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If I’ve learned anything in 18 years in the newspaper business,
it’s that if almost all the major media and establishment experts are of
one
opinion on a scientific controversy with a political angle, you will
seldom be wrong if you assume that consensus is not only wrong, but
spectacularly wrong. Remember the dread Nuclear Winter? Global warming
is one recent example, as is the fabled destruction of the ozone layer,
but how many remember acid rain. I interviewed the top experts in
atmospheric science at the time and found that they believed the
politically preferred theory of the moment — that it was caused by
power plants in the Midwest spewing poison that drifted to the
Adirondacks was the least likely hypothesis and almost certainly not
true. But the great herd of independent minds in the establishment
media had somehow never found the acknowledged experts (it did take me
a couple of days of intensive telephone work).

So when a story linking chimpanzees and AIDS received prominent,
almost breathless play earlier this week, my BS detector went into
overtime. Unless you operate on the assumption that any story with both
“research” and “AIDS” in it is automatically a Big Deal, this bit of
research didn’t seem like much of a breakthrough — unless one thinks
that playing it prominently will convince conspiracy theorists who
think AIDS was invented by the CIA to come to their senses.

Scientists have long thought the HIV-1 virus might have been
transmitted from chimpanzees or monkeys to human beings. But of 400
chimpanzees in captivity tested for Simian Immune Virus (chimpanzee) or
SIV cpz, only three had it, and one of the three had an SIV virus so
different from HIV-1 that few believed it was related.
Then along came Marilyn, a chimp who had died in 1985 but some of whose
tissues had been frozen. Dr. Beatrice Hahn and a team at the University
of Alabama used the technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
to recover virus from a tissue and identify it. It turned out to
resemble the virus in two other known chimpanzees as well as HIV-1, and
all three were members of the subspecies Pan troglodytes troglodytes,
which in nature inhabit areas in west and central Africa where HIV-1
has been identified among humans.

Interesting, but it’s still only three chimps and nobody claims to
know just how the virus got from chimps to humans or why it changed as
it did after it made the switch. The theories are all self-admitted
speculation. And nobody knows why the virus has never been known to
cause illness in chimps. So everybody agrees — as usual that much
more research is needed.

To be sure, real science is a process of fitting pieces of
knowledge together and testing them through peer-reviews until patterns
seem to emerge, then testing some more and some more until a hypothesis
can be said to be proven. It’s silly to expect big answers
to come forth all at once.

Still, this story is curious. If you read deeply and ask questions,
it becomes obvious that “the riddle of the origin of AIDS” has not
been
solved — not even close. A few chimpanzees have been shown to have a
virus very similar to the HIV-1 virus, and they’re members of a
subspecies known to live in roughly the same area where HIV-1 has been
identified. Interesting, but far from conclusive. Most of the rest is
speculation.

I decided to go to the most unrelenting critic of the way the
scientific establishment has handled the most politicized disease in
history for a comment. I had read about Dr. Peter Duesberg, a molecular
and cell microbiologist at the University of California at Berkeley who
isolated the first cancer gene through his work on retroviruses in 1970
and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, but I
hadn’t spoken to him before. I had been curious but mildly skeptical
about his work. He turned out to be accessible and delightful to talk
with.

Prof. Duesberg believes that HIV-1 doesn’t cause AIDS at all, that
the
syndrome of afflictions that have been subsumed within the definition
of AIDS are the result of abusing illicit drugs in combinations that
degraded the immune systems of those who took them. He also thinks that
AZT, touted as a cure for AIDS, makes it worse. Which means that almost
all the money spent on AIDS research in the last 15 years or so has
been wasted.

Pretty provocative. Although a few people have written about Dr.
Duesberg’s approach, most establishment media avoid him like the
plague. But Nobel Prize chemist Kary Mullis — who invented the
polymerase chain reaction procedure used to analyze Marilyn’s virus –
wrote a foreword to Dr. Duesberg’s book. There Mullis told how he tried
for years — and failed — to get any of the established experts to
provide him a citation for a scientific study that proved that AIDS was
caused by HIV. Prof. Duesberg’s website www.duesberg.com has this
piece and more scientific papers than you’ll have time to read in the
next couple of weeks.)

Can it be that no such study exists? That the decision that HIV
causes AIDS was a political rather than a scientific determination?
Curious, at least.

Dr. Duesberg said he thought the chimp study was good science as far
as
it went, showing a close resemblance between the SIV cpz virus and
HIV-1. But he thinks it fits his theory — that HIV is not the cause of
AIDS — better than it fits the established theory.

“Leave aside the fact that no method of transmission has been
demonstrated,” he told me. “The best evidence is that the SIV causes
no illness in chimps. Why would it cause an illness in humans?
Normally, when a virus migrates from one species to another it becomes
less pathogenic, not more — that’s why vaccines work. Why would this
one virus and only this one act in the opposite fashion?”

So we’ve got a scientific dispute with reputable people on both
sides that is almost entirely unacknowledged by the major media.
Actually
there are a number of disputes about almost every aspect of AIDS, which
has been from the outset the most thoroughly politicized disease in
history, but the party line is almost always characterized in the media
as
unchallenged and beyond rational dispute.

More research really is needed. But Prof. Duesberg, despite having
been awarded in the past a seven-year Outstanding Investigator Grant
from the National Institutes of Health — which is something like the
NIH’s version of “genius grants” in which the recipient is implicitly
told he’s so good the NIH wants him relieved of financial concerns for
a long period so he can follow his scientific muses freely — is
unlikely to get any more government money. If alternative theories are
to be explored, they’ll have to be funded by the private sector, but
most major foundations are if anything more timid than the government,
more concerned with respectability and getting along than with real
science.

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