Arenas of Controversy
Besides the articles in the Proceedings , there were three other important arenas in which the controversy was played out in the period from 1989 to 1991. First, debate about the etiology of AIDS invaded the International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco in 1990: at a specially convened session, Luc Montagnier placed himself in the camp of Shyh-Ching Lo by announcing that he had found a mycoplasma in a significant percentage of AIDS patients (thirty-seven out of ninety-seven). Montagnier proposed that the mycoplasma might be a necessary cofactor that acts in conjunction with HIV to cause AIDS. The antibiotic tetracycline, by killing the mycoplasma, might therefore be of benefit to AIDS patients. In particular, Montagnier thought that a cofactor such as mycoplasma could explain how HIV caused the destruction of the immune system, given that the virus was not found in many cells and given that the virus did not appear to kill cells directly. U.S. scientists were dismissive of Montagnier's new hypothesis. "Dr. Montagnier is out on a limb," said James Curran, director of the AIDS program at the CDC. Some scientists expressed the view that Montagnier was squandering his credibility; in the words of the New York Times , they "[wondered] aloud why Dr. Montagnier would risk his professional standing by backing such a theory without more evidence."
Later, HIV dissenters would reap support by pointing to the way the "orthodox" had silenced one of their own when he dared to step out of line. Duesberg would indirectly benefit from Montagnier's intervention, effectively riding on the coattails of the French scientist in the mainstream media. At the 1990 conference, however, this San Francisco Bay Area resident was far from the action. At a hotel two blocks away from the official conference, Duesberg addressed a symposium on alternative treatments for AIDS. A dismissive report by a Reuters correspondent described the mix of alternative treatments proposed by the panelists as "a witch's cauldron of boiling blood, mushrooms and mistletoe," and associated Duesberg with this imagery by noting that "his contentious theory … has brought charges of 'quackery' against him."
Duesberg fared better in a different arena, a British television documentary called "The AIDS Catch," produced by Joan Shenton and Meditel Productions, who had already featured Duesberg once, in 1988. Shown on British television in June, just before the International Conference, the program ignited a firestorm in Britain by presenting the world of AIDS as seen through the eyes of the HIV dissenters. As the narrator declared: "Everything we currently accept about AIDS can be turned on its head." The narrator presented a range of questionable statistics, noting that in any one year in the United States, only a tiny fraction (1.5 percent) of HIV positives develop AIDS, but not indicating how many HIV positives develop AIDS over longer periods of time. In an argument against AZT, the show also claimed that "so far no one has lived longer than three years" on the drug, without explaining that AZT had not been in general use for much longer than that and that only the sickest patients had initially been prescribed it.
"The AIDS Catch" assembled in one place nearly all of the key dissenters. Duesberg was featured prominently on the show, along with Sonnabend and Callen. Lauritsen presented his observations on gay male culture, telling the interviewer: "They might take six different drugs in the course of an evening." British writer Jad Adams, whose pro-Duesberg book, AIDS: The HIV Myth , was published the previous year, proposed psychological reasons for why "people want to believe in HIV." Gordon Stewart, an epidemiologist from Glasgow who supported the immune overload hypothesis, discussed poppers, which he described as "very toxic indeed." The program also featured Walter Gilbert, the Nobel Prize-winning Harvard molecular biologist who had criticized PNAS in the interview with Liversidge. Gilbert was persuaded by the substance of many of Duesberg's arguments, but he made his most forceful point with reference to what he called "democratic theory," arguing that scientific progress comes about through the clash of opposing ideas: "The great lesson of history is that knowledge develops through the conflict of viewpoints, that if you have simply a consensus view, it generally stultifies, it fails to see the problems of that consensus; and it depends on the existence of critics to break up that iceberg and to permit knowledge to develop. This is, in fact, one of the underpinnings of democratic theory; it's one of the basic reasons that we believe in notions of free speech; and it's one of the great forces in terms of intellectual development."