The AIDS Debate: The Most Controversial Story You've Never Heard

By Liam Scheff

Reprinted from the Boston Dig, May 7, 2003

In 1984, Robert Gallo, a government cancer-virologist, called an international press conference to announce that he'd found the probable cause of AIDS. He claimed that a retrovirus called HIV was destroying the immune systems of young gay men and IV drug abusers, leaving them open to a variety of both viral diseases and cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS is not a single disease, but rather a category of 29 unrelated, previously-known conditions including herpes, yeast infections, salmonella, diarrhea, fever, flus, TB, pelvic cancer in women, pneumonia and bacterial infections. The CDC also designates HIV- positive people who aren't sick, but have a T-cell count below 200, as AIDS patients (T-cells are a subset of white blood cells). The only thing that separates an AIDS diagnosis from any of these conditions is a positive HIV test, which itself is based on Robert Gallo's research.

Gallo's HIV theory, however, was not the only AIDS theory, and according to a growing number of concerned scientists, researchers and activists, it wasn't the best. For 70 years before Gallo, retroviruses were known to be a non-toxic part of the cell, and no single virus could simultaneously cause a viral disease like pneumonia, in which cells are destroyed, and a cancer like Kaposi's Sarcoma, in which cells multiply rapidly.

These scientists argue that Gallo's unified HIV/AIDS theory is flawed and that treating 29 unrelated diseases with extremely toxic AIDS drugs like AZT and protease inhibitors is at best irresponsible and at worse medical genocide.

They may have a point. Ninety-four percent of all AIDS-related deaths in the US occurred after the introduction of AZT, according to CDC statistics through the year 2000. And according to the University of Pittsburgh, the No. 1 cause of death in US AIDS patients today is liver failure, a side-effect of the new protease inhibitors.

The questions arise: Did Gallo truly solve the AIDS riddle, and are we treating AIDS humanely and effectively?

To answer these questions, I spoke with three prominent AIDS researchers. Dr. Peter Duesberg is a chemist and retroviral expert. Duesberg discovered the Oncogene (cancer gene) and isolated the retroviral genome (of which HIV is one) in 1970. He is professor of molecular biology at UC Berkeley.

Dr. David Rasnick is a protease specialist and has been in AIDS research for 20 years. He and Duesberg work in collaboration on cancer and AIDS research. Rasnick was an advisor on President Mbeki's South African AIDS panel.

Dr. Rodney Richards is a chemist who worked with Amgen and Abbot labs, designing the first HIV tests from Robert Gallo's HIV cell line.

The interviews were conducted separately and integrated into a dialogue. Individual points-of-view belong to individual speakers.

How did you get involved with AIDS research?

Rasnick: I'm a chemist and protease enzyme researcher. I design and synthesize inhibitors to stop tissue-destroying viruses and cancers. When Robert Gallo announced HIV caused AIDS, I wanted to work on inhibitors that would stop it.

In '85 I was at a research meeting where HIV was being discussed. An AIDS specialist was asked how much HIV was present in an infected AIDS patient. He was asked, "What's the titer of HIV?"

The titer is the number of infectious virus particles in a blood or tissue sample. A titer of live virus is easily obtainable from the particular tissue that the virus infects. If you have herpes, the sample comes from a cold sore; if it's polio, it's from the intestine; if it's smallpox, it's a pustule; if it's a cold, it's the throat.

When you're infected with a virus, it infects and kills about 30 percent of the specific tissue that it targets before you get any symptoms. You can take a titer of any infected area, put it under a microscope and see millions of living viruses.

So, the virologist was asked, "What's the titer?"

He answered, "Undetectable. Zero."

I thought, how is that possible? How can you be made sick from something that isn't there? With polio, researchers threw away a hundred viruses before they found the right one. I assumed Gallo had simply gotten the wrong virus, and we'd have to start over.

By 1987, there were 30,000 cumulative AIDS cases. Numbers were not growing as predicted; and AIDS hadn't left its original risk groups. Six years after the first AIDS cases, 95 percent of infections still occurred exclusively in men - 2/3 gay men, and 1/3 IV drug users. Additionally, each AIDS risk group suffered from specific diseases.

Viruses don't cause different diseases based on gender, sexual preference or lifestyle. Viruses have unique but limited genetic structures, which manifest in a limited but identical set of symptoms in all patients. The herpes virus makes herpes lesions, but never a sore throat. The chicken pox virus always produces skin sores, but never paralysis.

Viral epidemics spread exponentially in the first months and years, killing everyone who can't survive long enough to develop immunity to it. HIV wasn't growing; it remained in its original risk groups, and it caused different diseases in each. It clearly wasn't acting like a contagious virus.

In 1988, I came across an article written by Peter Duesberg in the science journal Cancer Research. The article was on retroviruses in general, and HIV in particular. Gallo claimed AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, HIV. Duesberg was the world's preeminent retrovirologist. He'd studied and mapped the retroviral genome in the '70s. Duesberg's knowledge of retroviruses was unparalleled. In the article, he laid out, point for point, what retroviruses are, and what they can and can't do.

HIV is a retrovirus; what are retroviruses?

Rasnick: Retroviruses are a subset of viruses that are not toxic to cells. They were discovered in the early 20th century. They're one of the first identified cellular particles. There are about 3,000 catalogued retroviruses. They exist in every animal: dogs, cats, whales, birds, rats, hamsters and humans. Retrovirologists estimate that one to two percent of our own DNA is retrovirus.

Retroviruses are RNA strands that copy themselves into our DNA using an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. Retroviruses are passed down matrilineally - from mother to child. They're not sexually transmissible. Lab animals do not exchange retroviruses with each other, no matter how much they mate. But babies always have the same retroviruses as their mothers.

Current research strongly indicates that they're simply a naturally occurring part of us. In 50 years of modern lab research, no retrovirus has ever been shown to kill cells or cause disease, except under very special laboratory conditions.

Peter Duesberg: In 1987 I was invited by Cancer Research to discuss whether retroviruses, including HIV, could cause disease or immune deficiency. I was invited because of my experience with retroviruses.

In 1970, I was working in UC Berkeley's virus lab. The big program in virology at the time, which we were part of, was to find a virus that caused cancer. There was also a large government cancer-virus program at the National Institutes of Health. Robert Gallo was one of the scientists working on that project.

We began looking at retroviruses because of their unique qualities. Typical viruses kill cells. Their strategy is to enter the cell, kill it and move on to the next one. However, with cancer, cells aren't killed; in fact, they multiply very rapidly. Therefore a virus couldn't cause cancer. Retroviruses, however, don't kill cells. This quality made them an outstanding candidate for a cancer virus.

In 1970, I made a discovery that got a lot of attention. I isolated a retroviral gene from a cancer cell, and infected other cells with this gene. The cancer virologists were very excited. They thought this might be the thing they'd been looking for - a retrovirus that could infect other cells and cause cancer. I was suddenly famous. There were job offers; I was given tenure at Berkeley and admission into the Academy of Science.

Of course, if a virus, or a unique retrovirus, caused cancer in the real world, then cancer would be contagious. But nobody "catches" cancer. A "case of cancer" doesn't go around the office. However, such fundamental thoughts were not on the minds of the virus hunters. Scientists like impressive-sounding proofs, regardless of what we know is true in the real world. The retroviral cancer-gene was just a lab artifact. It didn't exist in humans or animals in nature. We created it in the lab, and that's where it stayed. It was purely academic.

As part of the cancer-gene experiment, my associates and I mapped the retroviral genome. We made the maps that today are used as the blueprints for all retroviruses, including HIV.

What do retroviruses do?

Duesberg: In terms of disease, they do nothing. They're transcribed into the DNA in a few cells, and they hang around there for the rest of your life as part of your genome. Nevertheless, cancer-virus hunters continued to look for a cancer-gene using the technology we created and the retroviral maps we made.

Rasnick: In the mid-'70s, Robert Gallo claimed he'd found a cancer-retrovirus in the cells of a leukemia patient. He called it HL23V. He found it the same way he would later find HIV - not by finding the retrovirus in the blood - but by looking for antibody and enzyme activity that he claimed stood in for the actual retrovirus.

By 1980, his claim was refuted by both the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and the National Cancer Institute. Gallo's supposed HL23V antibodies weren't the result of a cancer-virus, but rather the result of "exposure to many natural substances" which create antibodies in humans. Today nobody, not even Gallo, claims HL23V ever existed.

In 1980, he tried again. Gallo claimed to have a new cancer retrovirus called HTLV-1, which caused a kind of leukemia in which T-cells multiplied into fluid tumors. T-cells are one of many subsets of white blood cells. Once again, the proof was less than convincing. Less than one percent of people who tested positive for HTLV-1 ever developed leukemia. It was a less-than-successful validation for his theory.

How did Gallo move from cancer to AIDS research?

Rasnick: In the early '80s, gay men were showing up in emergency rooms with a variety of simultaneous illnesses and infections. At the time, medical journals speculated that the diseases were drug-related. Gay men had been abusing toxic, immune suppressing and even carcinogenic drugs like poppers, cocaine and amphetamines on a daily basis for the better part of the '70s.

In 1983, Luc Montagnier, a French scientist at the Pasteur Institute, claimed to have found a new retrovirus in AIDS patients. But nobody paid attention, because he hadn't isolated a virus, and he hadn't found a single viral particle in the blood - remember the titer was zero, undetectable. Seeking some academic support, Montagnier sent a cell sample to Robert Gallo at the NIH. Gallo took the cell-line Montagnier sent him and modified it slightly. Then he did something strange. He stole it.

In 1984 Gallo called an international press conference and together with Margaret Heckler, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, announced that he'd discovered the "probable cause" of AIDS. It was a new retrovirus called HTLV-III, (later re-named HIV). Later that same day, he patented the modified cell-line he'd originally gotten from Montagnier. He hadn't published a single word of his research. Gallo, a government-backed scientist, simply announced that a retroviral-epidemic was on its way.

He sold the cell-line to Abbot Labs, a pharmaceutical company that makes HIV tests. The French government asked that all patent rights be returned to Montagnier. Gallo refused, claiming it was all his work. In 1987, Gallo and Montagnier were forced by President Reagan and French Prime Minister Chirac to meet in a hotel room to work out the HIV patent rights. In 1992, Gallo was officially convicted of theft by a federal scientific ethics committee.

Rodney Richards: At first Gallo claimed he invented the whole process. Now he claims his sample might have been "contaminated" by Montagnier's.

Duesberg: The NIH itself ran a two-year investigation of Gallo's HIV claim, and they couldn't come up with any convincing evidence that he came up with it on his own.

What did Abbot labs do with Gallo's cell line?

Rasnick: Abbot labs makes HIV-antibody tests out of it. Abbot's made billions selling HIV tests, and Gallo's made millions from his patent.

So when we're given an HIV-antibody test, we're tested based on what Gallo and Montagnier claim to have found. How did Luc Montagnier find HIV?

Richards: First he looked in his patients' blood, but he couldn't find it there. In fact, no one has ever found HIV in human blood.

Right, the titer was zero - so where did he look? Richards: Montagnier took tissue from the swollen lymph node of a gay man who was a suspected AIDS patient. In an infected person, the lymph tissue will presumably be littered with infected cells.

Montagnier attempted to perform a cell culture with that tissue. This is the lab technique used to isolate viruses like herpes and mononucleosis. In a cell culture, infected cells are mixed with uninfected cells in a petri dish. Separated from the body's immune system, viruses that are being suppressed can surface. The virus travels from the infected cell to the uninfected cell through the liquid in the dish. The scientist collects this liquid, concentrates it, and spins it through a sucrose density gradient to isolate the virus.

A sucrose density gradient is a tube of layered sugar solutions of specific densities. The layers become thicker from top to bottom. The cell liquid is gently placed on top of the sugar solution. This is spun in a centrifuge for many hours to force the viral particles to descend through the density layers. Cellular particles, including retroviruses, have known densities. The known density corresponds to a layer in the test tube. The descending particles stop when they find a density equal to their own. This layer is photographed with an electron microscope. In cultures from virally-infected patients, the photo plate is filled with millions of identical viral particles.

Finally, a new cell culture is performed with the isolated viral particles to see if they are indeed infectious. Once again, the cell fluid is separated, spun and photographed to verify that the same virus appears. This is what's known as viral isolation.

Is this what Montagnier did?

Richards: He tried to, but it didn't work. Montagnier took lymph tissue from a suspected AIDS patient, mixed it with cells from a healthy blood donor and performed a cell culture. He removed the liquid and spun it in a centrifuge, but he found no virus. That didn't stop him. Montagnier repeated the experiment but added a crucial new step. He took the suspected AIDS tissue and mixed it with a variety of cells in a culture, including cells from an umbilical cord. Then he added powerful chemicals called Mitogens that artificially force cells to replicate. He found, after 2 or 3 weeks, evidence of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, a sign of possible retroviral activity.

But he hadn't found any virus?

Richards: No. He found an enzyme that retroviruses use. But reverse transcriptase is found in many other microbes, cellular components and processes, including umbilical cells, and forced replication. Montagnier then separated the mitogenically stimulated fluid from the culture and poured it into another dish of healthy cells and again found reverse transcriptase activity.

He put this through a sucrose density gradient and found reverse transcriptase activity at the density layer where retroviruses were known to purify. What he did not find was a virus. When he looked through the electron microscope at that same density gradient, he found nothing - but he didn't acknowledge that until years later.

That's what's known as isolation of HIV.

How does this prove that an infectious virus was making people sick?

Richards: It doesn't. This is insufficient evidence to prove that HIV or any infectious virus exists, let alone that it causes disease.

How did Gallo use Montagnier's cells to prove HIV existed and caused AIDS?

Richards: Gallo cultured the cells, but didn't find enough reverse transcriptase activity to convince him that Montagnier had found a retrovirus. So Gallo added another step. He mixed cells from 10 AIDS patients together; then he added those to leukemia T-cells from his HTLV-1 retrovirus experiment. At that point, Gallo found enough reverse transcriptase activity to convince him that there was indeed a retrovirus. That's how he claims to have found HIV.

But Gallo had already found reverse transcriptase activity in the leukemia cells. How did he prove that there was a new retrovirus - HIV?

Richards: Many scientists don't believe that he did prove it.

You said Gallo used a T-cell line to grow HIV. Isn't HIV supposed to kill T-cells?

Richards: That's what Gallo initially claimed, but Abbot labs grows its HIV in human T-cells. It's even called an immortal cell line, because the leukemia cells don't die. To date, no researcher has demonstrated how HIV kills T-cells. It's just a theory that keeps money flowing into the pharmaceutical approach to treating AIDS.

Rasnick: Gallo patented the leukemia T-cell mixture the very same day he announced he'd found the "probable cause" of AIDS.

What do HIV tests do?

Rasnick: They look for antibodies in your blood to proteins that are taken out of this mixture. Your body produces antibodies as a response to all foreign material - germs, yeasts, viruses, even the food you eat. Viruses are DNA or RNA wrapped in protein building blocks. Antibodies grab onto these proteins, immobilizing and destroying the virus. When these antibodies encounter different viral proteins in the future, they'll very often grab onto them, too. This is called cross-reactivity.

Duesberg: Viruses are only dangerous the first time you encounter them. Once you've made antibodies to a virus, you have immunity for the rest of your life, and the virus can't get you sick anymore. This is the opposite of HIV theory, which states: You become infected; you don't get sick; you make antibodies; and 10 years later, you get sick and die.

Rasnick: There are two common HIV antibody tests. One is the Elisa, in which a bunch of proteins from the T-cell mixture are stuck in a series of little plastic wells on a test plate. The other is called Western Blot. In this test, the proteins are separated onto individual paper strips. Your blood is added, and if antibodies from your blood stick to proteins from this mixture, you're said to be HIV positive.

They're assuming the proteins are from HIV; but they never isolated HIV, so how can they say these tests can diagnose HIV-infection?

Rasnick: They can't, and they don't. None of the proteins in the Elisa and Western Blot tests have been proven to be specific to HIV or any retrovirus. For this reason the FDA has not approved a single test for diagnosing HIV-infection.

Richards: There are at least 30 tests marketed to test for HIV. None of them are approved by the FDA to diagnose the presence or absence of HIV. Not the Elisa, not viral load, not Western Blot, not the P24 antigen test. The FDA and manufacturers clearly state that the significance of testing positive on the Elisa and Western Blot test is unknown.

AIDS researchers admit that the tests contain at least 80 percent non-specific cellular material - they're, at best, 20 percent effective. But in my scientific opinion, they contain no HIV at all. The medical literature lists at least 60 different conditions that can register positive on the HIV-test. These conditions include candidas, arthritis, parasites, malaria, liver conditions, alcoholism, drug abuse, flu, herpes, syphilis, other STDs and pregnancy.

Rasnick: It's very simple to see how you can get false positives. Antibodies cross-react. The more viruses and germs you're exposed to, the more antibodies you'll produce, the greater risk you'll test positive on a non-specific antibody test. If you live in a country without clean water or sanitary living conditions, you're going to have constant microbial and parasitic infections that produce antibodies.

You carry antibodies to all the colds, flus, viruses and vaccinations you've ever had. If you're pregnant, you're producing antibodies that will react with Abbot's Elisa test. Pregnancy is a known cause of false positives on the HIV test.

Different races have different ranges of naturally-occurring antibodies. That's why blacks have a nine times greater chance of testing positive than white Europeans, and a 33 times greater chance than Asians. It doesn't have anything to do with infection or health. In one study, a tribe of South American Indians was given Elisa tests. Thirteen percent of them tested HIV-positive, but nobody was sick. They just had antibodies that reacted with the test.

If the tests aren't specific, and we can't find HIV in the blood, then what is AIDS?

Richards: According to the CDC, AIDS works like a formula: If you have an AIDS-indicator disease like salmonella, tuberculoses, pneumonia, herpes, or a yeast infection, and you test HIV-positive, then you're said to have AIDS, and you're treated with toxic AIDS drugs. If you test negative or don't know your HIV status, you're spared the toxic drugs and simply treated for the disease you have.

In 1993 the CDC expanded their definition of AIDS to include people who are not sick at all but who test positive and have a one-time T-cell count under 200. Based on this new criteria, by 1997, about 2/3 of all AIDS cases were perfectly healthy people. As it happens, '97 was the last year the CDC told us how many people were healthy and how many were sick. Now they just count everyone who's HIV-positive as an AIDS patient, whether they're sick or not.

Let me clarify this. When people die of AIDS, they actually die of a known disease. But if their blood reacts with an HIV-antibody test, they're no longer said to have the disease, they're said to have AIDS?

Rasnick: That's how it works. And the sick people who test HIV-positive are put on the most toxic drugs ever manufactured and sold.

What about AIDS in Africa?

Rasnick: It's the same story, even worse. Fifty percent of Africans have no sewage systems. Their drinking water mixes with animal and human waste. They have constant TB and malaria infections, the symptoms of which are diarrhea and weight loss, the very same criteria UNAIDS and the World Health Organization use to diagnose AIDS in Africa.

These people need clean drinking water and treated mosquito nets [mosquitoes carry malaria], not condoms and lectures and deadly pharmaceuticals forced on pregnant mothers. We've put 20 years and $118 billion into HIV. We've got no cure, no vaccine and no progress. Instead we have thousands of people made sick and even killed by toxic AIDS drugs. But we can't just treat them for the diseases we know they have because if we do, we're called "AIDS denialists." Treating them for the diseases they actually have would be more humane and effective than forcing toxic drugs down their throats, and it would also save billions of tax dollars. It's a multi-billion dollar industry. There are 100,000 professional AIDS researchers in this country. It's as hard to challenge as big tobacco at this point.

What does Luc Montagnier say about this?

Rasnick: In 1990 at the San Francisco AIDS conference, Montagnier announced that HIV did not, after all, kill T-cells and could not be the cause of AIDS. Within hours of making this announcement, he was attacked by the very industry he'd helped to create. Montagnier's not a liar. He's a so-so scientist who's in over his head.

Afterword: In a 1997 interview, Luc Montagnier spoke about his isolation of HIV. He said, "We did not purify [isolate] ... We saw some particles but they did not have the morphology [shape] typical of retroviruses ... They were very different ... What we did not have, as I have always recognized it, is that it was truly the cause of AIDS."

Robert Gallo hasn't made such large concessions. He has, however, amended his AIDS death sentence. He now believes that it's possible to live with HIV "for 30 years until you die of old age," as long as you live a healthy lifestyle and avoid immune-compromising substances.

In 1994 Gallo quietly announced that the major AIDS defining illness in gay men - Kaposi's Sarcoma, was not caused by HIV but was likely caused by amyl nitrite poppers, a drug that had been popular in the gay community. Somehow, this didn't make headlines.

Gallo also said that Peter Duesberg's research into a drug-based AIDS model should be funded. Duesberg's funding has all but evaporated since he publicly challenged the HIV/AIDS model.