The HIV Heretics and the "Murdoch Press"
Suddenly, in spring 1992, the causation controversy exploded in the pages of the British press. Between April 26 and May 31, more than twenty articles or opinion pieces on the topic were published in the pages of the Times, the Sunday Times, the Independent, and the Daily Telegraph, or released over the wire by Reuters. The furor was kicked off by the Sunday Times, which—along with the technically separate daily Times, also owned by publishing mogul Rupert Murdoch—had been prone toward headline-grabbing coverage of AIDS. These newspapers had explored the controversial view that the AIDS epidemic might be the unintended by-product of vaccine trials in Africa in the 1950s, which may have exposed vaccine recipients to monkey viruses similar to HIV. They had also fiercely questioned the view that heterosexuals were at risk of AIDS. Now, in a frontpage, headline story, accompanied by a much longer, forty-four hundred-word, double-page spread inside the newspaper as well as a sidebar on Montagnier, science writer Neville Hodgkinson described a "Startling Challenge to Aids Orthodoxy" mounted by "two of the world's experts on viruses," Montagnier and Duesberg.
Both scientists, Hodgkinson reported, "are to challenge the orthodox view that HIV is the exclusive cause of Aids" at an alternative AIDS conference to be held in Amsterdam the following month. Hodgkinson emphasized the shift in Montagnier's position on causation over the years, quoting the French scientist as saying: "We were naive. … We thought this one virus was doing all the destruction. Now we have to understand the other factors in this." And he described the rude reception that Montagnier had received in 1990 when he tried to present his views on cofactors at the International Conference in San Francisco. Hodgkinson quoted one observer: "There was Montagnier, the Jesus of HIV, and they threw him out of the temple."
One of several members of the group profiled by Hodgkinson was
Dr. Kary Mullis, a scientist who in 1983 had invented the technique called polymerase chain reaction that had transformed biotechnology research. (The Financial Times has called PCR "probably the most important development in genetics research since the discovery of gene-splicing in 1973," noting that the market for the technology is likely to be worth $1 billion a year by 1996. In October 1993, Mullis received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing PCR.) Mullis had no expertise in AIDS, but his dissent carried a certain weight, given that his invention had actually been employed to support the orthodox position. Before the invention and distribution of PCR, scientists had been able to find HIV in only one out of every ten thousand to one hundred thousand T cells, raising serious questions about how the virus could be destroying the immune system. But once the same researchers began using PCR, they were able to find the virus in about one percent of T cells—which didn't answer all the questions but at least came closer to doing so. Mullis, however, was not impressed; he told Hodgkinson: "I can't find a single virologist who will give me references which show that HIV is the probable cause of AIDS."
The science editor of the daily Times, Nigel Hawkes, followed up with a shorter article the following day describing the alternative conference to be held in Amsterdam. "Professor Montagnier's presence is likely to give a higher profile to a campaign over AIDS which has been ignored or dismissed by mainstream medical opinion," wrote Hawkes. Meanwhile, Reuters Financial Report noted the financial implication of the Times 's articles for Wellcome Foundation, the British-based parent of Burroughs Wellcome, manufacturer of AZT. Shares of Wellcome stock "took an initial tumble on the article," dropping fifty-two pence. A few days later, the Times 's rival, the Independent, weighed in with a report from Steve Connor, a science correspondent who had coauthored a well-known book about AIDS. Connor quoted Dr. Kenneth Calman, Britain's chief medical officer, who had appeared on television to express his concern that the Times articles might encourage complacency in response to AIDS.
Soon afterward, the Independent published an opposing commentary by William Leith, who compared resistance to Duesberg and Montagnier with the opposition that Darwin and Copernicus had encountered from scientists of their day. "Why do people react so badly to new scientific discoveries?" Leith asked rhetorically. Connor responded with his own op-ed piece, which asked some pointed
questions about what Leith had referred to as "the Duesberg-Montagnier theory." Montagnier's name brought credibility, and the dissenters were understandably anxious to "enroll" him by presenting him as a fellow traveler. But Connor was having none of it. "Readers of several British newspapers could be forgiven for forming the impression that Professor Duesberg has won over a powerful ally," wrote Connor. In fact, Connor explained, Montagnier would be attending the alternative conference in order to oppose Duesberg. He quoted Montagnier's current opinion of Duesberg: "He's wrong because he doesn't take all the data into account, whether deliberately or not. I will go to the conference to prove Duesberg is wrong."
Connor argued that the Times 's misrepresentation of Montagnier's relationship to the HIV controversy was typical of an article that devoted two pages to Duesberg "but largely ignored the welter of evidence against his claim." Malcolm Dean, writing in the "News & Comment" section of the British medical journal Lancet, made a similar point in an article on "AIDS and the Murdoch Press." Decrying the Times 's "deep Conservative bias which the editor desperately tries to conceal by anti-establishment campaigns," Dean argued that "of course sceptics should be given space, but iconoclasts should be pushed as hard as establishment figures to justify their assertions."