by John Lauritsen
A “Scientific Forum on the Etiology of AIDS”, sponsored by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), was held on 9 April 1988 at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In the words of the AmFAR “fact sheet”, the Forum was “convened to critically examine the evidence that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other agents give rise to the disease complex known as AIDS. Data from laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological research will be presented and evaluated. The forum seeks no consensus, instead it is designed to permit discussion among experts on the conclusions the facts permit.”
As one of the 17 journalists who were privileged to attend, I looked forward to the forum as the first opportunity for an open discussion of the pros and cons of the hypothesis that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Ever since Secretary Heckler announced in 1984 that the cause of AIDS had been discovered, HIV has been accepted as the cause in the absence of any convincing proof that it is. The Public Health Service and the rest of the medical establishment have acquiesced in a “Proof by Proclamation”. The forum offered the first opportunity for Peter Duesberg, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, to confront members of the “AIDS establishment” over their HIV hypothesis. (Readers of the Native are aware that over a year ago Duesberg provided a comprehensive and cogently argued refutation of the HIV hypothesis, and that the “AIDS establishment” has intransigently refused to reply to his critique. 1)
Despite these praiseworthy intentions, the forum appears to have had a hidden agenda: to discredit Duesberg. Even Michael Specter, a reporter who toadies to the “AIDS establishment” and is bitterly opposed to Duesberg, admitted that the April 9 meeting “was billed as a scientific forum on the cause of AIDS but was really an attempt to put Duesberg’s theories to rest.” 2
The forum represented several steps forward, and several backward. At least the ice has been broken, and the causes of AIDS are now an acceptable topic for public discussion. While no blows were struck, some of the HIV protagonists fell below the standards of civility that are expected in scholarly debate. Nothing particularly new was said, and there was little of the give and take that characterize genuine scientific dialogue. At the same time, the positions of both sides have become more sharply defined; it is now clear what directions future debate should take.
On the whole, I regard the forum as a victory for Duesberg. The forum was a well-orchestrated media event, heavily stacked against him, and he took a lot of abuse. Nevertheless, he stood by his guns; he did not recant (as he apparently was expected to); and to the more discerning participants, he exposed the bankruptcy of the arguments currently advanced in favor of the HIV hypothesis. At all times Duesberg retained good manners and a sense of humor, in the face of invective, insults, and clowning from his opponents.
Before going into what each of the panelists said, I’d like to discuss a couple of general issues which came to the fore: Koch’s Postulates and the nature of scientific evidence.
The forum was haunted by the specter of Robert Koch, and the postulates that he formulated for “establishing the specificity of a pathogenic micro-organism”. For a century, medical science has used Koch’s postulates as the standards for proving that a particular micro-organism causes a particular disease. The first Postulate requires that the microbe be found in all cases of the disease; the second, that the microbe, having been grown in pure culture, be injected into susceptible animals with the result that the same disease is produced; and the third, that the microbial agent create the disease upon transfer from animals made ill by inoculation.
Duesberg has taken the position that Koch’s first Postulate should be amended in a conservative direction, so that the microbe must not only be present in all cases, but must also be biochemically active to a clinically relevant degree. His rationale is that present-day technology makes it possible to see viruses that would have remained unknown and undetectable only ten years ago. It is now possible to identify a virus that is present in only one in 100,000 T-cells. So it is not enough to detect a microbe; it must be proven that the microbe is doing something harmful, and to a sufficient degree, that illness results. Duesberg has also commented, that if Koch’s first Postulate is not satisfied, there is no need to bother about the remaining postulates.
The HIV advocates, on the other hand, now wish to revise Koch’s in a more permissive direction: it would no longer be necessary to find the microbe in all cases of the disease. Mere correlations between microbial antibodies and the progression of the disease would be sufficient. HIV could be proved “epidemiologically” to be the cause of AIDS.
Actually, the HIV advocates talked out of both sides of their mouths with regard to Koch’s postulates. On the one hand, they disparaged them as in need of “modification” (read: abandonment); on the other hand, they were doing their best to come up with data that would satisfy at least the first postulate, which is troublesome because it amounts to good common sense.
Public Vs. Private Facts
Duesberg has based his critique of the HIV hypothesis on a thorough review of the published literature on AIDS. In the course of the debate, it appeared that the HIV advocates are trying to shore up their arguments by revising the facts, particularly with regard to the crucial questions of whether or not HIV is ever biochemically active in people with AIDS (PWAs), and whether or not HIV can be detected in all PWAs.
Several times Duesberg was accused by Anthony Fauci and William Haseltine of having based his arguments on research that was “out of date”. Duesberg replied that some of the key figures he cited had been used recently by members of the AIDS establishment, and that he looked forward to reading reports of any new data.
A fundamental difference in philosophy is involved here, one which needs to be articulated. On several occasions Duesberg and his supporter, Harry Rubin, asked Fauci or Haseltine for references to back up assertions they had made, and they were rudely rebuffed. Both Duesberg and Rubin belong to the old school, according to which facts are not entirely “real” until they have been published. Scientists are expected to make their data available, together with a detailed description of methodology, so that other scientists, working independently, could attempt to replicate the experiments and verify the results. Science is thus a public activity, where scientists check out each other’s work in a mutual endeavor to establish the truth.
Unfortunately, government scientists and others in the AIDS establishment have sometimes been motivated by considerations other than the truth. In the interests of profit, prestige, and public relations, they have resorted to secrecy and deception. A case in point is the well-documented episode in which Robert Gallo attempted to steal credit from the French for the discovery of the “AIDS virus”. 3
The difference in philosophy needs to be emphasized. Duesberg, basing his arguments on public facts, was countered by Fauci and Haseltine, who referred to their own private facts. Now, it is possible that Duesberg’s public facts may be wrong, and that Haseltine’s and Fauci’s private facts may be correct. But even if that were the case, it would be a grave injustice to Duesberg to criticize him for having used public information. When Duesberg insists upon references, he is not quibbling; he is acting in the best tradition of science.
The panel was moderated by Harold Ginsberg, Professor of Medicine and Microbiology at Columbia University. He began by saying that recording of the forum would not be permitted, although there would be an official transcript of the proceedings, and that the purpose of the forum was to “discuss in an informal and friendly manner the etiology of AIDS.” He then went into a presentation of his own. After conceding that “the pathogenesis of HIV is still pretty much a black box”, he discussed the characteristics of several viral diseases, including influenza, poliomyelitis, measles, herpes simplex, and hepatitis B. He emphasized that neutralizing antibodies could be present when disease occurs, and did not necessarily prevent viruses from being present in the blood.
Ginsberg’s comments served to set the stage against Duesberg by toppling a straw dummy representing selective statements, torn out of context, which Duesberg had made on antibodies. It became obvious that the forum would not favor free and impartial discussion of the issues — an impartial discussion, after all, requires an impartial moderator. It was also obvious that the HIV protagonists would employ information overload as a propaganda technique. While Ginsberg’s comments were true enough, so far as they went, they were mostly irrelevant to the central issues of the debate. Nevertheless, they conveyed the impression that a vast body of knowledge argued against Duesberg’s critique of the HIV hypothesis. Novice reporters, straining to take in all of Ginsberg’s information (without the aid of tape recorders), ended up with little space in their heads for the relevant issues.
The next speaker was Marcel Beluda, Professor of Pathology at the University of California at Los Angeles. His presentation dealt with the complex structure and reproduction cycles of retroviruses, and what rules a retrovirus would have to follow in order to cause disease. He said that, with regard to Koch’s first Postulate, retroviral DNA should be present in 100% of the cases, and that it was a serious weakness in identifying HIV as the etiological agent that this requirement could not be satisfied.
Beluda’s presentation was complex and highly nuanced, and he ran out of time. Nevertheless, his concluding statement came out clear and strong: “We must resolve the ‘black box’ HIV biological phenomenon.”
Harry Rubin, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, was one of the pioneers in the field of retrovirology. Twenty years ago Rubin was king of the field; he trained many of the scientists who are today the world’s leading retrovirologists.
Rather than discussing the intricacies of molecular biology, which he was as qualified to do as anyone, Rubin went instead to the heart of the matter: the conceptual problems of AIDS. Rubin said that he was disturbed by the simplicity of the causal explanation that had been put forward. An enormous complexity of disease states constitute the AID Syndrome; no fewer than 20 different diseases are classified as “AIDS”. Cartesian reductionism — the notion that complex phenomena can be reduced to a single cause — didn’t make much sense in this context. The simplistic notion of a single disease entity caused by a single virus ignored the role played by the condition of the host — the complex, life-long interaction between the host, the environment, and microbes.
For Rubin a red flag went up when he learned that Burkitt’s lymphoma was classified along with the many other manifestations of AIDS. He recalled that for many years attempts had been made to explain Burkitt’s lymphoma and other cancers in terms of viruses, with such candidates as Epstein-Barr virus proposed. The generally favored explanation came to be chromosomal abnormalities. And now, apparently, “HIV infection” is supposed to be a cause of some cancers.
Rubin said that the simplistic HIV causal explanation raised a lot of questions, and recalled a theory that was popular 20 years ago to explain the origin of cancer. The “immune surveillance theory” held that the body somehow lost its immune capacity and, in consequence, its ability to hold down cancers. The theory is no longer talked about owing to experiments on a-thymic mice, known as “nude mice”. (Lacking thymus glands, nude mice cannot manufacture T-cells, and therefore lack a cellular immune system.) What dissolved the “immune surveillance theory” was the discovery that nude mice, while susceptible to many different diseases, had no higher incidences of any cancer than did mice with normal immune systems. So, Rubin asked, how can we talk about “immune deficiency” as being responsible for the cancers that are considered to be part of the syndrome known as “AIDS”?