The Duesberg Story Goes Mainstream
With charges that AIDS experts were reaping millions of dollars from a discredited hypothesis, it didn't take long for the story to hit the newspapers. On January 7, the New York Post became the first daily newspaper to print an article specifically on the Duesberg controversy, called "AIDS Experts on Wrong Track: Top Doc." Writer Joe Nicholson, the Post 's medicine and science editor, cited Duesberg's offer to have himself injected with HIV, and he also quoted Gallo's protestation that "no serious scientist is interested in this." Nicholson paid considerable attention to Duesberg's credentials, noting that this "top scientist" had been studying viruses for twenty years, was a member of "the elite National Academy of Sciences," and had spend the preceding year on a scholarship at the NIH, "the world center of AIDS research." But Nicholson failed to mention that Duesberg's work at NIH was on cancer, not AIDS; nor did he justify his initial identification of his protagonist as "AIDS expert Dr. Peter Duesberg," given that Duesberg had neither conducted any laboratory research on AIDS nor had any professional contact with AIDS patients.
Perhaps predictably, the Post 's more upscale competitor was quick to follow up and to do so in a more skeptical vein. "A Solitary Dissenter Disputes Cause of AIDS," wrote the New York Times 's Philip Boffey, in a short (728-word) article published not in the front section but on the medical science page in section C. The article pitted
Duesberg's "provocative argument" against "virtually all of the leading scientists engaged in AIDS work [who] believe that Dr. Duesberg is wrong," and it quoted Anthony Fauci of NIH as saying: "The evidence that HIV causes AIDS is so overwhelming that it almost doesn't deserve discussion any more." Boffey also suggested that Duesberg's claims might be old hat: "AIDS experts insist that the issues raised by Dr. Duesberg have been considered at length within the scientific community. They cite plausible mechanisms whereby a tiny fraction of infected cells could disable vast numbers of additional cells."
A two thousand-word article by Joel Shurkin appearing soon afterward in the Los Angeles Times lent considerably more credibility to Duesberg's views. In an implicitly equalizing move, Shurkin referred to a debate between "two camps," the "dissidents" and the "AIDS Establishment," which "disagree not so much on the basis facts as on their interpretations." Shurkin's discussion of disagreement between scientists tended to convey a certain legitimacy upon Duesberg's arguments. For example, one AIDS researcher "who refused to be quoted by name" said that Duesberg was factually incorrect and that the virus had indeed been found in all patients. But another researcher "said the truth is somewhere in between." Such disagreement had the effect of suggesting that there was a legitimate spectrum of opinion on these questions and that Duesberg's views, however unpopular, were not beyond the reaches of plausible scientific theorizing.
Just as Duesberg's name was inching further into the mainstream media, Spin published a follow-up piece, an interview with Gallo in which the virologist responded—heatedly—to Duesberg's views. (William Booth, the news writer for Science , later characterized Gallo's "ranting and raving" as "bizarre," but added that the interview was tape-recorded without Gallo's knowledge. Should one keep an open mind on the question of the causation of AIDS? interviewer Anthony Liversidge, a New York City science writer, asked Gallo.
[Gallo: ] No. I don't think anybody needs to keep an open mind on that. It is silly, OK?
[Liversidge: ] Is there any flaw in [Duesberg's] logic that is easy for you to point out?
[Gallo: ] No. He's a good fellow. It's a useless interchange. Really totally useless. He's an organic chemist. I would never argue with him about electronic spin resonance in a molecule of organic compound.
Gallo went on to say, "This is just so trite that it is a waste of my goddamn time. I'm busy." Everyone knew that HIV was the cause of AIDS: "Call 5,000 scientists and ask."
Gallo's central complaint about his colleague was that Duesberg was simply not qualified to comment on the question. Or as Gallo bluntly told his interviewer: "Arguing with Peter is like you arguing with me." Furthermore, said Gallo, Duesberg had misinterpreted published evidence and ignored crucial arguments about the role of HIV in causing AIDS: "Hasn't Duesberg ever understood indirect mechanisms in cell killing? There are immune responses to the virus that destroy the proliferation of the T cell. That's crystal clear now. It is not just a matter of the virus going in and killing the cell directly. Does that take a genius?" Finally, Gallo was furious at Duesberg for failing to recognize the human consequences of his arguments: "Peter can do a lot of disservice. He has now indicated to people that they can go out and fuck around and get infected by this virus and not worry. That's the part where I am mad at Peter. Peter is joking about very serious matters that are going to alter some people's behavior."
Celia Farber capped off Liversidge's interview by appending an ironic comment, noting that a few years earlier, when Gallo introduced Duesberg at a university talk, he characterized Duesberg as having "a rare critical sense which often makes us look twice, then a third time, at a conclusion many of us believed to be foregone." And Farber quoted Duesberg's response to the Gallo interview: "I must say, of all the scientists I've known, Gallo's reactions are the most unscientific." In fact, Gallo was a convenient foil for Duesberg. Though this would change in the years to follow, at the moment Gallo was the AIDS establishment figure that everyone loved to hate. As rumors had spread that Gallo might have stolen Montagnier's virus, Gallo had come to be a symbol of expertise gone bad: untrustworthy, patronizing, and resentful of challenges. Just the past month, Gay Community News had spotlighted his attitude toward the AIDS activist group ACT UP in its "Quote of the Week" feature: "I don't care if you call it ACT UP, ACT OUT or ACT DOWN, you definitely don't have a scientific understanding of things," Gallo had reportedly told activists.