By Elinor Burkett
Miami Herald 23 Dec. 1990
Heckler stood behind the podium in the auditorium of the Hubert
H. Humphrey Building in Washington, D.C. Lights flooded her face,
cameras rolled, reporters clutched their notebooks expectantly.
we add another miracle to the long honor roll of American medicine
and science," announced the secretary of Health and Human Services.
"Today's discovery represents the triumph of science over a
dreaded disease. Those who have disparaged this scientific search-those
who have said we weren't doing enough-have not understood how sound,
solid, significant medical research proceeds."
It was April
23, 1984. Almost 2,000 Americans were dead of AIDS. More than 100
new cases were being reported every week. For the first time since
the plague began, the government was offering shreds of hope to
the dying: The virus causing the disease had been isolated. An end
to the nightmare was finally in sight: Within six months a blood
test would be available, Heckler said; within two years a vaccine
would be ready for testing.
made her dramatic appearance on national television, Dr. Peter Duesberg
sat in his cluttered office in Berkeley, Calif., bewildered. Duesberg
is one of the world's foremost authorities on viruses. He was the
first person to map all the different gene strands that make up
a retrovirus, the very type of clever, hard-to-fight bug Heckler
said was causing AIDS. To Duesberg, Heckler's announcement just
didn't make sense. If her HIV virus was indeed the cause of AIDS,
it violated the laws of virology. He decided to withhold his applause
and wait for the proof.
Six years and
90,000 deaths later, he's still waiting. And there is still no vaccine.
In the six
years since Margaret Heckler's surprise announcement, the federal
war against AIDS has become a desperate $3 billion-a-year battle
against HIV, Human Immuno-deficiency Virus. In the most intensive
disease hunt in the history of mankind, scientists have cross-sectioned
and spliced HIV. They have cultured, activated and mapped it. They
have figured out how it reproduces. They can draw you a picture
of it. But they are missing one important piece of the puzzle:
not yet know how HIV causes AIDS," Dr. John Coffin of Tufts
University, a member of the international committee that named the
virus, told the delegates to the Sixth International Conference
on AIDS last June.
It is that
missing link that nags at a growing number of the world's best-known
scientists. They have begun to suggest a frightening explanation:
HIV alone may not cause the disease. Or it may have nothing to do
By 1987, three
years after the HIV discovery was announced, retrovirologist Duesberg's
doubts had hardened into a certainty that something was wrong. For
one thing, the numbers weren't adding up. Each year since Heckler's
announcement, the federal Centers for Disease Control has projected
the number of people expected to turn up with the HIV infection.
Initially, scientists were confident their projections would prove
accurate: They knew from years of experience how quickly a toxic
new virus spreads in a human population. But, the predictions were
wrong. At the end of each year, the CDC was forced to revise its
estimates downward dramatically. In 1986, for example, the CDC estimated
that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans were infected with HIV.
A year later, they cut that estimate in half. HIV is not spreading
at anywhere near the rate expected of a newly introduced sexually
transmitted virus. Why? No one knows.
other nagging problems with the HIV hypothesis:
- Two healthy
people can have sex with the same HIV-infected person, and one
of them will come down with the infection after a single encounter,
while the other will still not have it after 500 encounters. Why?
No one knows.
- The vast
majority of those known to be HIV-infected remain healthy for
years-and there is no proof that they will not live a normal life
span. Why? No one knows.
presumed to signal AIDS are cropping up in individuals without
any trace of HIV. Why? No one knows.
- How could
a virus found to be active in only minute quantities in the bodies
of even the sickest AIDS patients devastate the immune system
as HIV purportedly does? No one knows.
researchers say such apparent contradictions are to be expected
in the early stages of research into a new disease, others aren't
are too many shortcomings in the theory that HIV causes all signs
of AIDS," says Luc Montagnier.
In June, when
Montagnier, a French AIDS researcher announced his rejection of
the established theory, he should have provoked a sensation. After
all, Montagnier discovered HIV in the first place.
now believes that HIV is "a peaceful virus" that becomes
a killer only when combined with another bug-a bug he has already
isolated and identified. This finding received none of the attention
of his original discovery. The same reaction-which is to say no
Montagnier's American co-discoverer of HIV, when he also suggested
in print two years ago that HIV might need a co-factor to cause
AIDS. Now Gallo does not even discuss the matter.
however, persists-and has discovered what earlier dissenters have
found out over the years: It's no fun to challenge the common wisdom.
the retrovirologist, has been likened to obsessives who believe
AIDS has extraterrestrial origins. He is, CDC researcher Harold
Jaffe and his British colleague Robin Weiss wrote recently in a
British science magazine, "a flat-Earther bogged down in molecular
minutiae and miasmal theories of disease."
Two other dissenters,
Robert Root-Bernstein, winner of a MacArthur "genius grant,"
and Shyh-Ching Lo, director of AIDS pathology at the Armed Forces
Institute of Pathology, have been accused of quackery and endangering
the public health of the nation by key AIDS policy makers for their
insistence that HIV is not the sole cause of AIDS.
Even when they
present evidence that their dissent might be justified, nothing
happens. Montagnier was not the first one who found a second organism
that may be essential to produce AIDS. A year ago this month, the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease-the agency
in charge of the war on AIDS-convened a panel of scientists to examine
Shyh-Ching Lo's discovery of an extremely toxic micro-organism in
AIDS patients. When the organism-the same mycoplasma that Montagnier
would report four months later - was injected into experimental
animals, the animals quickly sickened and died. That does not happen
with HIV. Panel members quizzed Lo for three days, and
he was onto something important.