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New York Press
April 18-24, 2001

John Strausbaugh:

HIV or Not HIV

South African President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS
Advisory Panel issued its first report two
weeks ago–to thundering silence from world
media. But given that the world thought the very
impaneling of the group was an act of
madness on Mbeki's part, this reaction is
hardly a surprise.

"They're not even paying any attention to it,"
snaps Dr. David Rasnick, the American
chemist who was a chief organizer of the
panel. "Where's the coverage? I predicted this.
The first defense is silence. But it's pretty hard
to keep silent forever when a head of state's

The international panel convened twice last
year, in Pretoria last May and again in
Johannesburg in July. Between sessions there
was supposed to be a period of Internet
discussion. What made the group so highly
controversial–and widely denounced as
folly–was that the selection of panel members
gave equal weight to traditional AIDS
scientists (like the CDC's Dr. Helene Gayle,
HIV pioneer Luc Montagnier and South
Africa's Dr. Malegapuru Makgoba) and
so-called AIDS "dissidents" like Rasnick,
who's an expert in enzyme inhibitors and has
been questioning mainstream AIDS theories
for two decades, and UC Berkeley
retrovirologist Peter Duesberg, who's long
argued that HIV does not cause AIDS. People
like Rasnick and Duesberg have been
anathematized as dangerous lunatics,
homophobes and even, when the rhetoric
really heats up, genocidal maniacs. That
Mbeki was giving them for the first time ever
an official government platform to air their
arguments against standard HIV/AIDS theory
elicited shrieks of dismay around the world.
(Cf. two previous New York Press articles: my
"The AIDS Heretics," from 3/8/00; and Celia
Farber's "AIDS & South Africa," from 5/24/00.)

It also ensured a panel that got along about as
well as a passel of stray cats tossed in a
burlap sack. "It's one of the cleanest, crispest
differences of opinion that you could possibly
imagine," Rasnick told me over the phone last
week. "Those who say AIDS is contagious,
sexually transmitted, caused by HIV and the
drugs are saving people, and us, who say
AIDS is not contagious, not sexually
transmitted, not caused by HIV and the drugs
are killing people. You can't get a clearer

The result is a most schizophrenic report. You
should read it for yourself, since you may not
see much about it in the media: It's clear that while
there was much expressing of opinion, there
wasn't a lot of what you'd call "dialoguing"
between the opposing camps, and often a lot
of talking at cross purposes. Mainstream
HIV/AIDS scientists were dragged into the
meetings with the greatest reluctance, and
basically boycotted the Internet discussions. All
recommendations are given twice: first,
"recommendations from panelists who do not
subscribe to the causal linkage between HIV
and AIDS," which are then diametrically
opposed by "recommendations from panelists
who subscribe to HIV as the cause of AIDS."

Given that this second group completely
dominates AIDS research and treatment
around the world, and the first group is
considered a lunatic fringe, there's not much
hope this report will be taken very
seriously–anywhere but in Mbeki's
government, which is taking it very seriously

Meanwhile, if nothing else it represents for the
lay reader an excellent primer on the
HIV/not-HIV debate. For example, the report
lays out three viewpoints on HIV as the cause
of AIDS: "that HIV is both 'necessary' and
'sufficient' to cause AIDS" (the most widely
accepted theory); "that HIV is sufficient but not
necessary to cause AIDS"; and "that HIV is
neither necessary nor sufficient to cause
AIDS." It goes on:

"There were two opposing views on the
debate around risk factors that are critical for
the transmission and spread of AIDS. One
school of thought argued that poor economic
status was a sufficient risk factor in the
acquisition of AIDS. Another argued that low
socio-economic status and poverty contributed
to circumstances that would increase the risk
of acquiring AIDS, but that these factors are
not in themselves sufficient in the acquisition
and spread of AIDS...

"The implications of the
HIV-is-both-necessary-and-sufficient theory of
AIDS causation are that everyone is at equal
risk of HIV infection and AIDS. Everyone
exposed to an equal dose of HIV should have
an equal chance of chronic infection. Everyone
infected with HIV should progress to AIDS at
the same rate. The only way to stop the
progress of AIDS would be to stop HIV (Weiss
1993; Ho 1996).

"Though Prof. Montagnier is convinced that
HIV plays a central role in the cause of AIDS,
he found it difficult to explain, on the basis of
the HIV-only-theory, why the AIDS epidemic
was restricted to male homosexuals and
intravenous drug users in the USA and Europe
but has a heterosexual profile in countries of
the South. Dr. Sonnabend was another
proponent of the HIV-causes-AIDS hypothesis
who believed that issues of poverty and
malnutrition were more important in the
development of AIDS than the mainstream
scientific establishment was currently

A Dr. Giraldo, a "dissident," offered a pretty
radical list of what he considers "risk factors
that cause AIDS," from malnutrition to
environmental pollutants to "exposure to
lasers, electromagnetic fields, infrared light
radio frequencies and free radicals." (One
pictures the mainstream panelists throwing up
their hands.)

Rasnick makes some of the most radical
statements in the report. He denies that there
is anything like an "AIDS epidemic" in
sub-Saharan Africa, despite all the data the
other side throws at him. The report itself cites
WHO figures stating that of 5.6 million new HIV
cases reported worldwide in 1999, 3.8 million
were in sub-Saharan Africa. That year, the
WHO claims, an estimated 2.2 million
sub-Saharan Africans died of AIDS,
representing 85 percent of all AIDS deaths
worldwide. In South Africa, surveys conducted
in antenatal clinics showed an explosion of HIV
infections, from 0.73 percent of those tested in
1990 to 22.4 percent in 1999.

Rasnick rejects all such figures. "They don't
have any information, no documentation, at all,
whatever, of an AIDS epidemic in South
Africa," he tells me. "All they have are some
prenatal clinic HIV tests. That's it." And since
he doesn't believe HIV causes AIDS, he
considers those figures worthless. "They don't
have one AIDS case documented," he insists.

The report offers a good thumbnail description
of current HIV testing methods:

"The ELISA, Western Blot and PCR Viral Load
are the most frequently used tests to confirm
HIV infections. The ELISA and Western Blot
tests detect HIV antibodies in the serum of
patients, whereas the PCR Viral Load test is a
genetic test that detects small HIV nucleic acid
fragments in whole blood. The veracity and
reliability of these tests are key to the validity,
reliability, quality and accuracy of
epidemiological data used by any country. The
ELISA test is mainly used to screen for HIV
infection in blood donors and for general
surveillance, whereas the Western Blot and
PCR are generally used as confirmatory tests
and in the context of research. All these tests,
individually or in combination, are considered
by the proponents of the HIV/AIDS theory as
important indicators of infection by HIV."

This is followed by one of the most striking
passages in the document:

"Dr. Rasnick, supported by Prof. Mhlongo,
recommended that the South African
government should consider terminating HIV
testing by blood banks and for general
surveillance since the results of all the tests are
unreliable and non-specific and hence give
wrong information. He argued further that
AIDS would disappear instantaneously if all
HIV testing were outlawed [emphasis added].
The basic question was whether hundreds of
people in South Africa are dying of AIDS or of
TB, malaria, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia
and parasitic infections. The absence of data
indicating the rate of deaths due to AIDS
should receive urgent attention."

I ask Rasnick if he really believes AIDS would
"disappear instantaneously if all HIV testing
were outlawed."

"That's right," he replies. "And why isn't that in
The New York Times, to show what a fool,
what an idiot I am?"

So Rasnick's contending that there's no such
thing as AIDS in South Africa, and that if
people stopped calling it that tomorrow, it
would be immediately obvious that what
patients are actually presenting are various
other diseases all being clustered under the
AIDS rubric?

"In other words, all those things would still be
there, they just would no longer be called
AIDS," he says, and the government could get
down to combating the real problems of TB,
hepatitis, parasitic infections and so on.

Rasnick, et al., call for an instant halt to all HIV
testing in South Africa.

"Absolutely," he says to me. "Those damn
tests should be outlawed. They're lethal. First
of all, it's a death sentence in South Africa.
People commit suicide, they've been stoned to
death, they've had their houses burned down,
they've been murdered. Just for having
antibodies to HIV. They have been ostracized.
And in certain rural communities, ostracism is
equivalent to death. So you're scared to death,
first of all. And then you start taking the anti-HIV
drugs, which cause AIDS, and if you take them
long enough they will kill you."

This is another major contention of the
dissidents: that AZT and the other antiretroviral
drugs that have been prescribed to
HIV-positive people since the mid-1990s are
not only not curing them, but potentially lethal,
and are in fact are causing the conditions we
know as AIDS. Therefore they recommend:
"Anti-retroviral drugs and any other immune
suppressive drugs should under no
circumstances be used to treat AIDS patients
or any other patients that are
immune-compromised." (One might have
thought the media would have picked up on
that little item as well.)

The dissident panelists proposed 10
experiments they believe will prove or disprove
the HIV-causes-AIDS hypothesis once and for
all. They range from simple-sounding
epidemiological surveys to more
complex-sounding laboratory experiments.
Rasnick proposed a six-month test on
chimpanzees to see whether it's HIV or AZT
that's killing human patients:

"We already know that chimps don't get AIDS
from HIV, because 150 of them have been
HIV-positive for 20 years, and they're dying of
old age," he explains to me. "None of them got
AIDS yet." He proposes putting some of them
on the anti-AIDS drugs. "As soon as we give
them those damn drugs, it breaks my heart, but
they're gonna start getting sick and they're
gonna die." What's the point? "Nobody pays
any attention that we're killing tens of
thousands of people with these drugs. Maybe
if you focus on these poor animals, sometimes
people have more sympathy for animals than
they will for humans."

The South African government has agreed to
fund all 10 tests, and will make no major
changes to its AIDs policies until the tests are
completed. Although this part may look like a
victory for the status quo on the surface,
Rasnick points out there's a deeper
significance: it means that the government will
continue not to distribute AZT and the other
anti-AIDS drugs, which Mbeki has been
refusing to give out despite worldwide cries of

How long will the 10 tests take? Some will take
weeks or a few months, Rasnick says, others
longer. "It also depends on whether or not
there's cooperation. There has been
considerable stonewalling. That's why this
damn thing has taken so long." The CDC in the
U.S., and the equivalent agency in South
Africa, has had "absolutely no interest" in
cooperating, Rasnick claims. At any rate, he
says the longest tests should take no more
than a year.

To the world, this means that AIDS will rage
unchecked in South Africa for another year. A
panelist named Dr. Bertozzi, who "shared his
experiences on his work on the epidemiology
of the disease in Africa," put it this way: "His
experience had convinced him that
sub-Saharan Africa is 'on fire' due to this
epidemic. The nature of the problem was so
urgent that emphasis had to be placed on what
could be done now to halt the spread of this
epidemic. To Dr. Bertozzi South Africa was
like 'a building that is burning and our first
focus needs to be on getting people out of the
building and putting out the fire. We will have
time over the decades to come to debate the
mechanisms of how the fire was started…'"

Won't Rasnick and his dissidents be
internationally denounced for dithering while
South Africa burns?

"Well, South Africa's burning anyway," he
replies with an audible shrug. "It's from poverty,
malnutrition, poor sanitation, all that. If you give
them the drugs, it'll just expedite their demise,
and make them miserable before they die...

"Thabo Mbeki is weaning the people of South
Africa away from AIDS," he goes on. "He is
never going to allow the anti-HIV drugs into that
country. It's possible that Africa, and
[specifically] South Africa, could end this whole
insanity. They could be the solution."

New York Press
vol 14 no 16


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