From Isolation to Organization
In mid-1991, the struggle by Duesberg and other HIV dissenters to create credibility for their claims in both popular and professional arenas was given a significant boost by the founding of an organization. The impetus came from a molecular biologist named Charles Thomas Jr., a former Harvard professor and current director of a small biotechnology research institute in San Diego. Thomas later commented that he believed "it was a matter of civic duty" to get involved, saying, "I've worked on viruses and I can read and understand this literature. … I felt real fabrications were taking place."
The group took form in a flurry of faxes between Thomas, Duesberg, Robert Root-Bernstein, Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson, and an actuary from Kansas City named Robert Maver. Thomas originally dubbed the organization "Friends of HIV," and, in a "Dear Colleague" form letter mailed to potential supporters, he asked them how they liked the title. In the end, sobriety prevailed over facetiousness and the organization became the "Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis." The group submitted a statement to both Science and Nature in June 1991 and asked that it be published as a letter to the editor. The full statement read: "It is widely believed by the general public that a retrovirus called HIV causes the group of diseases called AIDS. Many biomedical scientists now question this
hypothesis. We propose that a thorough reappraisal of the existing evidence for and against this hypothesis be conducted by a suitable independent group. We further propose that critical epidemiological studies be devised and undertaken."
The letter was notably restrained in tone and in content. By calling simply for reappraisal and by not advocating an alternative hypothesis or making any of the more controversial claims that had been advanced earlier by Duesberg and other dissenters, the letter was well suited to attract support. It went to Nature and Science with twenty-eight signatures, and by the following year Thomas had gathered a total of fifty-three. The signatories were mostly from the United States, but there were a few from Switzerland, Italy, Britain, Germany, and Australia. The list included familiar names, like Harvey Bialy, Gordon Stewart, and John Lauritsen. But others were new to the public controversy, and many of them came with respectable credentials. Of the fifty-three who had signed by June 1992, twelve had M.D.'s and twenty-five had Ph.D.'s. Twenty of the fifty-three gave academic affiliations with departments like physiology, biochemistry, medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, and physics.
Yet remarkably enough, the letter never saw publication, having been rejected not only by Nature and Science , but by Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine as well. While this gatekeeping may have kept a minority view out of the prestigious scientific and medical publications, it also guaranteed favorable publicity for the group in the mainstream media. One journalist with the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times interviewed Thomas and wrote a story focusing on the suppression of dissent and the plague of "political correctness" in biomedicine. The Chronicle of Higher Education also profiled the group in December 1991, in an article that described Duesberg's fight to recover his Outstanding Investigator Grant and noted that Duesberg's representative in Congress, Ron Dellums, had looked into the NIH's handling of the grant application.
Meanwhile, backing for Duesberg arrived from an unlikely quarter. "Professor Peter Duesberg … is probably sleeping more easily at night," suggested John Maddox, the editor of Nature , in a September 1991 piece in the "News and Views" section called "AIDS Research Turned Upside Down." Maddox summarized two recent and perplexing studies that suggested the presence of autoimmune mechanisms in the development of AIDS. "None of this would imply that HIV is irrelevant to AIDS," Maddox concluded, "but that an immune response to foreign cells, most probably lymphocytes, is also necessary.
Duesberg will be saying, 'I told you so.'" In the past, "Duesberg has been pilloried for his heterodox views … and faced with the threat that his research funds would be snatched away," wrote Maddox. "Now there [is] some evidence to support his long fight against the establishment (among which, sadly, he counts this journal)."
"Pilloried Professor May Be Right about Aids," proclaimed London's Daily Telegraph . "New Study Vindicates Duesberg, Calls AIDS an Autoimmune Disease" read an article in the Bay Area Reporter . Others were more cautious in their conclusions. A reporter for Science , in an article called "Duesberg Vindicated? Not Yet," cited "numerous … researchers [who] failed to see any connection between [the two studies] and the stand taken by Duesberg." One of the researchers whose article had provoked the fuss told Science: "We have nothing in common with [Duesberg's] idea that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS." No fan of the autoimmune hypothesis himself, Duesberg agreed, saying "Those studies have nothing to do with [my position]."
Joseph Palca, the reporter for Science , focused on Maddox's motives for endorsing Duesberg, given that Duesberg occupied such an extreme position in the debate. Maddox explained to Palca: "I'm not for a minute saying Duesberg is right in all points. But I feel sorry that Nature has not done more to give his view prominence. It would have hastened the process by which the scientific community is coming around to the view that the pathogenesis of AIDS is more complicated than the baby-talk stories we were all given a few years ago." This was the real issue, Joseph Sonnabend commented in a column in the gay and lesbian magazine NYQ —the "vast gulf between the simplistic view of the pathogenesis of AIDS that has been presented by those who lead the AIDS research establishment … and the painful reality that we have almost no understanding of the pathogenesis of this disease." The "baby-talk story"—that HIV causes AIDS in all infected people by directly killing T cells and that the only cofactor is the passage of time—"was not arrived at as the result of years of intense and painstaking research," Sonnabend complained, "but was almost instantly discovered in 1984, and presented not as speculation but as established fact."