The Colombian Conference and the Nature of Science
An Interview with David Rasnick

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

A truly remarkable event occurred at the University of Santander in Bucaramanga, Colombia last October 2-5. For only the second time in the rather grim history of AIDS (the first was in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in February 1992), a conference took place under government auspices that featured scientists challenging the conventional wisdom that AIDS is an infectious, sexually-transmitted disease caused by a single virus, HIV. Most of the major figures in the scientific community who have challenged the mainstream view of AIDS were present, including UC Berkeley microbiology professor Peter Duesberg, Ph.D.; Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis, Ph.D.; and radical German virologist Stefan Lanka, Ph.D., who has gone further than Duesberg and questions whether any retroviruses, including HIV, even exist at all.

The conference was the brainchild of Roberto Giraldo, M.D., an expatriate Colombian who was one of that country's most respected experts on infectious diseases until he became convinced in the late 1980's that AIDS was not infectious. Though he reached his conclusions independently of Peter Duesberg -- he didn't read any of Duesberg's papers on the subject until after he was already convinced, based on his own observations, that AIDS could not possibly be an infectious disease -- he faced similar treatment from his country's AIDS establishment. When he tried to present his alternative view of AIDS in Medellin in 1987 and 1988 after eight years in the Colombian countryside, he found that instead of seriously considering his views, his former colleagues questioned his sanity and actually threatened to have him committed to a mental institution.

Dr. Giraldo was forced to flee Colombia and take refuge in the United States, first in Miami and then in New York. He began to follow the alternative AIDS literature in the scientific press and sent the papers to his ex-colleagues back in Colombia. Over time, their attitude softened, and earlier this year he was invited back to Colombia for a series of lectures. Out of this grew the idea for the conference, chaired by a professor at the University of Santander named Fidias Leon-S who had done research on retroviruses in Japan in the early 1990s and concluded that they cannot cause human disease.

Though there were attempts to suppress the conference, including last-minute withdrawals of financial support and threats by other professors at the University of Santander to give failing grades to any medical students who dared to attend, for the most part the conference was well received. Even members of the Colombian public health establishment who disagreed with the conference's critique of the HIV/AIDS model still treated the speakers with respect and interest -- a far cry from the quasi-religious defensiveness with which these ideas are still treated in the U.S.

David Rasnick, Ph.D. -- a 20-year veteran biochemical researcher whose work on protease enzymes has convinced him that the still heavily-hyped protease inhibitors will be useless against AIDS -- offered his experiences from the Colombia conference and other international outreach efforts, and discussed the anecdotal reports of PWA's allegedly doing better on protease inhibitor/nucleoside analogue "combina-tion therapy."

Conlan How did the conference in Colombia go?

Rasnick: It went very well, sort of like a Hollywood movie. You didn't know if they were ever going to pull it off or not, because of so many evil machinations and things going on behind the scenes. But all went well, in spite of the efforts of powerful people to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Peter [Duesberg] and Kary [Mullis] were down there, and I'm convinced that their presence alone is what made that thing a really big success. There were a lot of people there, from different countries, but those two were the ones that really drew the media. We got front-page coverage there in the newspaper, and there were some government officials, and we were treated like royalty. They were sort of ambivalent. It was a major piece of national prestige to have a Nobel laureate there. But they wanted to keep it quiet. They didn't want the public to know about it, other than just that it was happening. They didn't want them to know what we were talking about. They just wanted them to know that we were in their country, you know.

The government pulled out $20,000 of promised support at the last minute -- at the eleventh hour, so to speak. I don't know this, but I wouldn't be surprised if they intended that all along just to kill it, hoping that that would do it. That's just my suspicious nature. And another thing they did the school, the university, threatened the students with failure if they attended the conference. They had 700 people who were scheduled to attend, and only around 250 or so actually showed up. But they were there throughout the whole thing. There was a lot of serious pressure to stop it.

Conlan Where do you think the pressure was coming from?

Rasnick: Oh, I know exactly where it was coming from! It was coming from the government health officials. We even met them. This one fellow that we met -- I forget his name -- warned us about who to talk to and who not to talk to. He didn't threaten us, but he did warn us to be careful about what we said and who we talked to. And, of course, we talked to whomever showed up in that auditorium.

This guy was trained at the CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control], and so my guess is that he was in contact with the CDC -- I'm sure he was -- and wanted to know how to handle this thing and deal with it. Also, the government health establishment held an emergency conference right after ours, to try to counter our conference, and for all I know, maybe the CDC was funding this emergency conference to counter ours. I don't know that for a fact, but somebody was paying for it. It could be the Colombian government. They're certainly not poor.

Conlan It could be the narcotraficantes didn't want a lot of people wandering around Colombia saying that drug use causes AIDS.

Rasnick: You never know. You could think of all sorts of things. I haven't contacted good old Fidias Leon since then, because I just got back from Kiev, and I was there for a week doing AIDS stuff there. That went very well, too. There was a meeting held in the sociology department of one of their universities, but it had 60 people in there. Two Ukrainian TV crews were there. I was interviewed on both of them. They had the country's leading health officials and AIDS experts and things there, and then I asked on the air, "How many AIDS patients are there in the Ukraine?" There are 170 AIDS patients, out of 52 million people. They had almost that many people in that room studying AIDS as there were AIDS patients!

So I had to ask them, on the air, "Why are Ukrainians afraid of AIDS, when there are so few AIDS patients?" Of course, there was no answer to that. So that went well. Actually, we had a debate and a discussion there with the proponents of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. And I told them that was very unusual. That would not happen in this country. It was a dignified, respectful debate, and I told them how much I really appreciated that. They're going to write that up.

Conlan Did anything new emerge out of any of these meetings? Any new information, new ideas?

Rasnick: No, it was all one-way flow of information. All the stuff that I had to say, Peter had to say, and all the rest of them, Kary had to say, was pretty much the same old story. We added more details in terms of the drug-AIDS hypothesis, and more literature data that supported it. The only thing new about these meetings was that they happened at all.

The proponents of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis in the Ukraine were very ill-prepared. I didn't try to humiliate them; I just answered their questions, and they appreciated that. I appreciated the fact that they were there, period. And so there was nothing really new no breakthrough stuff or anything like that. It was sort of like going to a H.E.A.L. meeting, but with a lot more highfalutin' folks around.

Conlan Do you know anything about this report that Dr. Steven Deeks of UC San Francisco presented recently in Toronto by?

Rasnick: Oh, the thing about 53 percent failure of the protease inhibitors? Is that what you're talking about? All I know is that I thought it was a pretty telling statement. And I told people, based on the CDC's definition of AIDS patients since 1993, that as of 1996, in the CDC's "HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report," 62 percent of the "AIDS patients" are asymptomatic, based on the CDC's own definition! All they had were antibodies to HIV and a CD4 count of under 200. They had no other defining diseases. Deeks acknowledged that the people who needed the protease "therapies" the most were the ones in whom it was failing. In other words, the ones who had had AIDS the longest and were taking "therapies" the longest were the ones that they weren't working in. The ones who were "newly infected," to use their jargon, and who didn't have a history of "antiretrovirals," were the ones who got the best benefits, which meant that they had no symptoms.

But I'm guessing that they had no symptoms to begin with, since 62 percent of these people are asymptomatic to begin with. It could be that, instead of 53 percent failure, it's 100 percent failure; that the people that "fail" are all of those people who have symptoms! But you can't tell that unless you were to break it down and see who these individuals were, what were their case histories, and everything.

Conlan Deeks even said that the people who were being described as "drug failures" were in fact clinically healthy, according to an Associated Press dispatch published in the September 30, 1997 San Diego Union-Tribune,.

Rasnick: That's not what it was in the San Francisco Examiner. It was just the opposite.

Conlan Well, he's quoted in this article by Daniel Q. Haney as saying, "All of our 'failures' are clinically feeling very well," said Deeks. "It's very important to understand we have no idea of the prognosis of people who have resistant virus."

Rasnick: That's not the way it was presented in the Examiner at all. It was just the opposite. What I told you was what was in the Examiner that the ones who needed the inhibitors the most were the ones that were "failing"; and then the ones that were "benefiting," to use their jargon, were the ones that were the most recently "infected." I'm not surprised that people are quoted differently, or things are said differently. All I know is that glaring number, 53% "failure," No matter what criteria you use, that's a pretty hard number to ignore.

Conlan People still ask, "Why do I feel better when I take the protease inhibitor/nucleoside analogue combination? And why do I feel worse when I don't take it?"

Rasnick: Damned if I know! All I know is that people have always done better, or done worse, with or without therapy. Always. Before AIDS, during AIDS, and even after AIDS. I call this "the jellybean effect." You spill a bag of jellybeans on the floor, and you pick up the green ones and the yellow ones, and you show everybody the green ones and the yellow ones. And you ignore all the other colors that are left on the floor. The reporting has been very selective. We don't get too many of these stories about, "Oh God, how horrible I felt!" -- although I hear them all the time.

There will always be people who do better, with or without therapy; and there will be people who do worse, with or without therapy. There's no way to know whether the therapy had anything to do with it until you do something like a Phase III clinical trial, which was never done. Never finished, anyway. So I don't know what to tell people. I say, "I'm happy for you, O.K.?" But for every one of those people, there are people who do worse. And remember that a lot of these people -- 62 percent of them, according to the CDC's own numbers -- are "asymptomatic" to begin with!

So what if one guy is doing fine? O.K., he's doing fine. There are other people who do lousy. There are people who die on these things. You've always had these bell-shaped curves. He's out there on the other end, where he seems to be doing O.K. There's no telling whether it has anything to do with those drugs or not. And a lot of people forget that they're not just taking the "cocktails." They're taking all these other drugs, too. And who knows what the combination of all these damned things is doing? Some people take 10, 20, even 30 different pills a day -- even more than that. I've seen some take even more than that. Different ones, you know. Who the hell knows what these various combinations are doing? I think, by and large, they're not doing anybody any good. That doesn't mean that there won't be a few people that appear to do better. There always are, and there always will be.

Conlan I would go so far as to say that, right now, the biggest political problem our movement is facing is you speak at a meeting and you get that very question, you know "Hey, I'm doing well. And I don't see any reason why I should be feeling any better taking these drugs than I felt before I started taking these drugs except the mainstream is right, HIV causes AIDS, and the drugs are killing HIV and therefore making me feel better."

Rasnick: Well, fine! If that's what they choose to believe. I mean, we're not missionaries. Our job is not to change people's minds. Our job is to provide information. They can do with it whatever the hell they want, you know? Why should they even show up at a HEAL meeting?

The only people that we're really useful to are those people who are not satisfied. It's not like a religious thing, where they're Protestants and we're Catholics or whatever, and we want everybody to be Catholic so we're trying to convert people. I'm not trying to convert anybody. It's not my job. If they're perfectly happy, great. There's an awful lot of people who aren't. I heard the same damned stories back in 1987 about AZT. The same stories.

Conlan The lesson the AIDS establishment seems to have learned from the Concorde trial [which showed that symptom-free HIV-positive people with high T4 counts who took AZT did no better than those with low T4 counts who took AZT, and that T4-counts do not correlate with clinical health] is, "Don't ever do a major long-term clinical trial on these things. That might undermine people's belief in them."

Rasnick: Exactly. Don't do the experiment. Absolutely true. They don't want to know the answer. It's like Vietnam. What they learned in Vietnam was, "Don't let the reporters loose. Don't have a long war. Do it short, quick and sweet, so that nobody knows that you're lying to them." They learned their lesson.

But then we have these reports of 53 percent failure. You have the "crashing" phenomenon [in which people who have reported improvement on the "cocktails" suddenly feeling worse and ending up sicker than they started], people dying on these damned things, Abbott sending out a flyer warning physicians about Ritonavir. How do you explain the people who are dying on these things, you know? How do you explain the fact that the label says there are no data?

They don't know whether these things work, or whether you'll live longer. As a matter of fact, the label even says that you'll continue to get the same diseases! For example, the Crixivan ad. And I guarantee you, the drug companies would love to change those labels. It's worth hundreds of millions of dollars to them.

Conlan In discussions with people who believe in the HIV/AIDS model, it's often struck me that we're not just analyzing a consistent set of data differently. We are really coming from very different ideas of what constitutes "fact." That's something I would think, in the "real world" of science, is not supposed to be in dispute. You can question someone's methodology. You can question whether or not their results were valid. But it seems to me that at least you have to start from a solid base of factual data, honestly observed and reported.

Rasnick: That's because most people have this notion of science that's not true. Science is a very human undertaking, with all the strengths and pitfalls and weaknesses of all other human activities, including narrow-mindedness, jealousy, and greed -- and all the strengths of society, too imagination, creativity, energy, enthusiasm and all that. But it's not this notion of non-emotional, objective individuals just sitting back and weighing facts. That's a bunch of hogwash. It's never been that way. It's always been a very passionate -- polemical, even -- undertaking.

The thing with AIDS is that it's gone beyond that and it's become like Lewis Carroll. It's not even a pretense of science anymore. It's religion. That's what it is. It's religion. The real scientists don't even work in AIDS, as far as I can tell. There are a few competent people that I've come across, but that's because they don't look at the big picture. They just look at little pieces of the puzzle, like somebody just looks at an enzyme, like [John] Ericson does. He's very good at that. He's a good enzymologist, but he just swallows, hook, line and sinker, the whole idea that it ["HIV/AIDS"] all makes sense.

What I hope will come out of this is that people will never look at science quite the same way. At least scientists, you know. That's one reason why I persist in trying to get this story -- the whole ugly mess -- out there, before people, so that they will know not to treat scientists like these damned high priests, you know. It's like a damned religion, and that's crazy. And we get this crap that we've got now if we start treating science as if we can't criticize it, critique it; we can't judge it, you know; we just have to swallow it, like the virgin birth and stuff like that.