Document:Williams reviews Adams

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HIV – not positive


by Nigel Williams

The Guardian
12 April 1989


Reporters rarely turn their investigative powers to medical research, so Jad Adams's book, AIDS: The HIV Myth (Macmillan), is a surprising attack on a temple of major importance. His main point in a study of the disease is that HIV is a harmless passenger virus – the true cause of Aids still eludes us.

Adams argues that the Aids industry has taken up HIV – the Human Immunodeficiency Virus – because a massive but failed virus-cancer research programme was grafted on to Aids research: "From the people who didn't bring you the virus which causes cancer, it's the virus that doesn't cause Aids".

This remarkable challenge to HIV is built up largely from the iconoclastic work of Peter Duesberg, a virologist at the University of California, for whom Adams is a fluent mouthpiece. Duesberg, a relative latecomer to Aids, was struck by the contrasts between HIV and many of the viruses he knew. HIV is present in too small amounts, infects too few cells, and takes too long from initial infection to be the cause of fatal disease. Indeed, there are patients with Aids in whom neither virus nor antibody can be easily detected.

From this and other evidence, Adams pleads the virus's innocence. This is more advocacy than science, but then he believes that scientific debates "are won by the most eloquent, by those with the most financial clout, by those with friends in appropriate places".

An eloquent list of the virus's shortcomings does not prove it benign. Many scientists who work with HIV acknowledge the problems but would point out the many animal viruses that show similarities with HIV. For example, the visna-maedi virus infects sheep and goats and can cause a slow progressive disease with little apparent sign of the virus itself.

More recent work on monkeys has revealed several HIV-like viruses that can cause an Aids-like immunodeficiency. Interestingly, a virus has been isolated from one species in which it apparently causes no disease, but the same virus produces an Aids-like syndrome when transferred to another species. And in the laboratory there are a growing number of molecular clues as to how an HIV-like virus, during the long course of infection, may change its behaviour.

But the book is more than a piece of advocacy and establishment bashing. From the first suspicions about the appearance of Kaposi's sarcoma in young US gay men and the contamination of blood supplies, to the conflicts between Robert Gallo's and Luc Montagnier's labs for the credit of identifying HIV, he presents a powerfully human story.

He inveighs against the abuse of antibody tests as a means of coercion and highlights the growing questions about the status of those who are "antibody positive" – predictions about the rate of conversion to disease are being revised downwards in many places. And for those who wonder where the disease came from, and speculate on the African origins, he explains the serious limits to our understanding and the lack of an easy scapegoat.

It is a pity Adams throws out the main player in his Aids story, because it flaws an otherwise passionate and abrasive history of the disease.

© 1989 by Nigel Williams
Originally published in The Guardian