Aids by Prescription.

Extract from "AIDS: The failure of contemporary science" by Neville Hodgkinson


As a central part of his drug-Aids theory, Duesberg also took up and developed a critique of the anti-HIV drug AZT. He argued that the mode of action of this drug was such that it must eventually cause Aids when given to people who had tested HIV-positive, but were otherwise healthy.

Because it blocked DNA synthesis, it killed dividing cells anywhere in the body, causing ulceration, haemorrhaging, damage to hair and skin, wasting away of muscles, and destruction of the immune system and other blood cells. Uncritical acceptance of the HIV story had in any case been a disaster for those who tested antibody-positive. They had been given to understand that they were the doomed victims of a freak biological event, and that there was nothing they could do to alter their fate - a prophecy that could so easily become self-fulfilling. Giving them AZT amounted to 'Aids by prescription'; yet belief in AZT had also become a part of Aids ideology.

Much groundwork on AZT had been covered by John Lauritsen, who in a long series of articles published in the Native, and in Poison by Prescription: The AZT Story, had analysed the studies that allegedly demonstrated the drug's effectiveness, and concluded that there was no scientifically credible evidence that it had benefits of any kind. Although individual doctors insisted the drug did appear capable of producing short-term relief in patients whose immune systems had collapsed, those benefits - if indeed attributable to the drug itself, as opposed to a 'placebo' effect arising from the patient's hope in the drug - were rapidly outweighed by AZT's toxicity. There was no scientific case whatsoever for taking such an unquestionably toxic substance for such paltry returns, in fact every reason not to do so. According to some doctors, at least the same level of relief, without the devastating ill-effects, could be achieved by using well-established anti-microbial drugs to counter the specific diseases affiicting patients.

Documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the main trial of AZT, on the basis of which the drug received its licence, was invalid, because many of the rules for the conduct of such studies had been broken. It became apparent at an early stage, to both patients and doctors, who was receiving active drug and who was on the placebo (the dummy pill). The death rate among the placebo patients was far higher during the few weeks of the trial than ever seen before or since among Aids patients, suggesting either that a disproportionate number were at death's door before the trial began, or that their deaths were acceleratod because of their being deprived of conventional treatment for their infections during the course of the trial. Nearly half the patients on AZT, by contrast, were kept alive with blood transfusions, needed to overcome the anaemia caused by the treatment. Deaths in the AZT group accelerated after the trial was prematurely ended.

Most of these shortcomings had become apparent before the drug was given its licence, and they were the subject of extensive discussions. But the concerns were put on one side after intervention by a senior official of the FDA, which was under immense public and political pressure to fast-track an Aids drug on to the market.

Although taken off the shelf (as a failed anti-cancer drug) and investigated for its anti-viral potential by Burroughs Wellcome, the American arm of the British-based drug company Wellcome, AZT was hugely important to the two key US government institutions involved in the Aids fight, the NCI and the NIAID. Both were intimately involved in its testing and promotion, and key officials, particularly Dr Sam Broder, the NCI's clinical director, had worked extremely hard to get it to market. Burroughs Wellcome acknowledged this with a $55,000 donation, in 1985, in support of work on Aids at Broder's laboratory, and a further $25,000 the following year. That did not prevent Broder (later to become director of the NCI) from becoming furious with David Barry, the company's vicepresident of research, for making out at a 1987 inquiry into AZT's $10,000-a-year price tag that the drug was developed within the company with hardly any help from others. 'I view AZT as the battle of E1 Alamein,' Broder was to declare later. 'It is symbolic that we can do something against the virus that causes Aids; that we can make progress; that those who preached that it was inherently untreatable were wrong.'

In effect, AZT became an official government drug, a kind of talisman for HIV. Despite Lauritsen's dismissiveness of all the research surrounding it, some severely ill Aids patients did improve in the short term, and there were laboratory indications of potential benefit. Nevertheless there has been a totalitarianism about its marketing - not just in the US, but in the UK and elsewhere - that has been truly shameful and frightening. The hundreds of millions of dollars that it earned, along with the fact that it held a flagship role in the fight against HIV, helped generate a climate of opinion in scientific, medical and political circles that was fiercely intolerant of any alternative approaches to Aids. Left-wing author Martin WaIker performed a monumental rescarch effort in docomenting these abuses of power, which included putting enormous pressure on Aids patients to take the drug, in his 1993 book Dirty Medicine.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which had launched HIV to the world in 1984, did the same with a press conference for AZT in September 1986. It also issued press releases in August 1989, again on the basis of a prematurely terminated study, claiming that AZT 'delays progression of disease in certain HIV-infected persons who have not yet developed symptoms'. DHHS secretary Dr Louis Sullivan said the finding was a milestone in the battle to change Aids from a fatal discase to a treatable one. 'These results provide real hope for the millions of people worldwide who are infected with HIV.'

The announcement sent sales of AZT soaring over the next few years, with 'early treatment' becoming the new hope for effectiveness, until a much longer, more carefully conducted study involving Britain's Medical Rescarch Council and French government scientists (the 'Concorde' trial) demonstrated that the drug proved worse than useless in the HIV-positive people who took part. Side-effects were considerable, though not as devastating - in the controlled circumstances of a major trial - as some of AZT's opponents had feared. Over the three years of the trial there were seventy-nine Aids-related deaths in the AZT group, compared with sixty-seven in the 'deferred treatment' group, a difference which, although declared statistically insignificant, was certainly pointing in the wrong direction. Further, there were nearly twice as many 'non-HIV-related' deaths in the AZT group over the period of the study - sixteen, compared with nine. So in all, ninety-five of the patients on 'early treatment' died, compared with seventy-six whose treatment was deferred. The gap might have been even larger if those 'deferred treatment' patients had been spared AZT completely. Findings pointing in a similar direction had been made public in 1991 from a US study headed by Dr John Hamilton, but largely ignored.

To people like Lauritsen, who knew the data and its deficiencies inside out, and DuesLerg, whose conviction that HIV was harmless rendered the entire AZT exercise a cruel deception from the start, the persistence with which Burroughs Wellcome, the NIH and the medical profession promoted AZT was unforgivable. Lauritsen, who first used the phrase 'iatrogenic genocide' for the mass prescription of the drug to gay men, wrote in the Native in January 1991:

Those who have eyes to see are witnessing genocide - the genocide of gay men. Millions of dollars are now being spent on an international advertising campaign, 'Living With HIV', in which gay men and other members of 'risk groups' are being told: Get testod for antibodies to HIV - if you 'test positive' you nced 'medical intervention' which could 'put time on your side'. The 'medical intervention' is AZT (also known as Retrovir and zidovudine), and the campaign is paid for, directly and indirectly, by Burroughs Wellcome, the manufacturer of AZT.

The campaign consists of a phoney diagnosis followed by a lethal treatment. Already tens of thousands of objectively healthy gay men have been scared and bullied and bamboozled into taking AZT, allegedly in order to 'slow the progression to Aids'. Optimism regarding their prognosis would be foolish. Except for the lucky few who stop 'treatment' in time, they will die. Death is the inevitable biochemical consequence of taking AZT, for the fundamental action of the drug is to terminate DNA synthesis, the very life process itself.

The only explanations Lauritsen could find for such behaviour were homophobia, and profit. Bruce Nussbaum, in Good Intentions, a remarkable account of the mishandling of Aids research during the 1980s, offered a more sophisticated but no less chilling description of what he found during hundreds of hours of interviews with the leading players. Despite his twenty years as a journalist, he wrote, much of it covering business and finance for Business Week, he was not prepared for the behind-the-scenes realities of big-time medical research.

On Wall Street, the financial crooks, the insider traders, knew for the most part that they were cheating, breaking the law. The games they played were new . . . but the corruption itself was as old-fashioned as embezzlement.

Nothing of the sort exists in medical science. In that arena, people have good intentions. They believe they are doing good works for the general health of the nation. Indeed, personal corruption is still rare, although faking experimental data appears to be on the rise. The corruption in medical science goes much deeper. It derives from the very way the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the dozen or so elite academic biomedical research centres work with private drug companies. An old-boy network of powerful medical researchers dominates in every disease field, from Aids to Alzheimer's. They control the major comrnittees, they run the most important trials, they determine what gets published and who gets promoted. They are accountable to no one. Despite the billions of taxpayer dollars that go to them every year, there is no public oversight. Medical scientists have convinced society that only they can police themselves. Yet behind the closed doors of 'peer review', conflicts of interest abound. These are not perceived as conflicts of interest by the scientists themselves. The researchers are convinced that they have only good intentions.

AZT, Nussbaum found, had been taken up by the NIH, and its network of well-funded trial investigators at major medical institutions around the country, to the exclusion of almost all other therapeutic approaches to Aids. Inquiries by the Aids activist group ACT UP had shown that by early 1988, practically 80 per cent of the patient slots in the NIAID's Aids clinical trials group were for AZT trials. 'ACT UP basically discovered that the entire government clinical testing system was testing one drug - AZT,' Nussbaum wrote.

Within science, AZT joined the Aids virus in a medical mantra that was repeated over and over again: 'There is one cause of Aids: the Aids virus, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus - HIV. There is one treatment for Aids: AZT.'

AZT both reflected and reinforced the basic paradigm within which almost all Aids research was to take place. The hot fields in virology in the eighties were molecular biology and protein biochemistry. The biggest players were in those fields. Molecular biology focuses on nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, hence the focus on nucleoside compounds such as AZT.

It was simple, it was elegant. That's where the grant money flowed, that's where the articles being published in the best journals originated, that's where the awards for brilliance were. The HIV-AZT litany became dogma. As one scientist prominent in Aids put it: 'If you don't swallow the dogma and repeat it word for word, to everybody around you, in your hospital, in your institution, you get cut off. It's very, very difficult to continue doing research unless you have private funds.'

In a foreword to Jad Adams's 1989 book, Duesberg said he was often asked why it was just himself and a handful of others who questioned the virus-Aids hypothesis. Why didn't a young, ambitious scientist make a name for himself by questioning it? The answer lay in the strong conformist pressures on scientists, particularly young, untenured scientists, in the age of biotechnology. 'Their conceptual obedience to the establishment is maintained by controlled access to research grants, journals and positions, and rewarded by conference engagements, personal prizes, consultantships, stocks and co-ownership in companies.' A dissenter would have to be truly independent and prepared for a variety of sanctions. 'I, for instance, was sarcastically called a "brilliant chemist", but labelled a bigot for considering daily administration of psychoactive and immunosuppressive chemicals more likely to be the cause of Aids than a chronically dormant and chemically almost undetectable retrovirus. Invitations were issued only on the condition that I did not debate the "control" of Aids with the Aids test or the DNA-inhibitor AZT, both of which are based exclusively on the virus-Aids hypothesis.'