Gathering of the Tribes
Sponsored by a Dutch organization called the Foundation for Alternative AIDS Research, which stressed "freedom of information" and "freedom of thought," the alternative conference promised by the Sunday Times took place from May 14 to 16, 1992. Many of the key HIV dissenters were there: Michael Callen, Joseph Sonnabend, John Lauritsen, Joan McKenna, Gordon Stewart, Robert Root-Bernstein, Joan Shenton, Celia Farber, Jad Adams—along with, of course, the featured attractions, Duesberg and Montagnier. Other supporters of alternative positions came from a number of countries on the Continent, including Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Representatives of the orthodox position were also in attendance, including three Dutch researchers, Roel Coutinho, Jaap Goudsmit, and Frank Miedema. In all, about two hundred people showed up for the event.
A Reuters report quoted the Secretary of Britain's Medical Research Council, who denounced the claims presented at the alternative conference as "a lethal cocktail of untruth and ignorance." But Nigel Hawkes, writing from Amsterdam for the Times of London, framed the issue as one of freedom of belief versus the suppression of heresy. He led off with: "In an old church in Amsterdam once used by religious liberals escaping persecution, a group of free-thinkers yesterday met to denounce the authorised version of Aids. …" Hawkes noted that "Montagnier insisted that the virus was a necessary part" of the spread of the epidemic, but he presented Montagnier as sympathetic to the dissenters: "'Dogmatism is a deadly sin in the process of science,' Professor Montagnier concluded. This was clear evidence, some might say, that he backed the efforts of the alternative Aids group to take a fresh look at a disease that has been spreading for a decade without a cure or a clear understanding of how it functions being found."
The considerable debate in the British press caused some Canadian publications to pick up the issue. The magazine Macleans published a long article on the Amsterdam conference, and the Toronto Star ran a story describing what it called "The New AIDS Controversy." But in the United States, home to most of the prominent HIV heretics, the alternative conference was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream press. National Public Radio's Weekend Edition ran a brief and not terribly illuminating report picked up from a correspondent for the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But only readers of the gay press would have been likely to know significant details or to have followed the specific controversy concerning the role of Montagnier.
Initially, writers in gay publications followed the lead of the Sunday Times in assuming that Montagnier had defected to the dissident camp. An article in the New York-based magazine QW , entitled "HIV Does Not Cause AIDS, Virus Discoverer Claims," commented: "Although the multifactorial approach is not new, it is surprising coming from someone who is considered relatively conservative and has championed the traditional 'HIV causes AIDS' theory." Similarly, Neenyah Ostrom's article in the Native was headlined: "Montagnier: HIV Is Not the Cause," while the San Francisco Sentinel reported that "other respected AIDS experts have begun to agree with Duesberg, most notably, Luc Montagnier. …"
Claims such as these apparently provoked consternation at San Francisco's Project Inform. One of the most authoritative voices on treatment issues within the AIDS movement, Project Inform had taken many anti-establishment stands. But on the question of causation, the organization stood squarely in the mainstream. Indeed, Executive Director Martin Delaney had become friends with Robert Gallo—initially out of the pragmatic position that it was more useful to the cause of AIDS research to have Gallo on board, but ultimately out of genuine respect for the researcher's talents and a belief that Gallo was being unfairly treated in the controversy surrounding the discovery of HIV. Delaney immediately wrote to Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute to express concern about the Times 's implication of an alliance between Montagnier and Duesberg and to request clarification of his views. Just before leaving for the alternative conference, Montagnier sent off a letter in response, which Delaney released to the press.
In the letter, Montagnier described the Sunday Times article as "misleading since it mixed a correct account of my interview with anti-HIV non scientific theories." However, "as you may recall from our meeting in 1990, my permanent position has been to keep an open mind and not to neglect any facts." Montagnier went on to reiterate his belief that mycoplasma may serve as cofactors, and that various indirect mechanisms—particularly one called "apoptosis" or "programmed cell death"—may be involved in T-cell depletion. But he stressed: "This is just opposite to the view that AIDS is not caused by HIV and is not a transmissible disease."