FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 4, 2007
Misrepresenting Serious Concerns About HIV Drugs in South Africa
SAN FRANCISCO, April 4, 2007--Rethinking AIDS, an international organization of more than 2,300 scientists, medical doctors, journalists, health advocates and business professionals, said today that an article published in The New Yorker of March 12, 2007, distorted the views of scientists who raise critical questions about AIDS in South Africa, and misrepresented key facts about the South African government’s response to its health crisis.
In response, RA, through its media contact given below, is making several of its board members available for media interviews. RA’s board includes medical doctors and scientists with extensive experience working in Africa as well as in pharmaceutical development, public health, infectious disease and diagnostics.
The article by Michael Specter, titled “The Denialists,” appeared one year after Celia Farber’s controversial article in Harper’s Magazine, “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” exposed problems with HIV drug safety and testing practices in Africa and the U.S. In an e-mail leaked to the public, Specter stated that he in fact planned his article as a response to Farber’s.
Specter’s article cited claims made by the Treatment Action Committee, a pharmaceutical-supported AIDS drug advocacy group in South Africa, which, together with HIV researcher Dr. Robert Gallo condemned the Harper’s report as “denialism.” RA’s point-by-point rebuttal to their claims of numerous errors in Harper’s found all facts correct and all conclusions consistent and justified.
Central to the Harper’s article were concerns about nevirapine, a drug chaotically tested on pregnant women and their babies in Uganda, in the HIVNET study mentioned by Specter. The study's numerous violations of clinical standards were brought to light in great detail by U.S. National Institutes of Health whistleblower Dr. Jonathan Fishbein. Nonetheless, Specter parroted the discredited study’s conclusion that the drug “dramatically” reduced mother-to-child transmission of HIV and claimed that, in just a few years, nevirapine has “saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of infants.” Specter ignored the harrowing toxicity profile of the drug, beginning with a pilot study in which 19% of babies treated with nevirapine died.
In fact, the HIVNET trial could not determine whether nevirapine reduced risk of HIV transmission, because the study had no placebo arm. Other studies have shown that nevirapine has no effect on HIV transmission from mother to child and, at the tested dose, does not rise to a blood concentration high enough to work as an anti-viral compound (point 4.5).
Specter’s assertion, lacking a citation, of nevirapine’s lifesaving effects ignored devastating contrary data--including a warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that even short-term use can cause liver failure and death. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never approved use of nevirapine to prevent mother-to-child transmission in the U.S., nor is it legally prescribed for this purpose to expectant mothers in Canada or Europe. (More information on nevirapine can be found here.)
Specter admitted that the estimated 5.5 million “HIV infections” in South Africa are based on antibody tests and that, for more than 100 years, the presence of viral antibodies has been regarded as a sign of immunity. Nonetheless, his article supported giving highly toxic anti-retroviral drugs to antibody-positive populations--including pregnant women.
“To prescribe such toxic drugs based on extremely weak diagnostic evidence should be regarded as criminal,” said RA president Etienne de Harven, M.D.
RA board member and African studies professor Charles Geshekter, Ph.D., noted that the World Health Organization's “Bangui” definition of AIDS does not require HIV testing and is compatible with symptoms of malnutrition. “Fighting poverty with toxic drugs represents one of the most cynical episodes in the long history of Western colonialism in Africa,” he said.
RA objects to the use of the term “denialist” to describe scientists, doctors and journalists who expose serious abuses and intimidations in AIDS research. Specter’s article called this “denying the scientific consensus about what causes AIDS and how to treat it.” But no such “consensus” exists as long as legitimate scientific questions remain unanswered.
“Science is not about ‘consensus’ but about facts and valid arguments,” said Dr. de Harven. “Our organization recognizes the seriousness of the health crises in Africa and deplores the human rights abuses, sickness and deaths resulting from flawed and corrupt AIDS research.”
Rethinking AIDS: The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis (“RA” or “the Group”) was formed in 1991 to express the concerns of a growing number of renowned scientists and medical doctors about HIV research and the resulting human rights abuses. In 1995, by a letter published in Science, the Group called for a thorough reappraisal of the existing evidence for and against the HIV/AIDS hypothesis and recommended that critical epidemiological studies be undertaken.
Among RA’s founders are Harvard microbiologist Dr. Charles Thomas; 1993 Nobel laureate for chemistry Dr. Kary Mullis; Nature Biotechnology co-founder Dr. Harvey Bialy; University of California at Berkeley molecular biologist Dr. Peter Duesberg and the late Yale mathematician Dr. Serge Lang, both members of the National Academy of Sciences; in Western Australia Dr. Eleni Papadopulos; and Glasgow University professor emeritus of public health and World Health Organization consultant Dr. Gordon Stewart.
The Group’s current president, Dr. Etienne de Harven, is a professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Toronto and a former cancer researcher at Sloan-Kettering Institute, New York (1956-1981). He produced the first electron microscopic studies of a retrovirus (the murine Friend leukemia virus) and was director of the Electron Microscopy Laboratory at the Banting Institute, Department of Pathology, University of Toronto.