HIV does cause AIDS Duesberg's wrong

The Argument

An anti-cult: The gravest danger is discouraging prudence

March 24, 1996|By John Gill Bartlett | John Gill Bartlett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Peter H. Duesberg is an accomplished Berkeley virologist who has challenged the concept that HIV causes AIDS. He is a respected scientist, but now seems willing to sacrifice his integrity among peers to become the darling of an anti-cult determined to dispute a substantive scientific fact.

He has been doing this since 1987 and has achieved substantial media hype as well as a small gathering of followers including an occasional Nobel laureate. Among scientists and physicians in the field of HIV, his views were at one time considered provocative, but now are generally viewed as antiquated at best, and dangerously irresponsible at worst.

The evidence that HIV causes AIDS was substantial in 1984. No competing explanation with substantial merit has subsequently been introduced.

In recent years it was shown that the average person with HIV infection produces a billion new HIV virions each day, the concentration of this virus dictates the course of infection and drugs that slow HIV clearly improve outcome and decrease transmission.

Thus, Dr. Duesberg's book, "Inventing The Aids Virus," (Regnery Publishing. 722 pages. $29.95,) the evidence marshaled to document the role of HIV as the exclusive cause of AIDS had become so compelling that most of us consider any alternative hypothesis as a ridiculous argument undeserving of debate.

An overriding theme in Dr. Duesberg's book is his assertion that the Centers for Disease Control (the federal agency in Atlanta that orchestrates public health for the United States) and the National Institutes of Health (the federal agency in Washington that orchestrates federally-funded biomedical research) represent a medical mafia that has successfully waged a campaign designed to create unjustified concern for infectious diseases.

The obvious motive is to secure funding. Most of the prominent scientists in the field are trashed in the process. It's a broad-based attack on colleagues who presumably created the HIV myth to get research funding, and it finishes with the complaint that his last 15 grant proposals were rejected.

The book begins with a litany of mistakes in infectious disease-related research during the recent past. It is the author's contention that Legionella doesn't cause Legionnaires disease, Human Papilloma Virus does not cause cervical cancer, HTLV-1 does not cause leukemia, neurosyphilis (the brain complications of syphilis) are not caused by syphilis, hepatitis viruses do not cause liver cancer, Kimberly Bergalis (the patient who acquired HIV from her dentist) probably got HIV from her mother, and Ryan White's medical problems were due to hemophilia alone. This is pretty wild stuff for students of infectious diseases, and we haven't even gotten to the HIV part yet!

Dr. Duesberg argues that HIV is acquired by passage from mother to infant or by blood, but in either event, it is no more than a harmless passenger. His arguments are constructed primarily in the framework of his knowledge of avian leukemia virus, and highly selected readings of the work of others. He is not a physician and has not worked directly with HIV.

He supports his contention on several grounds: One argument is thousands of patients with AIDS have no evidence of HIV infection.

Problem: We can't find any, nor can others.

A second argument is that AIDS is characterized by a loss of CD4 cells, a vital part of the immune defense mechanisms and also the target of HIV. Dr. Duesberg notes that only about one per 10,000 CD4 cells is infected with HIV, so this infection cannot possibly account for the sequential loss of this cell population.

Problem: he is quoting from work that was done several years ago; more recent work has shown that about 10 to 25 percent of all CD4 cells are infected very early in the course and that about one billion are destroyed by HIV every day.

A third argument is that HIV disobeys the rules of virology. No virus kills most or all of the patients who have it and HIV does not kill cells, but it simply lives in them.

Problem: viruses don't have rules of behavior. Scientists make the rules and sometimes have to change them. Also, Ebola and rabies are examples of highly lethal viruses. HIV is in this category.

Another argument concerns the fact that AIDS is not a discreet entity, but a collection of about 23 "AIDS-defining" diagnoses that are quite different

Problem: Any student of infectious diseases knows that the common thread in all these conditions is that they reflect a deficiency of CD4 cells which is the target of HIV. The resulting condition renders the host susceptible to a diverse range of very specific complications, and these comprise the 23 conditions. Otherwise healthy people do not get these complications - ever.

Sole explanation

Dr. Duesberg argues that there is no evidence that HIV is an

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