The first meeting of South African President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS advisory
panel in Pretoria on May 6-7 was a dream come true for Peter Duesberg, David
Rasnick and the other eight "dissident" scientists in attendance who have
challenged the worldwide scientific consensus that AIDS is an infectious,
sexually transmitted disease caused by the so-called Human Immunodeficiency
Virus (HIV). Though the panelists who support the HIV-AIDS model blocked any
actual scientific debate, the fact that the meeting occurred at all
represents a milestone triumph for the dissidents. After all, the dissidents
had supported Mbeki's efforts to facilitate a debate, while the HIV
scientists participated only after urging Mbeki not to proceed. In Rasnick's
words, "It was a victory from the moment we stepped off the plane."
For the first time in the 16-year history of the HIV-AIDS model, a head
of state has publicly challenged it and essentially told scientists on both
sides of the "Does HIV cause AIDS?" question to make their cases: to defend
their conclusions in an open forum and offer evidence that would help him
decide what AIDS policy he should pursue as a national leader.
Unfortunately, the forum wasn't quite as open as it could have been. The
two-thirds of the 30 panelists who support the HIV-AIDS model voted to
separate themselves from the 10 who reject that model. As RA went to press,
the second scheduled meeting had taken place in early July, with the HIV
scientists having never participated in the Internet discussion intended to
help the two camps hash out their differences.
The panel has gained a maximum amount of attention because South Africa
will host the massive International AIDS Conference in Durban July 9-14,
with Mbeki slated to make the kick-off speech on opening day at an outside
sports arena expected to draw over 10,000 delegates from around the world,
just days after the controversial panel's second meeting. AIDS industry
officials chose South Africa to host this year's conference (which is held
every other year) after having targeted that nation with their considerable
marketing efforts, promoting it as the most important battlefield in their
fight against HIV.
Presumably, Mbeki in this speech will reveal how the panelists'
contributions have affected his view on AIDS. It would represent an enormous
embarrassment for the HIV industry if South Africa's president used the
forum to lend credence to the view that HIV is innocent of all charges.
Conlan interviewed Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick separately in early
June to get their story of the South African panel's first meeting in May.
The following is a composite transcript of both interviews.
Conlan: How did you first hear about Mbeki's interest in the alternative
view of AIDS?
Duesberg: I think it was in February. He had called David Rasnick in
January, and then there were some e-mails. Then came all these reports from
the press -- first in South Africa, then in the US -- from all directions,
when he made it clear that he questions the virus hypothesis of AIDS, or at
least isn't sure about it, in connection with the need for disease treatment
They were supposed to decide whether to start treating with AZT
"prophylactically" or take preventive measures, and how to invest in
government health spending. I didn't even watch it so carefully until it
became very clear: until they said in the press, "Oh, Mbeki, he's siding
with Duesberg." All of a sudden I said, "There's somebody on our side.
What's going on here? He must be crazy." I never dreamed that he would be
the one national leader who would question the HIV/AIDS model, or that
anybody would question HIV in South Africa.
Conlan: When did you get the invitation to join the panel?
Duesberg: He asked me and others whom to invite. There were tentative
invitations, and we were asked to suggest topics to be discussed, but a
specific invitation wasn't issued until around the last week of March, when
I was specifically invited and asked if I would want to attend.
Conlan: What was your impression of the meeting itself?
Duesberg: It was a surprise that it actually happened, but it was a very
circumscribed, or very censored, exchange. There was a so-called "moderator"
[Canadian law professor Stephen Owen] who, I think, was not as neutral as he
was supposed to be. He was trying to accommodate the establishment, I think,
much more than any controversy, although he was given a hard job, because he
was trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, which didn't work.
Rasnick: The panel initially consisted of about 30 members, AIDS experts
from all over the world. Two-thirds were clearly advocates and supporters of
the mainstream HIV hypothesis of AIDS -- that AIDS is contagious, sexually
transmitted, caused by HIV, and that the anti-HIV drugs promote health and
well-being. One-third of the panel was made up of critics of the HIV/AIDS
hypothesis. They're also called "dissidents" and they're called all sorts of
names. Ten of us put our names publicly to a document that says we dispute
the HIV/contagious hypothesis of AIDS (presented in this issue).
There were also about three or four African-American physicians who were
added at the last minute, at President Clinton's suggestion. He called Mbeki
and said he would like these other Americans to join in the panel, and Mbeki
agreed. This was a clear attempt, to everybody in the room, to try to be
politically correct, as if that wouldn't go unnoticed. They were trying to
go out of their way to say, "We appreciate Black people."
Conlan: And to show, "Black people believe in HIV, and Black people need to
unite around the threat of HIV?"
Rasnick: Yes, I'm sure that was part of the signal they were trying to send.
I can tell you, from my own observation, they really didn't participate in
that panel. They were more or less observers, as far as I could tell. But
those are details. Sam Mhlongo was the only African dissident on the panel.
There were a bunch of other Africans on the panel, but Mhlongo was the only
one who was a critic of the HIV hypothesis of AIDS. He wanted to know, first
of all, if the rumor was true about these guys -- that Clinton had asked
Mbeki to include them on the panel. Mhlongo asked the panel, and the
moderator, and they just wouldn't answer. Just as I was about to suggest
that we put it on the record that they refused to confirm or deny that these
people were latecomers at the behest of President Clinton, finally a woman
who came from Mbeki's office did acknowledge that Clinton had indeed talked
with Mbeki and asked that these people join. Mbeki graciously acquiesced and
said, "Sure, you know, come on in."
But accepting them was a good idea because it sort of put the stamp of
US approval on the panel -- that President Clinton approved of it, you know.
It said, "Oh, Clinton, he's interested in this. He cares about this. He
supports Mbeki's panel, this thing that he's doing, because he's suggesting
other people to be on it."
Duesberg: One problem with the moderator was that he conducted it as a
meeting in which the people would state conclusions and so-called "beliefs."
There was a panel of about 30 participants, and each of them was allotted a
five-minute introductory statement in which they declared their beliefs, or
convictions, or conclusions, without scientific evidence and without debate.
There was no time for -- in fact, by now I think there was no desire to have
a true scientific debate on the issues, on why people would come to such
conclusions. So it was, indeed, a rather unscientific meeting -- although it
had been intended to be a scientific meeting.
Rasnick: That first two days of meetings went almost exactly as I had
expected. I didn't expect much, other than that we would behave civilly and,
I was hoping, professionally, towards each other as scientists and
physicians. That pretty much happened. Data were not presented. They were
not allowed to be presented. It was essentially, "I'm right and you're
wrong," type of thing. Which was O.K.; it was really an introductory thing.
Conlan: What did you mean, "Data not allowed to be presented?"
Rasnick: Well, they had projectors, 35 mm projectors, overhead projectors,
and were ready to go. But there were always objections. Peter [Duesberg]
tried to put some overheads up, and they shouted it down. They just did not
want to see data. I wasn't too surprised, and it really didn't bother me,
because just getting people together under that one roof, that was good
Duesberg: The next day, it broke up into subgroups which essentially
identified themselves as either questioning or not questioning HIV, and were
supposed to make specific policy recommendations. Those of us who advanced
the chemical-AIDS hypothesis that AIDS is not infectious, but caused by
lifestyle and chemistry and drugs and malnutrition, had clear
recommendations -- forget about vaccines and antibody tests; by all means, do
not allow or even consider antiviral treatments; and invest money, if there
is such money, into improving the standard of living, like nutrition and
sanitation and health standards, conventional health care.
Then we rejoined each other at the end at a press conference. Before the
press conference there was another round of statements which were very
polar, even asking, "What is actually the epidemic in Africa? Is there in
fact an epidemic altogether, or is it just tabloid rhetoric that we're
repeating here?" Believe it or not, with all these scientists, there was not
even once any documentation that we have an epidemic -- how many are
infected, and how many are suffering or have a disease, and is it in excess
of what used to occur there, the long-established background of these
diseases? That was never discussed, and even for asking it, many immediately
stated that they didn't want to continue the discussion with somebody who
doesn't believe in AIDS and doesn't believe in HIV.
Conlan: Tell me about the subgroup that included Duesberg, Harvey Bialy,
Helene Gayle from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Malegapuru
Makgoba, who talked about designing and conducting experiments and studies
to test the HIV-AIDS model. Just what sorts of experiments and studies are
they talking about?
Rasnick: Let me tell you how that came about, and then where it stands, as
far as I know. It came up on the second day. The first day was just really
pretty much powder puffs. The second day was getting a little bit more
serious, and one of the guys wanted to separate the two groups in room A and
room B: the proponents of HIV and the critics of it. We said, "No, that's
not why Mbeki got us here. We've had these discussions in room A and room B
for 16 years. It was Mbeki's innovation to bring us all together in one
room, room C, to have these discussions. That's why he did it, you know. If
he wanted to continue these discussions independently, he wouldn't have gone
to all the trouble to bring us together."
But they still went ahead and separated us out, and our side, the ten of
us, came up with recommendations based on our determination that AIDS is not
contagious. The other side has not produced anything that's available. They
went on and on and on, and what they said was completely, totally
unmemorable. I couldn't even remember it five minutes after they went on and
on and on about that stuff!
Helene Gayle, who's at the CDC, was the only one, so far as I could
tell, on the other side of the supporters of HIV, who had any sense of
humor; who was playful; who was even a nice person to be around, and didn't
frown. All the rest of them seemed to sit at attention. They even had
crewcuts and flattops! They looked really, really military, most of the
proponents of the HIV hypothesis. It was really very interesting. But she
was the only one that had a sense of humor, and was playful, and joked
around. Helene Gayle was joking around with Peter Duesberg a lot. He loves
to play around and joke a lot, too.
When it first came up that she had offered Peter a chance to collaborate
with the CDC, I thought it was a joke. I talked to Peter on the phone a week
later, when we got back, and said, "Peter, what's your take on that? That
whole thing about the CDC collaborating with you?" I said, "I thought it was
a joke!" And he said he did, too! But it became a reality at the press
conference, after the thing was over, because I think the Health Minister
and the government in general were looking for any positive sign at all to
convey to the world, that bringing together all these people led to
Duesberg: That "committee" is a little less clear-cut than you name it now.
It's an afterbirth of a press conference. We talked about the possibilities
of what could be done, and I made some proposals. Helene Gayle is a Black
lady who worked for quite a while in Africa, and she has a sense of humor
and is sort of charming. She's at least sympathetic with us, concerned about
African issues. She said I should come visit and spend a sabbatical at the
CDC, so they could straighten me out -- or maybe I could straighten them out,
and that sort of thing. So I proposed, as a possible experiment that would
be feasible and doable and relevant for Africa, to take 100 AIDS patients,
diagnosed according to African standards, the Bangui clinical case
definition [which actually allows AIDS in Africa to be diagnosed without any
evidence of HIV exposure] and check them with the best methods available for
HIV to see if they are in fact even "HIV-positive." It would be very
important to know how reliable the average diagnosis is before we offered
these people AZT, which is specifically aimed only at HIV and not against
anything other than AIDS. It's not against any AIDS disease; it's a drug
administered to inhibit HIV. So if most of these AIDS diagnoses, or even a
significant percentage, were "negative," such treatment would be a true
disaster. Another experiment I proposed is give AZT or the other antiviral
drugs to rats and dogs, and maybe some monkeys in Africa, to see how well
they survive this and see what the so-called "side effects" of these things
are; rather than giving them only to people who [test] ≥HIV-positive."
Nothing is ever published about what happens to animals when they are given
In this country, the leading nation in the world for everything
including human rights, we don't torture animals with those drugs. We test
them in homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and junkies. Or maybe in Africans who
sign with a cross or a square on an "informed consent" form with Robert
Gallo, or with Zagury for the Lancet study, or with antiviral drugs in the
bushes of Africa. That's how these experiments are done. So I suggested a
long-forgotten standard: that we test a drug which is known to be toxic,
designed to be toxic, in animals before we feed it to humans. But it only
became reality when this Health Secretary said that at the post-meeting
press conference, to the people of the press. I never thought that it would
be mentioned again.
Conlan: If you did the experiment of testing people in Africa who'd been
diagnosed with ≥AIDS≤ under the Bangui definition, and testing them for HIV
exposure, exactly how would you measure HIV exposure, given the critiques
that have been made by the Perth Group and others against the accuracy of
virtually all the standard tests?
Duesberg: I know the accuracy of antibody tests is limited. I know that. But
even allowing that, we would just apply the standards of European or
American AIDS diagnosis, which includes some HIV tests, to African ≥AIDS≤
patients. I assume we would take a better one, and just apply it, and see if
it is 100 percent positive, or just 50 percent positive. Since they don't
even do an HIV antibody test, and don't even ask for a test, for diagnosis
of "AIDS" in Africa, there could be many, many people who are said to be
"AIDS patients" who do not have antibodies to HIV, or have no virus, by the
standards of the tests used in the West -- even if the tests themselves are
flawed. Harvey [Bialy] was going into this and said the tests should include
polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) as well, because, particularly in Africa,
there would be many false-positives on the antibody tests because of other
diseases cross-reacting and so on. That would be fine with me. I wasn't very
concerned about the accuracy of the test; I was just wondering, if we
applied some of the tests that are standard here, how would they come out in
Africa, where we diagnose [AIDS] without the tests?
Conlan: In other words, to see if the African people who are diagnosed with
"AIDS" meet the same standards as an American or Western European who is
diagnosed with "AIDS," never mind whether the standards actually mean
anything in terms of actual risk for immune suppression.
Duesberg: Yes, that's right. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, just
to say, "Look here, we're treating people -- assuming, even, that all of this
is right about testing and the virus. But we are giving them, knowingly,
drugs that are inevitably toxic. Is that responsible when we don't even know
if they're "HIV-positive?" These drugs are said to be specifically directed
against this virus, and if that is not the case, if there's not even that
virus, how could we possibly accept or work on such a procedure?
Rasnick: I don't see how the CDC can really afford to legitimate the whole
question as to whether or not HIV causes AIDS. That's the purpose of the
experiment -- to test the hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS, either through
regular animal experiments with chimpanzees, for example, that have been
discussed, with all those 150 some-odd HIV-infected chimpanzees, let's treat
them with the anti-HIV drugs. I know what will happen -- they'll die. They'll
get AIDS first, and then they'll die.
That's part of it, and then the other one is some epidemiological
studies that have actually been done, and have been published, that show
that there is no correlation in Africa between HIV antibodies and AIDS. In
fact, the majority of the people the Japanese studied, when they did a study
of AIDS in Africa, didn't have antibodies to HIV, even though they were
"AIDS" cases under the Bangui definition of AIDS. But I don't know how
that's going to turn out. I'm glad I'm not part of that unholy alliance,
because it's such a mess, and it's so political. I'm really happy I'm not
involved in that.
Conlan: Where is this going to go from here? I know you're supposed to be
having these discussions on the Internet .
Rasnick: Just on our side, so far. [Note: At publication time, the second
and final panel meeting had assembled without the HIV scientists ever
participating in the Internet discussion -- Ed.]
Conlan: And the final meeting just before the official AIDS conference in
Durban. What's the outcome you hope for, and what's the outcome you expect?
Rasnick: I wish I could give you some sort of solid answer. I'll tell you
what I hope for. I can tell you in the short term. I can't tell you what in
the long term is going to come of this, but I can tell you in the short term
I hope that this three-day meeting in Pretoria, the next one, really is a
scientific meeting, where you have equal time allotted to the main
protagonists -- those who support the mainstream HIV-AIDS hypothesis and
those who challenge it. I hope we present arguments and data, and then have
a discussion and all that. I hope that happens. I don't know if that will
happen or not.
The other side seems so really hesitant, resistant, to do anything like
that. But that's what I hope for. The media have been really active down
there. When we were down there it was on all the TVs, all the radios, in all
the newspapers. Mbeki, a head of state, is doing this, and he's going to
keep it that way. There are lots of documentary-like TV programs on all this
stuff that are supposed to air this month down there. And then you've got
the AIDS conference following July 9. At least the media now have been
primed. Most of the people who interviewed me in the past two months, at
least, have never written about AIDS before, which is a very good sign. It
means they don't have anything they have to defend. They don't have anything
at stake. The reason they got involved in this was because it was a
political and national issue, since the head of state was involved. So
they're doing what journalists ought to do. They're doing their job. They're
asking the basic, simple questions, and basically reporting what they've
learned. With AIDS, it changes everything, so there's lots of vitriol going
around, and lots of ad hominems that you just have to expect. So I hope the
media stay active, and more of them that haven't been involved in the AIDS
stuff get involved, because, as I say, they don't have anything they have to
defend and protect, nothing they have to swallow and live down. In terms of
the world, the whole thing is supposed to be made public at some point.
Everything was filmed, videotaped. All that is supposedly going to be
transcribed -- every word of it, they said -- and the videotapes and the
transcripts are supposedly going to be made available to the people of the
world. I hope that happens.
Conlan edits and publishes the Zenger's, a monthly gay issues periodical
that devotes regular coverage to factual reporting and analysis of HIV,
AIDS, and related topics. (Contact: P.O. Box 50171, San Diego, CA,