The failure of a much sought-after vaccine against the virus has re-ignited an old debate. Mayank Tiwari explores the controversy
The recently reported pessimism among researchers over the failure of an AIDS vaccine has reignited a spectacular science controversy.
Is HIV the cause of AIDS?
Last September, AIDS researchers were dealt a heavy blow when clinical trials of the most promising candidate for an HIV vaccine were stopped after it turned out to be a dud.
The clinical trials showed that the vaccine might have put the people who received it at greater risk of infection rather than preventing HIV or reducing its effect. A survey of top AIDS scientists conducted by The Independent showed most believed a vaccine was nowhere near, with some even believing that effective immunization against HIV may never be possible.
“Nearly a billion dollars is spent globally on AIDS research annually, and yet the sobering reality is that at present there are no promising candidates for an HIV vaccine,” wrote Harvard Medical School’s Bruce Walker in the journal Science, summing up the failure of the expensive effort.
The development has strengthened the position of a vocal minority of scientists who argue that HIV is a harmless passenger virus (found in diseased tissue, but not contributing to the cause of the disease).
This community of scientists includes Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, David Rasnick, a prominent American biochemist, and Nobel laureate Kary Mullis, another American biochemist, and enjoys the support of South African President Thabo Mbeki. They have from the very beginning of the AIDS era—supposed to be 1984 when US biomedical researcher Robert Gallo published a series of papers arguing that HIV was the cause of AIDS—questioned the “causal link” between the virus and the disease.
Other developments, too, have strengthened the position of the AIDS dissidents. Among these are: periodic revisions of the number of people suffering from AIDS; the demographic factor, which is against the nature of infectious viruses to spread regardless of identity clusters; and AIDS symptoms like tuberculosis and cancer being common results of lifestyle conditions.
Duesberg even says that it is AIDS drugs, such as AZT, that cause the disease owing to their high toxicity. The dissenters also cite data showing HIV+ individuals tend to get AIDS when they take AZT and get better if they stop taking the drug.
Among the main reasons dissenters cite in favour of their movement is skewed health funding, especially in developing countries. On May 10, the British Medical Journal carried an article calling for UNAIDS to be shut down as it distorts health funding. In it, Roger England, who heads a Grenada-based think tank, Health Systems Workshop, argued that too much is being spent on HIV compared to other diseases which kill more people.
“It is no longer heresy to point out that far too much is spent on HIV relative to other needs and that this is damaging health systems. Although HIV causes 3.7% of mortality, it receives 25% of international healthcare aid and a big chunk of domestic expenditure. HIV aid often exceeds total domestic health budgets themselves.”
Purushottam Muloli, a New Delhi-based member of Rethinking AIDS, a loose group of scientists and policy makers who do not agree with the prevalent HIV/AIDS theory, says he has been questioning the Indian health ministry and UNAIDS about the scientific evidence behind labelling sections of the population, such as homosexuals, high-risk
“The health policy of the country is being controlled by international donors. Can you believe that the entire health budget of India is less than the amount of international funding the country receives on HIV?”
Rethinking AIDS president David Crowe says the AIDS “dogma” persists because doctors are trained to obey their superiors. “There are many examples of bad medical advice becoming dogma due to the power of senior medical people. The dogma of AIDS has resulted in hopelessness and despair caused by the stigma of HIV+ status. ”