UC Berkeley professor denies link between HIV and AIDS

Professor Peter Duesberg in his lab in Donner Hall at UC Berkeley.
Brenna Alexander/Staff
Professor Peter Duesberg in his lab in Donner Hall at UC Berkeley.

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For over 20 years, UC Berkeley professor Peter Duesberg has believed that HIV does not cause AIDS, an opinion that he says has limited his academic career and alienated him from the scientific community.

“You cannot find the (HIV) virus, only antibodies, and it doesn’t spread via sex as it should,” Duesberg said. “HIV is a harmless virus. I have said that before, and I continue to say it.”

The tenured professor of molecular and cell biology — who said he has been called “homophobic” and a “mass murderer” in the past for his beliefs — elicited further controversy after the publication of his most recent article in a scientific journal sparked the resignation of a member of the journal’s editorial board.

Near the end of January, Klaudia Brix of Jacobs University in Germany resigned from the board of the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology in protest of the December publication of Duesberg’s article, entitled “AIDS since 1984: No evidence for a new, viral epidemic — not even in Africa.”

“It’s just propaganda that they’re dying from AIDS,” Duesberg said.

The article compares statistical evidence of AIDS deaths in Uganda and South Africa to the overall population growth of those countries and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The article then concludes that AIDS has not caused a large number of deaths in Africa.

“We deduce from this demographic evidence that HIV is not a new killer virus,” the article states.

However, Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology and associate dean for research at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

“It is a well-established scientific fact going back 30 years,” Reingold said. “Every credible scientist in the world believes that to be a scientific fact.”

Three years after the announcement of the discovery of the AIDS virus in 1984, Duesberg published an article denying that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

He has since argued that AIDS results from recreational drug use and has advised those with the disease not to take antiretroviral drugs.

“I tell people, by all means, stop taking these drugs — they haven’t cured anybody yet,” Duesberg said.

In 2000, Duesberg sat on a panel which advised then-President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki about the cause of the AIDS virus. Mbeki later denied that AIDS was caused by a virus and limited the treatments in the country, leading to about 330,000 deaths, according to a study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.

Other AIDS researchers rebuke Duesberg’s arguments as the spread of misinformation.

“People who deny the causality of AIDS are denying reality,” said Jeff Sheehy, director for communications at the UC San Francisco AIDS Research Institute, in an email. “I know individuals infected with HIV who are dead because they believed denialists and … initiated treatment too late to save their lives.”

Although Duesberg’s research has largely been restricted to small journals, he has published over 20 articles, three of those in Science, and a book on the virus, according to his website.

However, an article he authored was retracted from the Medical Hypothesis Journal in 2009 due to its inclusion of “opinions that could potentially be damaging to global public health,” a statement from the journal said. The article led to a campus investigation of Duesberg that was dropped a year later.

Despite this exposure, Duesberg said his beliefs have limited his academic career on campus. He has been teaching a laboratory course since 1987 and claims he was restricted by other faculty from giving a lecture for more than 20 years.

“I never got to teach a course in my field until recently,” Duesberg said, referring to the lecturing position he was given in the fall semester of 2009.  “My colleagues didn’t trust me.”

G. Steven Martin, chair of the campus department of molecular and cell biology, declined to comment on Duesberg’s role in the department.

Despite overwhelming opposition, Duesberg — who first won acclaim as co-discoverer of the first viral cancer gene and for mapping the genetic structure of retroviruses — does claim to have had some success in his research on AIDS.

“I get tons of letters saying ‘thank you, your research has changed my life,’” he said.

Going forward, Duesberg plans to pursue cancer research, lessening his focus on AIDS.

“You try to make your case as good you can, and I think I’ve done that,” he said. “I have said what I can say — I don’t think I can do too much more.”

Franklin Krbechek covers research and ideas.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Arthur Reingold, professor and associate dean on campus, said that Professor Peter Duesberg’s beliefs run counter to a core tenet held by the medical community. In fact, he only commented on the connection between HIV and AIDS and did not mention Duesberg specifically.