Duesberg’s Ideas--and the Rebuttals


Last year, Peter Duesberg’s article “Is the AIDS Virus a Science Fiction?” appeared in the conservative magazine Policy Review. The article, co-authored with graduate student Bryan J. Ellison, generated more letters to the editor than any in the magazine’s history.

W. Shepherd Smith Jr., president of Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy, summed up the anti-Duesberg reaction when he expressed disappointment that the magazine would “print anything by an individual who has been so discredited in the scientific community as Peter Duesberg. His ideas are not only wrong, but incredibly harmful.”

However, Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner who studies AIDS, wrote: “On the contrary, I believe existing evidence demonstrates that HIV is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause AIDS.”


A flavor of the debate can be gleaned from points drawn from the Policy Review article, coupled with rebuttals that researchers have made at various times.

Duesberg’s and Ellison’s argument includes these points:

* Presence of antibodies to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) indicates that the body has successfully staved off infection by the virus.

Not so, AIDS researchers say, because the presence of antibodies does not mean an infection has been suppressed.

* The AIDS/HIV theory does not meet classic guidelines developed by Robert Koch in the 19th Century to determine “whether a disease is infectious and caused by a particular microbe.”

Koch’s Postulates stipulate that bacteria must be found in all cases of the disease, the bacteria must be isolated from other germs and from the host’s body, the bacteria must cause sickness when injected into healthy hosts and the same bacteria must be once again be isolated from the newly diseased host.

Duesberg and Ellison asserted that “no HIV at all can be isolated from at least 10%-20% of AIDS patients; until the recent advent of highly sensitive methods, no direct trace of HIV could be found in the majority of AIDS cases.”

Their critics respond that Koch’s Postulates are outmoded. According to Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus, many microbes-- including those of cholera and tuberculosis--are now known to infect many people who do not come down with the disease. Microbes may also affect organs indirectly.

As for Duesberg and Ellison’s contention that HIV can be isolated in only a minority of AIDS patients, researchers reply that a battery of tests enables them to find HIV in nearly 100% of AIDS cases.

* The definition of AIDS by the federal Centers for Disease Control is flawed. The list contains 25 “old” diseases, such as P. carinii pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea, that can occur without the presence of HIV. But when patients with these diseases are found to also have the AIDS virus, they are automatically diagnosed as having AIDS. “The correlation between AIDS and HIV is thus an artifact of the definition itself,” the authors wrote.

As noted above, critics respond that correlations between HIV and AIDS-related diseases are extremely high, nearly 100%, if all types of testing for the virus are considered. It is true, critics say, that the disease list for AIDS may be somewhat outmoded. Gallo now concedes that Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer, may not be sparked by HIV alone.

* “Evidence increasingly indicates that large numbers of people infected with HIV, probably the majority, will never develop AIDS.” Duesberg and Ellison note that estimates of the number of HIV-infected people in this country were scaled back dramatically for the base line year of 1986--from a high estimate of 1 million to 1.5 million to 750,000. (To date, about 172,000 Americans have been found to have the disease, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.)

In his recent book, “Virus Hunting,” Gallo asserts that by 1990 “it appeared that more than 50% of all infected people would develop AIDS, probably much more.”

Estimates for the disease are imprecise, critics say, simply because not everyone infected with the disease has been diagnosed with the infection.

* The distribution of AIDS cases casts doubt on HIV as the cause. In the United States, more than 90% of AIDS patients are males--even though tests of more than 1 million male and female applicants to the armed forces found the same proportion of men and women were infected with HIV.

Mainstream AIDS researchers say fewer Armed Forces applicants come from groups most vulnerable to AIDS--homosexual men and intravenous drug users.

* Because of its toxicity to all cells, the anti-AIDS drug AZT may actually contribute to the deterioration of the immune system of patients taking the drug.

Researchers agree that AZT’s effects can be harmful, especially at high doses, but say that it does help AIDS victims live longer.

* Perhaps most controversially, Duesberg and Ellison wrote that “the appearance of young male homosexuals with multiple diseases in 1980 and 1981 should never have been a surprise; indeed, the first five homosexuals diagnosed with this syndrome in 1981 were heavy users of nitrite inhalants (a sexual stimulant), an indicator of the risk behavior practiced by all of the early AIDS cases.”

Before the discovery of HIV, some researchers concentrated on drugs as a possible cause of AIDS. But drugs are now discounted as the disease’s cause, although they may contribute to increased vulnerability to infections. Intravenous drug users also spread HIV by sharing dirty needles.