzling question is, why so suddenly? Why are so many people getting sick and dying now?
DUESBERG: There are a few things that can make it look like all of a sudden you have a disease, but it may not be as new as it sounds. One thing is that homosexuality has become acceptable and highly visible. Certainly in places where they concentrate and gain a lot of confidence, like New York or LA, it becomes more obvious. Fifteen years ago, they could have died, and the cause of death would be pneumonia or Kaposi's sarcoma or whatever. Now it is called AIDS. Whatever they were doing, the frequency went up. The drugs had become chic and much more readily available, the bathhouses had become more accessible and the whole lifestyle more concentrated. Once you concentrate it, you see things that you wouldn't see had they been scattered around. The definition of AIDS keeps widening, and now they count almost all infections as AIDS. You see, there is no such thing as a germ that would prefer Rock Hudson over Cheryl Tiegs. I think for a virus, they certainly would look exactly the same. But there is an absolute preference for boys here. Prostitutes have the same number of dates as promiscuous homosexuals, I assume, but they're not getting it. There must be something else, something related to that lifestyle.
SPIN: Are there other scientists who are working with theories similar to yours, or are you the first?
DUESBERG: Well, judging from the letters I received, which were mostly from other scientists, there are many who agree. I did not get one letter that said, "You are full of it," or "You're crazy." And I am waiting for it. I would welcome it. I would like to debate somebody who would be willing to challenge me. The editor of Bio-Technology called me and said, "I have read your work and heard about you, and I am beginning to believe now that you might be right. Write me an editorial. I really want to bring this out, and see whether or not anybody has a rebuttal." He had spoken to a number of people and never gotten an answer to my question. It's a funny situation. There are a lot of vested interests here. It's very difficult to move once you have such a huge machine going.
SPIN: And imagine the consequences of admitting that it was the wrong virus, or the wrong cause, after all these years. Everything would go right back to zero.
DUESBERG: Not only back to zero, we would also be at a considerable deficit of time and money. That is a very real contributing factor – money. Scientists researching AIDS are much less inclined to ask scrutinizing questions about the etiology of AIDS when they have invested huge sums of money in companies that make money on the hypothesis that HIV is the AIDS virus. William Haseltine and Max Essex, for example, who are two of the top five AIDS researchers in the country, have millions in stocks in a company they founded that has developed and will sell AIDS kits that test for HIV. How could they be objective? Gallo stands to make a lot of money from patent rights on the virus. His entire reputation depends on this virus. If HIV is not the cause of AIDS, there's nothing left for Gallo. If it's not a retrovirus, Gallo would become irrelevant.
The stakes are too high now. Ten years ago, when they were lower, theories could be exchanged and examined more rationally. This cannot be done now. Gallo's lab works so closely with the news media. Every progress report from their laboratories is discussed by Dan Rather and Barbara Walters, Newsweek, and Time magazine. Every little observation is in all newspapers. To say that now, maybe, the antibody wasn't worth committing suicide for or burning houses for, would be very embarrassing.
SPIN: Obviously, you must consider the mass testing for HIV antibodies to be an absolute farce.
DUESBERG: Oh yes, of course. The whole thing is a hoax. A group of reporters from England came here to do a documentary about dissenting AIDS theories, and they were told that Gallo would not discuss HIV.
SPIN: Did you really tell Gallo that you wouldn't mind being injected with HIV? Has anyone tried to take you up on that?
DUESBERG: Oh yes, we joke about it, and I say, "Give it to me. As long as it's not from Gallo's lab, I'll take it!"
Despite SPIN's repeated attempts to reach Gallo, he was unavailable to respond to comments by Duesberg and others concerning his research and personal ambitions. A research associate in his office, who asked not to be named, said that Duesberg's statements regarding Gallo's royalties are unwarranted, and that claims that Dr. Gallo was avoiding Duesberg are "ridiculous."
Researchers like William Haseltine and Max Essex are angered by Duesberg's insinuation that their objectivity might be swayed by their financial enterprise. "I deeply resent the implication that my business investments have affected my work," says Haseltine, although he confirms his and Essex's business arrangement with Cambridge Bio-Science, a company that sells HIV testing kits.
"Clearly HIV causes AIDS," Gallo has said." Anyone who says it doesn't, doesn't know the facts."
The question is, whose facts? And why are certain facts integrated and others ignored?
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that of all AIDS cases registered in New York and San Francisco after 1985, 93 percent were never confirmed to be HIV-positive.