Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, has concluded that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus–HIV–does not cause AIDS. In so doing, he is dismissing the most cherished hypothesis of the world’s AIDS experts.
Coming from anyone else, this heresy might be regarded as fringe sniping. But Duesberg is not on the fringe. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on retroviruses. Among his credits is the discovery of retroviral oncogenes, one of the basics of cancer research. He was also the first person to map all the different gene strands that make up a retrovirus. HIV is a retrovirus.
If anyone is qualified to make statements about retroviruses, it’s Duesberg; so when he calls HIV “irrelevant” to AIDS and charges that billions of dollars devoted to combating it are being totally wasted, you’d think policymakers and other scientists would listen. Instead, Duesberg says, he’s being shunned. He’s lost his funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Colleagues like Dr. Robert Gallo of NIH storm out of meetings when he rises to speak. Others have referred to him as the viral equivalent of a flat-earther.
Duesberg says he is simply trying to point out inconsistencies in the conventional theory of AIDS. On the surface that theory may look fine: new virus appears on the scene, is transmitted through bodily fluids, lies dormant in cells for years, then explodes with pathogenic violence, causing the collapse of the immune system and gradual deterioration and death by some two dozen nasty diseases. Trouble is, says Duesberg, the scenario is implausible. The conventional theory has holes in it that scientists are loath to own up to because doing so would jeopardize their own funding and careers. Consider:
For their part, scientists on the other side of the debate have attempted to respond to each of these points. They say that, eventually, most HIV-infected people will come down with AIDS (although the latency period seems to get longer and longer every year). They now say the reason some people with Kaposi’s sarcoma have no HIV in their bodies is because it “may be a completely separate etiologic agent from AIDS,” a switcheroo that Duesberg calls changing the rules in the middle of the game. They say there are many other apparent exceptions to Koch’s “outdated” postulates. They say AIDS manifests different diseases around the world simply because different germs linger in those regions. And they say that certain strains of HIV-like viruses do cause “an AIDS-like disease” when injected into monkeys. Still, taken as a whole, Duesberg’s bill of particulars forces one to confront anomalies in the HIV theory.
But if HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, what does? Here, Duesberg is less sure. It’s his job to point out the problems with HIV theory, he says, not to replace it with another theory. Much more study is needed, he says–and he complains that these studies are not being conducted because everyone has jumped on the $3 billion HIV bandwagon.
Duesberg does note that immune system damage has long been associated with drug use, and that many of the people (in the West) who are coming down with behavior-linked AIDS–IV-drug users and some male homosexuals–are known to use illicit drugs. His tentative hypothesis, then, is that AIDS may be caused not by a “bug,” but by toxins in the form of poppers, cocaine, speed, and a supermarket of other substances popular in the IV and gay communities, which destroy the immune system, while HIV itself is a harmless fellow traveler along for the ride.
Duesberg arouses strong emotions among scientists who subscribe to standard HIV theory. Following the publication of any of his articles, hordes of epidemiologists, oncologists, and physicians flood letters-to-the-editor pages, calling Duesberg’s hypotheses “misleading,” “fallacious,” “harmful,” “mistaken,” “immoral,” “perilous,” and “reprehensible.” Chicago-area scientists who work with AIDS are familiar with Duesberg, and their reaction to him has been largely negative.
“I simply do not agree with his views,” says Dr. Richard McDonald, who is medical director of the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic and treats many AIDS patients in his private practice. “There may be a small kernel of truth in that we don’t have a full understanding of HIV disease, but you cannot deny the role that HIV plays in AIDS.” As for Duesberg’s charge that AZT, the leading anti-HIV drug, is “a virulent immunosuppressive” that’s killing thousands, McDonald says, “This reflects the fact that Duesberg is not a physician and has not seen patients benefit from AZT. Without a shadow of doubt, they live longer because of the use of AZT.”
Dr. Lawrence Falk, a Chicago virologist who helped develop the first FDA-licensed HIV test and who now heads the HIV AIDS Research Institute, an activist group, says that Duesberg has been less than scrupulous in his research. “He doesn’t come up with the hard evidence [that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS], or any lab data, or any experiments, and he hasn’t even detailed any experiments he would do if he could.” Falk also points to problems in Duesberg’s own theory–for instance, that Duesberg has difficulty explaining how and why hemophiliacs, newborn babies, and blood-transfusion recipients get AIDS if it’s not transmitted by a bug.
Dr. John Phair, chief of infectious diseases at Northwestern University Medical School and the principal investigator of a major AIDS study being conducted for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, slams Duesberg, who developed his theory in 1987, for ignoring scientific research conducted since then. “The questions Duesberg raised were reasonable, in a spirit of scientific skepticism, in 1985. But in 1991, the data is totally different. The evidence that HIV is the cause of the immunosuppression that leads to AIDS is very well established.”
(There’s evidence, however, that a few scientists may be moving over to Duesberg’s side. The New York Native, citing a late-September Los Angeles Times article, reports that 25 “public sector scientists” have been trying to get “any scientific journal” to print a letter they have signed urging that “the HIV-AIDS link be re-evaluated.” According to the Native, “The letter has been rejected by Nature, Science, and The Lancet, despite the impressive scientific accomplishments of its signers.”)
It’s not only scientists who object to Duesberg’s theory. He’s also unpopular among AIDS care givers and educators, who fear his message might be misinterpreted by some gay men as condoning, or at least minimizing the risk of, promiscuous, unprotected sex. In San Franscisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, where Duesberg has received widespread publicity, reaction against him by the AIDS community has been swift and strong. Here he is less well known and therefore less controversial, but local AIDS workers who are familiar with him say they’re growing increasingly concerned as his message spreads through the media. “As AIDS educators, we want people to continue to practice safe sex, and not latch onto information that says there may be a chance that HIV isn’t the cause of AIDS as an excuse to stop, or slip up on, their safe sex practices,” says Dan Dever, public relations director for the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic. Also at the clinic, Dr. McDonald says that publicity about Duesberg “could potentially send the wrong message to a few people who don’t like having safe sex. They’ll use any excuse not to have it.”
The NIH’s revocation of Duesberg’s $500,000 grant, by the way, was done despite the fact that the award originally charged Duesberg to “venture into new territory” and “ask creative questions.” In their letter canceling his grant, NIH officials accused Duesberg’s recent research of being “less productive, perhaps reflecting a dilution of his efforts with non-scientific issues.”
In person, Peter Duesberg belies the epithets that swirl around him. He is a cheerful, energetic, and wickedly funny man with a lilting German accent. His lab tells a lot about his sense of humor. There’s a glossy color poster of Duesberg’s nemesis, the HIV virus, and on it Duesberg has scribbled, “First virus to kill without biochemical activity! First virus to kill 50 percent to 100 percent of its carriers! First virus to kill only by definition after anti-viral immunity! First virus to be codiscovered a year after its discovery”–a reference to the infamous dispute between Robert Gallo of the NIH and Dr. Luc Montagnier over who really discovered HIV.
And there’s a handwritten letter, taped to the side of his lab refrigerator, that reads, “Dear Mr. Duesberg, I’m not a scientist or a doctor, I’m a security guard in Oakland, and you are the first person who seems to agree with what I’ve always thought about AIDS. I’m not gay, but I used to live in a hotel in San Francisco where five men died of AIDS and they were the most unhealth-conscious, drug-using people in the building. A cold could have killed them, if you ask me, let alone the illegal drugs from God knows where. . . . Don’t they mix coca leaves with turpentine and other chemicals? And gays seem to like amyl nitrite. Oh who knows? Just continue to work hard. . . .”
These days, Duesberg is fighting his critics through the media with a vengeance. Starting with scholarly journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and Cancer Research, he’s made the leap to periodicals like Policy Review, TV shows like Tony Brown’s Journal, and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times.
Steve Heimoff: Why do you want all this media attention?
Peter Duesberg: You need press. And, unfortunately, science has become so big that hardly a colleague of mine will read the professional literature anymore. Besides, it’s very difficult to get published. You’re stonewalled if you’re controversial. So the only way to get a hearing, even with your colleagues on campus, is through the press.
SH: Yet you’ve had articles published in professional journals.
PD: I spent three or four years of my life just to get three papers published, and you wouldn’t believe what a struggle it was. [Robert] Gallo has published 600 papers in the last three years. So it’s been a full-time effort, and I’ve paid for it dearly. I paid for it with my professional standing, with my funding, with a good part of my career.
SH: Do you think your NIH funding was not renewed as a punishment?
PD: It was a sanction, clearly. They couldn’t say, “Here’s one of our star scholars, one who gets an outstanding investigator grant, and then he’s saying we are wasting $3 billion on AIDS research.”
SH: You appealed the decision. What is its status?
PD: I’m not hopeful. This grant was essentially a decoration–it was not a regular grant. It was like an Iron Cross; only very few people got it. I was a darling in the business.
SH: Because of your work in retroviral oncogenes?
PD: That’s right. Oncogenes have become a very popular field of research in cancer, and I had essentially found the first one, right here in this lab, 21 years ago. So I was very popular, and got one of the big grants.
SH: How seriously does this threaten your work?
PD: Quite seriously.
SH: Can’t you do your research with a normal university budget and facilities?
PD: No. I could only keep the office and the typewriter. I wouldn’t even have a secretary. I would have my salary, and that is it.
SH: How does that make you feel?
PD: It doesn’t make me feel good, but I have a year to go, so I hope that time turns out to be my ally. The longer a hypothesis fails to produce any clinical or public health results, the more likely it is that people will say, “Maybe it’s OK to ask some questions.”
SH: Are there alternative sources of funding you have looked at?
PD: I have looked at the Council for Tobacco Research, which is an independent agency that gets money from the tobacco companies.
SH: Why would the tobacco companies fund you?
PD: They fund basic research, and since I’ve been working in cancer research, which is one of their main priorities, they might give me some money.
SH: How much do you need?
PD: To run this lab, between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.
SH: Is your position with the university jeopardized?
PD: Not really, but it also suffers because of that. I won’t lose my job, but there are consequences. Students are hesitant to work with me now; they come in the lab and say, “It’s interesting what you’re doing, tell me about it, but I can’t work for you because I won’t get a job.” My advising colleagues tell the students, “We are worried for you if you go to Duesberg’s lab.”
SH: We are trained to believe that scientists are in pursuit of truth. You’re suggesting it’s as bad in science as it is in business.
PD: It is, definitely, particularly with big science. The name of the game is to get a big contract, a big grant. That’s how you get students, papers published, make a career, including this campus.
SH: But would a scientist deliberately lie or conceal the truth in order to obtain that grant?
PD: Well, look. It is happening now with the most illustrious figures, some of the biggest names in American science. Gallo is linked to what you just described.
SH: You’re suggesting that scientists may be ruled by less than noble motives.
PD: I’m not saying the majority of scientists would cheat to advance a paper. It doesn’t really pay in science to fake things, because you sometimes get caught. But what you do is adopt a paradigm, make a tacit assumption, and go with the majority, the flow.
SH: What is your problem with classic HIV theory?
PD: The failure of the virus hypothesis is absolutely convincing. We have not saved one life, not predicted anything correctly, we haven’t come up with any medication, and we’re in the process of killing 125,000 people with AZT, a virulent immunosuppressive. This is a disastrous balance for a field of research that has received so much support and funding. And if researchers read one paper out of a thousand that says [AIDS] isn’t [caused by] HIV, they feel it’s the minority, and they don’t have to take it seriously. And they don’t want that. All of us AIDS researchers, including me, are virologists. That’s what we know how to do, so the question [whether] viruses [have anything to do with AIDS] is questioning our own existence, our own basis for the careers that we make, the visibility and popularity we have. If they say, “It’s not a virus,” they would have to step back and say, “Next time, I’m not going [to be the one] to talk to Ted Koppel about AIDS, I’m going to have to send in somebody else who knows about drugs,” if drugs are the cause of AIDS.
SH: In making remarks like these, you’re not exactly endearing yourself to your colleagues.
PD: Well, I’m including myself. I’m a virologist, and I would be a millionaire with them. I would have a company or would be a consultant, and I have cut myself out of that market by saying what I’m saying. So I’m not just casting aspersions on them. I’m not angry. The one good thing about science is, you have the privilege to find out the truth, and you’re supposed to say what your experiments and logic tell you, not what’s good for the pocketbook. If I want to be in science, I don’t want to necessarily be a millionaire. I don’t need two BMWs and a condo everywhere; a university salary is quite adequate.
SH: Have you ever thought that maybe you’re wrong, and you’re just being stubborn because of the attacks on you, even if part of yourself is saying, “Well, maybe I have been wrong”?
PD: Yeah, I have considered that, but I can’t see that it’s so. I’m not suicidal; I’m paying a high price for the motive of finding the truth. If I could see just one solid argument that I’m on the wrong track . . . but it’s not there. So it’s not stubbornness. There is no reason why I should now recant or change my reaction. If they would provide me one explanation of how a latent, inactive virus totally neutralizes the antibodies, which we call “natural vaccination,” and then ten years after that vaccination comes a disease, and never before, I would say, “Jesus, now I see my mistake.”
SH: Many of the paradoxes you point out are things that have occurred to us who have attempted to keep up with this thing. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand . . .”
PD: You’re totally right! That’s what I mean. You have to be an expert to dance around it, and make smoke around it.
SH: As the public has expressed its doubts about the official Centers for Disease Control theory, the answer has been, “Well, this is a very strange bug, and you have to expect it to behave in unconventional ways.” And here you’re asking, “At what point do we stop making excuses for this virus and say, “We cannot allow these paradoxes to go unquestioned’?”
PD: That’s exactly it. There’s nothing in that virus that makes you wonder, “Here’s something we have never seen before.” HIV is a totally, profoundly conventional retrovirus, exactly like the ones I have studied since 1964, when I arrived here from Germany. There’s nothing new about it. It doesn’t have any unique biochemical or genetic property that makes you wonder if it could do things I’ve never heard of before. It’s so simple that you can predict, on the basis of its genetic information, that its repertoire is going to be extremely limited.
SH: Are you saying that AIDS is, simply, not a sexually transmitted disease?
PD: Yeah. Period. It is not.
SH: And if HIV doesn’t cause AIDS . . .
PD: It’s irrelevant to it.
SH: How then do you explain the correlation between AIDS and the presence of HIV antibodies?
PD: There is a hundred percent correlation, but the definition is the correlation. AIDS is defined as any one of 25 old diseases; only when the antibody is present is it AIDS. That makes the correlation a hundred percent right there. It’s actually a tautology. There is a good correlation, but there would be a good correlation with many other microbes and viruses, because the major risk groups are in the market of shopping for microbes. I would call HIV a marker for risk behavior, but so are many others. If you want to find a marker that stands out–herpes, hepatitis, or syphilis–you’ll find it fairly widespread in the general population. But if you take a rarer thing, like HIV, those are relatively rare, and they’re found in people who have had contacts with many others. It’s like, you have to shop around in the microbiological market a lot before you find something that’s rare. So people who have lots of contacts with others, either by transfusions, like hemophiliacs, or sexually, or sharing needles, are likely to have the rare markers as well as the common ones.
SH: In essence, you’re saying HIV is just hitchhiking along for the ride.
PD: Absolutely. So you find in AIDS patients a much higher than normal incidence of these [other] rare viruses.
SH: And yet, the Centers for Disease Control aren’t saying AIDS is caused by any of those.
PD: Initially they did. CMV was named; hepatitis was considered.
SH: You point out that some people with cases of what appears to be “full-blown AIDS” never test positive for HIV, so they are said not to have AIDS, except that, by every other aspect of the definition, they do.
PD: Yeah, you are very consistent here. They would not officially have AIDS. If you cannot find the virus, then they cannot be called an AIDS case.
SH: Is there a statistically meaningful number of, let’s say, 35-year-old urban gay men who have Kaposi’s sarcoma or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or something else on the list, but who never test positive?
PD: There are some, although very few. There are some published in the Lancet, in New York, exactly in the risk group, male homosexuals with KS and totally free of HIV.
SH: And now this is why some people are saying that Kaposi’s sarcoma . . .
PD: May be just another sexually transmitted disease.
SH: And this is what you call changing the rules or moving the goalposts.
PD: That’s right. It’s always another virus. We don’t want to look at something else, because, if we did, we would have to say, “Look, the virologists haven’t made it, sorry. Let’s step back and let somebody else look for the cause of AIDS.” And that’s hard to do. And the other reason is, there may be quite a few more [cases that don’t test positive]. And if so, it’s not as interesting for the researchers to report it. If they report that we have two dozen Kaposi’s sarcoma cases here [without HIV], they wouldn’t make any headlines here, anywhere, and they would have a hard time getting it published, and they would get under pressure: “Are you sure about this? What else could it be?”
SH: But even one [case of Kaposi’s sarcoma without HIV] would be enough to make one question the theory.
PD: Yes! Exactly! That is exactly how true science advances! In science, if you have one honest exception, the rule is dead. You have to find a new one.
SH: What do the Centers for Disease Control people say about these anomalies?
PD: A year ago, there were quite a few reports on these papers that appeared, that they were redefining AIDS, and possibly taking Kaposi’s sarcoma out of it, or giving it a special category.
SH: And you’re saying that when we deal with well-understood diseases, there are no exceptions to the rules.
PD: Yeah. You don’t have poliomyelitis without polio virus.
SH: And the implications for treatment and research are enormous.
PD: And prevention. To keep people safe simply by telling them, “Look, if you take poppers, that can give you Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumonia.” It’s like smoking–people may not stop, but at least you can tell them about it. Now, they’re almost encouraged to do it. [Former Surgeon] General [C. Everett] Koop sends out a national AIDS notice saying, “Make sure you use condoms and clean needles.” I mean, it’s like two junkies in New York sharing a shot of cocaine, and a third guy says, “You guys are crazy. You can’t share a shot of injection equipment,” and the guys say, “We have nothing to worry about, we’re both wearing prophylactics.” This is essentially the message. This is all they come up with. Tacitly, they almost encourage the use of drugs.
SH: Women’s groups are lobbying to expand the definition of AIDS, so that more diseases that afflict women would be included under the umbrella. How does this tie in? Is AIDS becoming a catchall for everyone’s pet disease?
PD: I think AIDS has become sort of a pioneer among diseases where people have become activists.
SH: How vulnerable are the Centers for Disease Control to these outside activists?
PD: It’s almost their army. They support and finance them, and activate them. They have them all in their pocket now.
SH: It almost seems like this is the first disease in history whose symptoms are being defined by committee. Whoever has the loudest voice gets to have his symptom included in the definition.
PD: You’re so right. How political this whole thing has become. I mean, this is not a disease! It is a syndrome. A syndrome is, by definition, something that is arbitrary. I could make my own syndrome. I could say, “I define “Berkeley Jogging Syndrome’ as back pain and athlete’s foot, which have both increased since people have taken up jogging.” So a new syndrome! But not a new disease. They’re two old diseases that appear mostly among Berkeley professors [laughs]. So it is legitimate to have your own syndrome.
SH: It’s been argued that dementia [one of the five major AIDS diseases in the U.S.] cannot be explained by a disrupted immune system.
PD: There is no obvious explanation of how dementia could be a consequence of a defective immune system. You could say, if dementia is caused by a microbe that infects the brain, like encephalitis, that could be OK; you would have an acute infection. But that is not seen; there’s not an active microbe detectable in AIDS dementia patients.
SH: Yet dementia is observed.
SH: How else to explain it?
PD: Well, you can lose your marbles by other methods! Not only from microbes, but you can burn out your brain with drugs. Chemicals seem to be totally ignored these days. I mean, what is the whole point of using psychoactive drugs? They all reach the neurons. That’s what we’re aiming for. From LSD to poppers, they all go somewhere in the brain. That’s why you get so-called burnout when you use drugs for quite a while. And sometimes you don’t come back.
SH: If the true cause of AIDS in the West is increasing drug use, then how about Africa? How do you account for the simultaneous emergence of AIDS there?
PD: You have to keep the definition in mind. AIDS can be defined as any one of 25 diseases. The most common AIDS diseases in this country are pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma, candidiasis, the wasting disease, and dementia, whereas in Africa the most common AIDS diseases are tuberculosis, diarrhea, and fever.
SH: Is wasting disease the same as slim disease?
PD: That’s a good point. I’m not totally clear. It’s like cancer; you lose weight, only you don’t see the cancer. So I don’t know what wasting disease is–it’s not supposed to be bacterial or parasitic. It’s not like you have salmonella, where you can’t keep the food. And slim disease–that, I think, is initially parasitic. I haven’t actually read anywhere any definition of the differences. But that’s true for many others, like Kaposi’s, which is one of the most outstanding AIDS diseases, typical ones, here, but not in Africa.
SH: Could that simply be accounted for by the fact that the pathogens that cause the diseases are distributed unevenly?
PD: Yes, that could very well be. Therefore, I say that the two diseases are very different and have very different causes. HIV is common in Africa; 10 to 20 percent of the population in some countries have HIV. It’s transmitted perinatally or congenitally. It’s there in males and females, young and old, rich and poor alike. And the [“AIDS”] diseases in Africa are old diseases that are due primarily to malnutrition, parasitic infections, and poor sanitary conditions. The only one definitive parameter of the AIDS definition is HIV. Now Gallo travels to Africa with an antibody test kit and finds a lot of people are positive, so everybody who’s sick among them, guess what they have? They have AIDS! They’re looking at the 25-disease list, and someone has TB, so it’s AIDS.
SH: In the 1960s, people were doing as many drugs in the U.S. as they are now. There was a lot of marijuana and psychedelics and barbiturates and amphetamines being used. If we’re talking about an eight-to-ten-year latency period, then why didn’t AIDS erupt in 1976-77, rather than later?
PD: Good question. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be true that there were as many drugs used in the 1960s as now. I’m investigating this now. The import and consumption of psychoactive drugs has gone up incredibly since the Vietnam War. In fact, with cocaine, 200-fold in the last ten years alone. LSD use has apparently gone down, but heroin has gone up about tenfold in the last ten years.
Now to your question. The distinction between microbial diseases–viruses and bacteria–and diseases caused by intoxication is the latent period. Microbes work within weeks or months. You catch it now. It’s essentially a self-amplifying toxin. The toxic substance of a microbe is not the one that comes in, but the many that are generated in your body; that’s why it’s fast. If you had a great party today, and two months later you still didn’t get syphilis, every doctor will tell you you’re lucky. Except with AIDS. They say, “Oh, ten years ago you had that party? Well, maybe, in the next couple of years you should get pneumonia.” [But] that’s how toxins work, not microbes. If you smoke cigarettes, you can smoke 20 packs on a weekend, you’ll be all right. But if you do it for 10 or 20 years, then you have eroded your . . .
SH: I know what you’re saying. But there are pathogens, like herpes zoster, that can lie dormant for decades and then flare up for some reason.
PD: That is a totally orthodox situation. Then they are reactivated. Now they’re active again, and you get your zoster again. You get your lesions, they’re full of bugs.
SH: Well, if we have the model that works with herpes zoster, then why cannot the same model work for HIV?
PD: That’s an excellent question. If HIV were active in AIDS patients, that would be a totally consistent, logical situation. But it’s not. It remains sleeping. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have an acute disease from a latent virus.
SH: But it remains sleeping as long as . . .
PD: Even when you’re dying from AIDS.
SH: What do you mean?
PD: You look in the patient, anywhere in that patient, for what they call a reservoir–a lot of virus made at the time he’s suffering from it. And you don’t find it. All you find is antibody. That’s the inconsistency.
SH: They say with more sophisticated testing procedures, they are now finding virus, not just antibody.
PD: They find very little virus. The question already includes the answer. You need extremely sophisticated equipment to find the virus particles.
SH: What’s wrong with that?
PD: Nothing wrong with it. But the fact that you need that equipment shows you’re dealing with concentrations that are clinically irrelevant. I don’t know one precedent–not one–in microbiology, where a virus causes a disease when it’s latent. The rule is, when a virus is pathogenic, it’s very active, and it’s numerous, and it’s doing a lot.
SH: And you’re saying that when HIV is injected into laboratory animals, and, accidentally, into humans, that you don’t even get many of them coming down with the disease.
PD: This is an argument for the bankruptcy of the virus hypothesis. Look. They say this is one of the deadliest viruses we’ve ever had. And here, in a country with five million health-care workers, seeing about a hundred thousand AIDS patients in ten years, not one of those health-care workers is vaccinated against AIDS, and we are talking about one or two cases where somebody possibly got it from a patient. Imagine we have five million doctors treating polio patients, or measles, or herpes, or syphilis, and none of them has a vaccine or an antibiotic. That is absolutely absurd! If we had something that truly protects you, but no! There should be hundreds of doctors dying, or scientists working with it.
SH: You’re saying that maybe illicit drug use is the real cause of AIDS, and yet the distinction between controlled, prescription substances and illicit substances is totally arbitrary. Lots of people take prescription drugs, yet they’re not the ones coming down with AIDS. Why would illicit drugs impair the immune system, whereas prescription drugs, which a lot of heterosexual people take, don’t?
PD: Two answers. One of the most harmful drugs is a legal drug, AZT.
SH: I’m talking about drugs in widespread circulation.
PD: A hundred thousand people take AZT. This is one of the major causes of AIDS now. AZT is directly killing your bone marrow.
SH: You know what I’m saying.
PD: Yeah. And the others, I can’t answer that too well. I’m investigating the correlations. There’s very little done on the long-term effects of drugs. But you can name a number of reasons how they could eventually cause diseases like AIDS. The psychoactive drugs, like cocaine or heroin, they are immunosuppressive, because you don’t eat, they keep you up. And if you’re on a budget, if you’re really addicted, you cannot buy food anymore, you cannot feed yourself anymore, you essentially are subject to protein and vitamin malnutrition, because you end up eating junk food. And then if it gets further, you cannot pay the rent anymore, you sleep on the street, and then you end up with pneumonia.
SH: So you’re suggesting that the majority of people coming down with AIDS lead these kinds of life-styles in which they’re not eating correctly, and cleanliness is a factor? For instance, I read this letter on the side of your refrigerator here.
PD: Yeah, that’s what many people actually perceive as an AIDS patient.
SH: But is that true? I’ve known people with AIDS who had money, were upper middle class and clean and ate quite well. Rock Hudson.
PD: That’s true, but I would assume many of them take these poppers, and there are very good correlations. Poppers are toxic as hell. It’s a nitrite.
SH: But I thought that scientists eliminated poppers years ago as a cause of AIDS.
PD: They did; when HIV came, everything was eliminated, except HIV. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the same nitrite gas it was before, which dissociates into the lungs immediately into one of the most reactive compounds you can have. It’s a mutagen, a carcinogen.
SH: But as a virologist, aren’t you getting into fields that aren’t your domain here, like biochemistry?
PD: Absolutely. I’m placing myself out of the market here. I said virology cannot be it, from all I know of virology, so people said, “You can’t be just negative. If this is all you have to offer, what is it that you suggest?” Sometimes you can be more objective in a field that you’re not directly working on. What is the only [new] health threat in the western world, where everything had been getting better in the last 50 years? The only new health threat is the ever-escalating consumption of psychoactive drugs.
SH: How about environmental threats?
PD: This has become better, rather than worse. If it were worse, the average age wouldn’t go up, we wouldn’t grow taller, we wouldn’t jump farther, and we wouldn’t have higher IQs. There are perceived threats and menaces, sure, and it could be even better, perhaps. But in general, the health has improved. If you want to understand AIDS, you have to look at something that happens to these very restricted groups, something they are doing or are exposed to that is not seen in the general population. Ever since that germ theory came along one hundred years ago, that was the favorite of the scientists. A germ is something that gets everybody off the hook and gets you immediately famous. I identify the villain, make an antibody. Get me to Stockholm, I want the Nobel Prize!
SH: Germ theory fits in well with our material model of cause and effect.
PD: Very much, yeah. We love it. A microbe is a perfect villain; a virus, very good! Dr. Gallo works on it, makes an antibody, goes to Stockholm. He is our new all-American hero. That’s what we like. But to hear that some men are criminals, some are homicides, some are homosexuals, some like drugs, some like cigarettes despite dire warnings, that’s not very popular.
SH: But if you’re linking it to drug use, it really has nothing to do with homosexuality.
PD: That’s what I keep saying!
SH: But what are you saying? That the 60 percent of the people with AIDS in the U.S. who are homosexuals take illicit drugs?
PD: Well, it’s like, not every German is a Nazi! See, 10 percent of the population in the western world is homosexual, and that’s maybe eight million homosexual males in the U.S. Twenty thousand get AIDS per year. We’re talking about 0.25 percent of the male homosexuals getting AIDS per year, a very small percentage. So we have to not look at homosexuality in general, because if it were due just to homosexuality, eight million people would have AIDS.
SH: I hear you, but why is the percentage of people with AIDS so heavily skewed toward homosexuals, if in fact it’s not a sexually transmitted disease?
PD: Because a minority of homosexuals, those who are considered as risk groups, who frequent bathhouses and have these large numbers of sexual contacts, are the ones who are using the drugs.
SH: But there’s a heterosexual community that uses large amounts of drugs. My stereotype is a typical yuppie cocaine abuser who drives a BMW into the ghetto and buys a few bags. But these are exactly the male, middle-class heterosexuals who are not getting the disease.
PD: Almost all heterosexuals with AIDS are drug users.
SH: They’re IV-drug users.
PD: Yeah. They’re also [using] amphetamines and all that, but that number is smaller. All the drug users are not recorded by the Centers for Disease Control. They don’t record it; they only record intravenous.
SH: That’s true, but then these male heterosexuals who are getting AIDS would show up in the unexplained category, anomalies; and that slice of the pie is very small.
PD: That’s very small, yes.
SH: So where are these straight white men who should be getting AIDS, because they’re taking drugs?
PD: Well, as I said, almost all heterosexual AIDS cases are IV-drug users. Now, why do the homosexuals take more oral drugs than the heterosexuals, or at least the minority of them? By oral, I mean poppers, inhaling things, amphetamines.
SH: Can we restrict it to cocaine and marijuana?
PD: Well, poppers are very significant.
SH: So you’re not linking all illicit drugs together. You’re saying some are worse than others, like poppers and amphetamines are worse than marijuana.
PD: Oh, sure. Marijuana everybody takes. I think that’s harmless.
SH: Is there, in what you’re saying, a message to the gay community that could be construed to mean, “OK, fellows, as long as you don’t abuse drugs, and eat right, and stay healthy, you can go out and have unprotected anal intercourse?”
PD: Well, I know it’s dangerous to say yes to this, because they immediately jump at me. With some qualification, I would almost say yes to this. Sure, if you’re unprotected and careless, whatever that is, you can get gonorrhea, syphilis . . .
SH: We’re just talking about AIDS.
PD: AIDS? Yeah. I don’t know of any evidence whatsoever that AIDS can be picked up by sex, homo- or heterosexual.
SH: Well, again, with the statistics, within the homosexual community, the correlation of those who come down with the disease is apparently very great for those on the passive end of unprotected anal intercourse. Are you suggesting that a further correlation with drug abuse would be seen with those same people?
PD: I haven’t seen any good data [showing that] the receptive versus the insertive is very different [in HIV infection]. It has been mentioned occasionally, but I haven’t seen any good statistical data that there is a good correlation. The correlation I’ve seen is that the number of partners correlates with the risk of AIDS.
SH: But the message has always been that the number of partners is irrelevant as long as the sex is safe. What difference would it make if you had sex with a thousand people, as long as it was totally safe?
PD: Well, the statistics that have been published by the Centers for Disease Control say it does. They say that if you have a lot of sexual contacts, your risk is higher.
SH: But why wouldn’t it depend on what you do with those sexual contacts?
PD: I don’t think it does depend on that. It depends on the drugs you take to achieve this–that’s what it is.
SH: You’re saying that sexual behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with it, that it’s all the drugs, and that it’s almost a coincidence that heavy drug use happens to be associated with the same groups that indulge in high-risk behavior.
PD: Yeah, that’s my hypothesis now.
SH: So the message has to be that you can have high-risk sex, as long as you don’t do drugs.
SH: Now, I’ve talked to some of the people in the AIDS-caring community, and this kind of thing infuriates them, because they say, “We’ve spent years trying to educate our people away from high-risk sex, and here comes Duesberg, who says, ‘It’s OK, guys, you can go back and do whatever you want.'”
PD: Well, see, I haven’t said, “Go back.” I mean, this is not my field. They don’t listen to me, and apparently they didn’t even listen to Surgeon General Koop or [Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Anthony] Fauci to change their behavior; as we read now, it really hasn’t changed very much. [Duesberg is referring to recently published reports that young gay men have returned to high-risk sexual practices.] It’s on the rebound, anyway. But I think what we have failed miserably in doing is pointing out what correlates directly with this. It’s not sexual activity; that’s a tested activity. It’s been tested for three billion years, as long as life is around. It’s the chemicals: that’s the only new thing around. And I always point out, these drugs are used by a minority of homosexuals, rather than heterosexuals, in part for very practical reasons. Like the amyl nitrites, they are relaxing the muscles and help facilitate anal intercourse, which is what heterosexuals don’t need, or they have used it too, but mostly for the psychoactive part. And although they also have anal intercourse, the heterosexuals, it’s not that important there, a small sort of side kick.
So I think the poppers and all the illicit drugs that aren’t sterile–and cost a whole lot of money so you can’t buy food anymore–those are the ones that are correlating, and those we should warn against. And this is where we fail miserably. And these safe-sex messages cannot be of great relevance to the majority of the population, considering how difficult it is to transmit the virus in the first place.
SH: How about the bleach-your-needles message? Is that valid?
PD: It’s like wearing sunglasses when you go to Chernobyl. It probably helps a tiny bit! [Laughs.] But really, what is that supposed to help? To use a clean needle to inject a dirty drug? Big deal. The focus should be on what’s going through those needles. I mean, sure, it’s better to use a clean needle; I’m not arguing against that, and it’s better to use condoms if you want to avoid this and that. But that’s not what, in my opinion, could possibly cause AIDS. Tell me what the safe-sex programs have ever achieved. AIDS continues to spread.
SH: How about infants born to infected mothers? And what’s happening with transfused people? How is a faulty immune system passed on through blood?
PD: It’s not passed on through blood. It’s made faulty in mom, the crack mother. The worst time to be on drugs is when you are minus nine months old. Today your immune system is going to be developed, or your brain, and mom is high on crack? There’s no nutrients for your brain. That’s why the babies come out mentally retarded.
SH: And if I’m a hemophiliac, why do I get AIDS?
PD: Well, there are hemophiliacs dying, like other people are dying, and hemophiliacs die more often because they have congenital problems. With the transfusions, it’s immunosuppressive.
SH: Transfusions are immunosuppressive?
PD: Yes. You get foreign proteins all the time, and they suppress your immune system.
SH: Just the normal constituents of blood, transfused, are enough to be immunosuppressive?
PD: Yes, and they also cause diseases. To be a long-term recipient of transfusions is not a good proposition.
SH: And this would also be true in the case of a Paul Gann, who gets transfusions after a surgery?
PD: See, these are worthless, anecdotal studies. Here’s a Paul Gann: the guy is 70-something and he gets pneumonia. He had a bypass operation five years ago, or something like that. How old is a Paul Gann supposed to get after a bypass? One day, these people die. Now, the only way we could possibly find out whether HIV has anything to do with Paul Gann’s health is if we had a hundred Paul Ganns with a bypass operation of that age group with HIV, and a hundred Paul Ganns without. Then we could prove that HIV was the reason. This way, we’re selecting one case that fits the hypothesis that is totally within the normal background of the incidence of these diseases.
SH: So Paul Gann died of what?
PD: Of pneumonia, at 70-something, and a bypass operation!
SH: But because he was HIV positive, it was called AIDS?
SH: And you’re saying if we take some hypothetical person who died of pneumonia in 1938 following a transfusion, if we had tested his blood, we might have found HIV in it or we might not have, but it’s totally irrelevant, because what killed him was the fact that he was immunosuppressed because of his transfusions and then got pneumonia.
PD: And the age alone. What are people dying from after a hip or bypass operation? They hardly die from those operations, but they get pneumonia because they’re old. At 70-something with a bypass operation, you can die. And we hardly ever die from the technology because it’s so good. But then you get pneumonia, because at that age, when you don’t move, that’s when it gets you! That’s how people have always died!
SH: When are we going to resolve this? When will we be at the bottom of AIDS?
PD: We could be at the bottom of it very fast if we had some open minds. If there would be one conference–if Newsweek or the New York Times would once say, “We have to consider alternatives. We’re not getting anywhere,” we would have answers very fast. But it’s so polarized, and there’s so much money in the HIV business. Three billion dollars; I mean, it’s very difficult to go against three billion dollars. And all of these scientists would have to say, “Sorry, we may have gotten it wrong.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Duffey.