Many people who have watched my videos and read my articles critical of the AIDS denialist documentary 'House of Numbers' take solace in the idea that this rejection of science and logic is only confined to a very small percentage of the population. Yes, there might be the occasional very upsetting story of a mother recklessly infecting her child or someone neglecting to tell their sexual partner of their infection, but they happen so infrequently that it almost numbs the horrific nature of what this documentary is promoting.
But what if I was to say that there was an example where not only were these AIDS denialists' theories listened to, but they where listened to by a government. A government that would later go on to restrict the use of freely donated antiretroviral medication and no longer provide drugs preventing mother-to-child transmission resulting in the deaths of an estimated 330,000 people. Not only is this example of the dangers of AIDS denialism white washed in the documentary 'House of Numbers' but one of the scientists involved and the president of the government at the time are presented as heroes fighting the good fight.
The documentary stars 77-year old, professor of molecular and cell biology, Peter Duesberg. Duesberg works at the University of California, Berkeley and his credentials and achievements are intimidating to say the least. His work looking into viral causes of cancer and genetic mapping of these viruses is outstanding. For his efforts he was awarded tenure at Berkeley, elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and won a 7-year Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institute of Health.
It was looking more and more like Duesberg was going to go down in history as one of the great scientific minds in his field. However, in the mid-80s, he began to be vocal about his scepticism of the idea that HIV is the cause of AIDS. In 2000, Duesberg was part of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki AIDS Advisory Panel, and if history does remember him it will be for the unnecessary deaths and suffering he has caused by proxy.
Duesberg began to promote the idea that all retroviruses including HIV are harmless and that the real cause of immunodeficiency was recreational drugs, malnutrition, and the nucleoside analog reverse-transcriptase inhibitor AZT. His theories on the cause of AIDS is contradicted by every analytical technique and clinical trial used to investigate the link between HIV and AIDS to date. Because of unscientific and dangerous views on HIV/AIDS, Duesberg was shunned by the scientific community but was naturally welcomed by the AIDS denialists. He gained quite a following and became what Nicoli Nattrass calls in her book ‘The AIDS conspiracy’ a “hero scientist” (A scientist who lends credibility to an unscientific movement). To put it simply, he is the Andrew Wakefield of the AIDS denialism world and, like Wakefield, he cried foul play when he was unable to obtain funding to investigate his theories because of the unfair oppression by a threatened scientific establishment. This is something which he brings up in the documentary ‘House of Numbers’.
“If you were to say here is a billion dollars for alternative theories about AIDS, you wouldn’t believe what’s going to happen. A lot of HIV researchers overnight would start cofactors. The first year they would call them cofactors of HIV. And the next year, the co would be topped and HIV would be topped a year later” – Peter Duesberg
Peter later goes on to discuss what he thinks of his colleagues at Berkeley.
“They are all prostitutes most of them, my colleagues. To some degree myself. You have to be a prostitute to some degree to get money for your research. You are trained a little bit to be a prostitute. But some go all the way” – Peter Duesberg
Contrary to what Duesberg says, you would not need a billion dollars to uncover an AIDS conspiracy. All you would need is one unusual result…..just one. One result that does not fit with what all that we have learnt about HIV/AIDS over the past 30 years. Not only would this result be immediately investigated, but it would be jumped on by a torrent of scientists who want to make a name for themselves. Let’s also not forget that what Duesberg is suggesting as the real cause of AIDS would be trivial (but a little unethical) to investigate.
Duesberg has failed to obtain funding to investigate his theories – not because the scientific community feels threatened, but simply because the theories don’t hold any weight. It’s an incredibly competitive world out there, and if you are unable to deliver, why should someone invest in you. There are, however, other ways to fund your research. For example why isn’t Duesberg asking for funding from AIDS denialists themselves? Why, rather than putting all their money into research and development, do AIDS denialist groups instead spend it on documentaries and funding legal action against people who disagreed with them.
Although Duesberg is only in the documentary House of Numbers for a relatively short amount of time, he plays a large role in the AIDS denialist movement. In 2000, he – along with other AIDS denialists – was invited by South African President Thabo Mbeki to join his Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel. The only thing the members of this panel had in common was a distrust of HIV science and AIDS treatment, and supported unproven alternative remixes. Some, like Duesberg, believed that HIV existed but that it was harmless, others believed that the virus does not exist at all, and some believed the virus to be a bioweapon made by the CIA. You would think that anyone with half a brain cell would not entertain a group like this, but President Mbeki acted on them. Later that year at the international AIDS conference in Durban, Mbeki publicly rejected the scientific consensus on HIV/AIDS. He said that AIDS existed, but it was not caused by a virus – but instead by poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. He later went on to say that the solution to the AIDS problem in South Africa was not expensive western medicine but the alleviation of poverty in Africa.
Mbeki’s government no longer provided AZT for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission; nor did they provide AIDS treatments. They also restricted the use of freely donated nevirapine and obstructed the acquisition of Global Fund grants. Because of their actions it has been estimated by Harvard researchers that the death toll resulting from Mbeki’s denialism stands at over 330,000.
The documentary ‘House of Numbers’ tries to pass off both Duesberg and Mbeki as heroes who were brave enough to stand up to the scientific and medical community. Not once does it mention the rise of HIV infections and AIDS related deaths in South Africa. Not once does it mention the death and suffering these men have caused. Instead, it has interviews with people calling Duesberg a “maverick cell biologist” and has a reporter named Rian Malan defending Mbekis actions. Contrary to what the documentary is trying to portray, these people have blood on their hands and ARE responsible of the death and suffering of over 330,000 people. I don’t know how they live with themselves.