Most reading this will be familiar with Celia Farber’s very long, cover story in the March 2006 Harper’s (Out of Control), which set off more alarms and sent more AIDS apologists into various states of destabilization than anything published anywhere since Duesberg’s 1987 Cancer Research review that began the whole AIDS controversy. This story was originally focused on the "cautionary tale of Peter Duesberg, and the lessons of light and dark it sheds on the abstraction we call 'American science'. It was a story I was very attached to," Farber told us, "partly because it had a bit more light in it. Hope for the future. An open chord. Maybe a happy ending."
We are very pleased to present here a full and unedited author's proof of that story, which includes material not previously published in either Harper's or Serious Adverse Events (Farber's recent collection from Melville House) -- such as the Kary Mullis sections, as well as notes and a “coda” that was added when the “anticipated” publication date of the article in Harper's and a publication in Nature that supported a key feature of Duesberg’s cancer theory were still contemporaneous. (Otis)
If Peter Duesberg's name sounds familiar, it's because he has long been branded by the mainstream media as the virologist who is wrong about HIV. His name entered the popular culture in the late 1980s pre-stamped with wrongness. You knew he was wrong before you knew what he had said in the first place. The wrongness cut through the layers of the scientific question itself, and down into the very roots of social identity and cognition. Peter Duesberg split the academic culture, at a time of unprecedented hysteria, into two kinds of people: Knowers and doubters. The knowers controlled all means of information dissemination, while the doubters dwelled in the shadows. When the doubters grew to include hundreds of PhDs, including three Nobel laureates and eventually even the president of South Africa, the labels "kook" and "denialist" were quickly to encompass them too, creating an equivalence between a doubter and a deviant.
It's been one hellish ride for the iconoclastic professor since 1987, when he first published his critique of the HIV-AIDS hypothesis in a lengthy, highly technical, invited review in the prestigious journal Cancer Research. It is a paper that in the words of his biographer, Harvey Bialy, "sealed his scientific fate for a dozen years". Only one year previously, at the age of 50, he became one of the youngest inductees of the US National Academy of Sciences for his pioneering work in the 1970s that defined the first cancer gene and mapped the genetic structure of retroviruses. He argues in this post-induction, and career-defining article that the ordinary retrovirus, HIV, is not a killer, and therefore not the cause of AIDS. His case is by now impressively documented, but not surprisingly, still unfamiliar to most people, even though a Google search of his name will easily provide abundant reading. Also impressively documented, and even more unfamiliar to the general public, are his ideas about the genetics of cancer, which have begun to receive favorable attention in the mainstream scientific media, much to the chagrin of his powerful AIDS foes.
The sun is hot on my head as I cross the campus of UC Berkeley, looking for Donner Lab, the university’s oldest science building, where molecular biologist Peter Duesberg has recently been relocated. I stop two students and ask for directions. They’ve never heard of it and produce a map, which we all study intensely, turning it this way and that. Finally they just give me the map and wish me luck. Eventually I find it.
The Berkeley campus is looking very grand these days, its important halls adorned with impressively shaped, oblong hedges clipped to perfection. It's very quiet. Hard to imagine this having once been a bastion of radical protest. Thanks to large donations from two pharmaceutical companies, Berkeley biology is undergoing an extensive renovation. There are bulldozers all over, and near Donner Lab is a huge gaping hole where a building that was Duesberg’s home for almost forty years has just been demolished. In the distance, I spot Duesberg weaving on his bicycle past the bulldozers on his way into the lab. In the heat of the sun, it seems to me that their jaws might just reach down and snap him up, putting a quick, merciful end to the nearly two decade long battle between the Establishment and the Professor. In the 17 years since Duesberg wrote the Cancer Research paper detailing, primarily, his critique of the then half-formed hypothesis that retroviruses caused human cancers, and adding almost as an afterthought that the garden-variety retrovirus HIV could by no means cause a “disease” such as AIDS, he’s been facing bulldozers almost wherever he goes. Reviled by the AIDS establishment, de-funded by the NIH, ostracized and all but exiled within the university where he is a tenured professor, Duesberg was invited back to his native Germany eight years ago to resume work on cancer. During this time, commuting bi-annually between Mannheim and Berkeley, he formulated and tested a theory that has brought a new glitter to his complicated name. Some cancer-theorists say it’s nothing short of the genetic answer to cancer. Others say it is at least part of the answer. It’s lucky for Peter Duesberg that AIDS and cancer are distinct fields. In what is shaping up to be a denouement of Shakespearean proportions, his enemies in the AIDS field have made clear that they want him sunk to the bottom of the deepest sea, even if the answer to cancer goes with him.
Their feelings aside, it looks as though America’s most controversial biologist may be poised for resurrection. When Scientific American recently published a lengthy article on where we stand in our understanding of cancer genetics, Duesberg’s picture was on the timeline at 1999, the year he formalized and published his new theory. He recently broke by nearly twofold the record for undergrad students applying for research assistantships. Breaking a 17 year embargo against inviting Duesberg anywhere, to address anything, the NCI has invited him to their headquarters to speak on cancer. And a first biography, Oncogenes, Aneuploidy, and AIDS: A Scientific Life and Times of Peter H. Duesberg, by Harvey Bialy, has just been published by The Institute of Biotechnology of The Autonomous National University of Mexico, where Bialy is resident scholar. Still, at Berkeley, where the administration remains overtly, almost flamboyantly hostile, Duesberg has had to hire a lawyer to fight for a simple raise, a so-called merit pay increase which usually comes automatically to professors of his stature, but which UC Berkeley has denied him for ten years, claiming his work is “not of high significance.”
For all these recent signs of rehabilitation, Duesberg remains 100% cut off from NIH funding, despite continuing to submit grant proposals regularly, now exclusively on cancer. Prior to his 1987 paper, he was one of the most generously funded scientists in the nation, and never had a grant turned down. Since 1987 he has submitted a total of 30 grant proposals and every single one has been rejected.
In orthodox AIDS circles, his name still engenders true fury. A recent documentary, The Other Side of AIDS, contains a remarkable scene in which Canadian MD, Mark Wainberg, President of the International AIDS Society, (the world’s largest organization of AIDS researchers and clinicians,) angrily calls for Duesberg and others who “attempt to dispel the notion that HIV is the cause of AIDS,” to be “brought up on trial,” calling such people, “perpetrators of death.” He goes on to say that he would hope the US Constitution could be re-written to accommodate such arrests.
In the film, Wainberg’s large face grows pale with fury as he realizes that the interviewer himself is one of the so-called dissidents. He unleashes a lengthy tirade, accusing all HIV skeptics of wanting “millions of people in Africa and elsewhere” to get HIV and die and finally, his eyes crazed with fury, shouts:
“ I suggest to you that Peter Duesberg is the closest thing we have on this planet to a scientific psychopath.”
Then he declares the interview over, rips the microphone from his lapel and storms off.
It was what happened next that was interesting, and maybe a sign of changing tides.
The audience erupted in laughter, which turned to boos as the screen flashed a piece of text: It was a list of Wainberg’s patents and other financial ties to the HIV industry.
The complete article is available as a PDF file here.
© 2006 Celia Farber
Swedish born Celia Farber is widely known "as the world's most dangerous AIDS reporter". Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS, a selection of over 20 years of writing, in a tradition that includes George Orwell and Hunter Thompson, has recently been published by Melville House.