Those of us in the skeptical community are no strangers to whacko medical theories. It seems every week there is another quack promoting a new "naturalistic" diet or treatment. By far, though, the brunt of a skeptic's time is dealing with denialism – groups of individuals denying that contemporary medical practices don't work or are even dangerous. In the last few years, the anti-vax denialists have been in the media spotlight due to their elaborate campaigns and the outspoken celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who have taken up the anti-vax fight. But there is another camp of deniers festering away in the underbelly of alternative medicine. These people are the AIDS deniers; people who claim that AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus, but rather that it is actually caused by drug use. Some even go so far as to claim that HIV does not exist! Given the horrifying prevalence of AIDS in third world nations and even its alarming proliferation in developed nations, increasing support for AIDS denialism is not simply worrying but outright dangerous.
AIDS denialism has been known to me for some time, having learned about it from reading about Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, who is one of AIDS denialism's best known proponents. Though, given Mullis' colorful personality I figured he was just a lone crank. It was not until this past week when a good friend of mine, SofiaRune, began to get comments on a Youtube video she produced about debunking the link between HIV infection rates and male circumcision. A user by the name of "mykoolaidtastesfunny" made a variety of claims about how AIDS and HIV are not linked, and how HIV has not been shown to exist. He also posted a video by a variety of AIDS "skeptics" repeating his points. Immediately we began to investigate these claims. In the following series of posts, I'll address the claims of the AIDS "skeptics". In Part I, I will focus on the video that started it all…
Mullis and More: A Menagerie of Morons
The video that was posted is as follows:
Note that I will only critique the claims made by the scientists in this video. It's not worth my time to debunk the two journalists in the video since they are not the ones making any scientific claims (especially the first one, Neville Hodgkinson, who's entire argument boils down to "I spent a week in the lab of an unnamed German scientist and he showed my unexplained data which I now believe".)
Kary Mullis: Mullis is a man known to virtually everyone in biology. His claim to fame is winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the development of PCR. However, as a perfect example that even eminent scientists can hold completely insane beliefs, Mullis also believes in astrology, denies anthropogenic global warming, and believes he has conversed with an alien in the form of a glowing raccoon. He is also completely convinced that he will die in the presence of redwood trees, and is thus completely reckless when redwoods are not around, going so far as to ski down the centre of a highway far from the sight of a redwood. In the video, Mullis recalls the tale of applying to a grant from the NIH and needing to find a source for the claim that AIDS is caused by HIV. He claims that he did a search through the literature but look as he may, he could not find one. Furthermore, he claims to have asked Luc Montagier (one of the co-discoverers of HIV, along with Robert Gallo) and Montagier was unable to provide him with any sources. Shocked that there was no source for the HIV/AIDS link, Mullis became a skeptic and has denied a relationship between the two ever since. Whether or not this story is true, I have no way of telling. But it is possible to do a search of the literature to see if there are any papers showing the link between HIV and AIDS. And does Mullis' claim stand up to scrutiny?
A very preliminary search on PubMed allowed us to find 6 different papers1 which show a link between infection with HIV and AIDS, more than enough necessary to support the claim that AIDS is caused by HIV. All of these papers were published between the years of 1985 and 1993, so many – if not all of them – were available to Mullis at the time he was writing his grant application2. Either Mullis is incapable of doing a cursory search of scientific literature, or he isn't being entirely honest with his story. I'm inclined to believe the latter.
But I'm feeling generous. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe some of these papers had yet to be published, and perhaps he didn't have access to the journals the other papers had been published in. Perhaps Mullis could be excused for being skeptical at the time. But what about now? Those papers, and many others, are now readily available. Arguing that there was no evidence available two decades ago doesn't mean much today. Saying "Oh HIV doesn't cause AIDS because I did a search of the literature twenty years ago and found no proof" is akin to arguing that evolutionary theory is flawed because Darwin's original work from 150 years ago wasn't entirely accurate. Such an argument completely ignores scientific findings and advances made since then. This argument fails because there ARE papers that show AIDS is caused by HIV, those papers have been published as far back as 1983, and such papers continue to be published. Someone hand the deniers a copy of "Searching PubMed for Dummies".
Rodney Richards: Richards is a biochemist who founded the biotech company AMGen (though, I am assuming this is true – the only references to him I could find on Google all come from AIDS denial websites…). Richards begins talking about Peter Duesberg, the granddaddy of the AIDS denial movement (more on him later). He recalls his time at AMGen when Duesberg was invited to give a seminar. According to him, Duesberg's talk was boycotted by the other scientists working at AMGen. He notes that he thought this was odd and it prompted him to "go to the library". What did he find in his research? He doesn't say. Richards actually does not make an argument at all. He just says "that was 12 years ago and I've been studying this issue ever since". What Richards is doing is a subtle argument from authority; he is basically saying "I'm a scientist who has studied AIDS for 12 years, and I don't believe in it, therefore you can be confidant that HIV does not cause AIDS". He doesn't need to present an argument because his sycophants will simply hide behind his status as a scientist with a PhD.
He also implies that the truth about AIDS is being covered up by some scientific conspiracy, a notion that is common with alt-med movements. Such an argument, however, is laughable, considering that in the past, the editor-in-chief of Science has explicitly stated his support for Duesberg's right to air his views and to do his research, going so far as to voice his support for Duesberg's grant applications3 (he was not, of course, agreeing with Duesberg's views). It is not surprising, though, that scientists don't want to listen to Duesberg's claims. For scientists, the issue is settled – AIDS is caused by HIV. There is ample evidence built up over the last 30 years that shows this to be the case. It is the same reason why evolutionary biologists don't invite creationists to speak at evolutionary biology conferences; their claims are not supported by the scientific evidence and are a waste of time to deal with. This should not be confused with some sort of conspiracy to silence the anti-AIDS crowd. They have every right to express their views – and maybe when they have some real evidence, we'll listen.
Christian Fiala: As I watched Fiala's portion of the video I quickly began to ask myself "How on Earth did this man ever get a PhD?" Fiala's argument is so incredibly wrong that it is hard to believe that his segment isn't satire. In case you didn't catch his argument due to a massive brain haemorrhage from stupid overload, it goes like this: HIV spread to the heterosexual population in the 80s from the homosexual population. This is unlikely, he says, because the virus' method of transmission is predetermined and does not change easily. How did the virus know, he muses, that the risk group was almost all affected and it had to "break out" into a new population? Fiala claims that transmission from the homosexual population to the heterosexual population would require the virus to gain some sort of sentience and realize it needs to move out. This is impossible so, he claims, the appearance of AIDS in heterosexuals could not have been caused by HIV.
Are you done laughing?
The virus, of course, does not need to have some kind of sentient knowledge of its situation to transfer from one population to the other. In fact, we know EXACTLY how the virus moved into the heterosexual population. Blood samples used for blood transfusion are now closely screened for HIV, but back in the 80s, before we really knew much about the virus, it wasn't. Many members of a subset of the homosexual community were frequent blood donors, and their samples would have all been tainted. For people with haemophilia, blood transfusions can be an important life saving procedure, and in many instances, blood from HIV positive samples was used. It wasn't long until AIDS began to show up in haemophiliacs, and then in the general population. At no point did the virus knowingly decide to move into another population, and at no point did the mode of transmission change. The movement of the virus through populations is well known and well documented, so Fiala's argument falls flat on its face.
Peter Duesberg, Kingpin of Denial: Rodney Richards, in his video appearance, mentions a man by the name of Peter Duesberg. Anyone who looks into the AIDS denialist issue is bound to come across references to him; his name has practically become synonymous with the AIDS "skeptic" movement. In 1987, Duesberg published a paper in the journal Cancer Research4 where he claimed that HIV is simply a harmless passenger virus5. At that time, there was much not known about how the HIV virus causes AIDS, and Duesberg could perhaps be excused for being skeptical at the time. Nevertheless, the uncertainty in what mechanism the HIV virus utilized was dwarfed by the voluminous epidemiological data that suggested HIV as the cause. In the years following, the precise molecular mechanism of HIV's virulence has been elucidated, and there really is no longer any cause for skepticism. Duesberg nonetheless clings to his beliefs.
So what does Duesberg attribute AIDS to, if not to HIV? He and his followers believe that AIDS is actually caused by drug use – particularly intravenous drugs and nitrite inhalants – as well as malnutrition. There are many reasons why this cannot be the case. If AIDS is caused by drug use, then why is it that all drug users do not contract AIDS? And of the subset of drug users that do get AIDS, why do they all test positive for HIV? Why do we only find HIV in people who have AIDS or eventually progress to AIDS, if it is just a harmless virus with no real pathology? Why does AIDS pass from mother to child if it is not due to a transmissible pathogen? Surely newborn infants are not heavy drug users. These questions need to be addressed by Duesberg if he wishes his ideas to have any kind of validity, and to date, neither Duesberg nor his followers have been able to adequately provide a response.
Why does Duesberg continue to be a boil on the face of AIDS research if his ideas are patently ridiculous? Perhaps it is due to the false sense that his ideas are taken seriously by other members of the scientific community. Many AIDS "skeptics" will frequently cite numbers of scientists that supposedly support Duesberg. But these are often lists of scientists that do NOT believe Duesberg is correct on the AIDS/HIV issue; they merely support his right to investigate the issue and to voice his opinions. The credibility of his scientific views is falsely inflated this way.
These are the prominent faces in the AIDS denialist world. Continuing on into Part II, I'll look at Koch's Postulates, how they relate to AIDS, and how they confirm that HIV really is the cause.
- Those papers are as follows:-Fauci A.S. "Multifactorial nature of human immunodeficiency virus disease: implications for therapy". Science 1993.262:1011-1017.
-Weiss R.A. "How does HIV cause AIDS?" Science 1993.260:1273-1278.
-Gallo R.C., Satin P.S., Gelmann E.P., Roberto Gumff M. "Isolation human T-cell leukemia virus in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)". Science 1983. 220:865-867.
-Gallo R.C. et al "Frequent detection and isolation of cytopathic retroviruses (HTLV-III) from patients with AIDS and at risk from AIDS". Science 1984. 224:500-503.
- Schechter M.T. et al "HIV-1 and the aetiology of AIDS". British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV AIDS, Vancouver, Canada, Lancet 1993. 341:658-659.
- Weiss R.A., Jaffe H.A. "Duesberg, HIV and AIDS". Nature 1990. 345:659-660.
- Actually, with a little math, we can see that all of these papers were available to Mullis, at least at the time his clip was filmed. As you will see in the clip with Rodney Richards, Richards claims that he has been researching AIDS and HIV for 12 years. Robert Gallo's papers which linked HIV with AIDS was published in 1983. If Richards began his research that very same year, then his clip was filmed 12 years later, in 1995 (that is, of course, the earliest it could have been filmed – it may have been filmed at an even later point). It is not unreasonable to think that Mullis' part was filmed around the same time. So, at the very earliest, Mullis' clip was filmed in 1995, after all of the papers had been published. He has no excuse for making the claims he does.
- Cohen J. "The Duesberg phenomenon". Science. 1994 (Issue 266, 1642-1644)
- Deusberg P. "Retroviruses as carcinogens and pathogens: Expectations and reality". Cancer Research Issue 47 (1987)
- Gallo has actually challenged Duesberg to infect himself with HIV, if he really believes so strongly that it is harmless. Duesberg has, of course, backed down from this challenge, saying he could never get the proper approval of an ethics board to do it.