Kary Mullis: Does HIV cause AIDS?

There is a related thread in the Pit about AIDS Disbelievers, but I’d like to get a more focused discussion. This could even be a GQ, but I thought in might turn into a debate, so I am posting it here.

First, some background. Kary Ellis is a biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). I have know idea what that is. He is also someone who questions whether HIV causes AIDS and whether the focus on HIV is wrong.

His basic point is that there has not been scientific evidence proving that HIV does cause AIDS. The claim that HIV causes AIDS was made without normal scientific studies, publications, and reviews. (At least this is what I’ve found on some of his work from a few years ago.) He also seems to be a supporter of Peter Duesberg, the virologist who also questions the HIV-AIDS link. (Before anyone else does it, here’s a link to Cecil’s article Is AIDS a manmade disease? where he mentions Duesberg. Again, this is a 1993 article, so it is also several years old.)

Here is a quote from an article I found entitled Dissenting on AIDS that he wrote (with others) in 1994:

I’d like to get an updated view from some of our resident experts on his claims and the general state of research linking HIV and AIDS.

The reason I’m asking about Ellis is that he is coming to speak where I work (Skidmore College) for our Opening Convocation of the academic year. His work with PCR, which has something to do with DNA replication, ties in to one of the themes for the incoming class, “The Genetic Revolution.”

Is he another crackpot (when it comes to this issue), or does he raise some valid points?

He may be but he’s certainly not alone in his views… http://www.duesberg.com/

It should not be surprising that HIV isn’t particularly serious in other primates. The parallel virus in cats is FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). It is very serious in house cats, resulting in death almost all the time. But it is endemic and not serious in other cat species.

This is because the virus jumps from one feline species to another. When it infects a naive feline population it is very serious. But the host species and the virus co-evolve together. The hosts evolve resistance and the virus evolves lower lethality. Why does the virus evolve lower lethality? So that it can spread. A virus that kills its host also dies but a virus that doesn’t can still spread.

The current theory is that HIV is a form of SIV (since humans are really apes after all) that has jumped to a new, naive population namely Homo sapiens. Other primates may be either be immune or naive to the particular strains that harm humans.

I believe that Mullis and Duesberg share the view that lifestyle factors (illicit drugs, HIV meds, promiscuity) are responsible for AIDS, relegating HIV to the status of a coincident passenger.

There have been several convincing rebuttals of this hypothesis. This site has a nice short one. I’ve read more extensive rebuttals, but can’t locate them currently.

I saw Duesberg give a talk about 3 years ago. It’s hard to believe that at one time, this man was a scientist. To listen to him is to hear…


Here you can find Duesberg’s rebuttals of
(some or all of - I didn’t check each cite) research cited
in the short rebuttal of Duesberg linked by choosybeggar.
(Look for the Duesberg vs. so-and-so headings.)
I am not arguing one way or the other on this issue. I am
just providing material to help those who are debating.

PCR is a way of duplicating DNA, so that science types can do loads of funky research.

Mrs.B uses it all the time.

I suggest you finish reading the rest of his biography, particularly the part that describes how he fell ill to really nasty spider bites and refused to go see a doctor. Mullis really seems like a guy who experimented with far too many mind-altering drugs.

This is a new use of the word “naive” to me. I take it from the context that it means that the virus developed in a different species, so a “naive” species would be one that has acquired the virus from another species. If that’s the case, your explanation makes sense.

As an aside, how does someone go about proving that a particular virus causes a particular disease?

hoosybeggar, thanks for the link. I’m not sure if Duesberg and Mullis agree on what causes AIDS. Duesberg seems pretty committed to the “drugs causes AIDS” belief, but I haven’t seen Mullis commit to anything.

curiousgeorgeordeadcat, also thanks for the link. After reading some of the stuff on Duesberg’s, the feeling I get is similar to what I get when I read Holocaust-deniers – that he’s being very choosy about what “facts” he presents. The difference is that while I’m confident in dismissing Holocaust denial arguments, I don’t know enough about biology and virology to refute or dismiss his arguments.

After browsing the VirusMyth site a bit more, another thing I noticed that they have in common with Holocaust-deniers is a sort of incestual relationship. One member of the group interviews another member who cites another member, and so on.

Barbarian, I still don’t know what PCR is, but that’s just me. I haven’t actually bought his biography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. I checked out some reviews of it on Amazon, and it sounds like Mullis is a bit of a flake.

This is a really interesting question, JeffB, and I wish I had the time to do some research and help you out a little more. As it is, I can only offer a relatively uninformed opinion and a bit of background epidemiology for you to consider.

The problem that Duesberg and his buddies are pointing to is that noone has been able to figure out the biological mechanism by which the HIV virus causes the decline in the CD4+ lymphocyte count which results in AIDS. We can’t be 100% sure of the etiology of AIDS until we can understand this mechanism. However, there are lots of things we take for granted in medicine when we don’t understand how they work (many drugs, for example - we used antibiotics for years without understanding them). Epidemiology sets forth a series of criteria to establish a causal relationship between two factors, and the HIV/AIDS relationship satisfies all of these. The epidemiological evidence is so strong that most doctors and researchers don’t waste time questioning it.

I don’t know anything about Kary Ellis’ views on this, but (unlike Duesberg and Mullis, who both sound a little dodgy) he does have serious scientific credentials (well, duh :slight_smile: ). PCR is important because it allows us to magnify a tiny fragment of DNA into a sample big enough to experiment on. I won’t go into details, but basically all the useful DNA technology you can think of (genetic testing, forensic DNA testing, the Human Genome Project) would be impossible without it.

If you do want to know the details about the PCR thing, email me (I am augmented4th at hotmail) and I can find some biochemistry notes to send you.

Wow. I am sadly ignorant about this save for reading a couple of unconvincing interviews with Deusberg. May I pose a question in the form of a position?

I thought the argument was shut down when The Coctail came around. I also thought that The Coctail used a number of different drugs which specifically inhibited the reproduction and spread of the HIV virus. HIV count drops, T-cells rebound, therefore it is “proven” that HIV is a cause.

Am I wrong about this? Any other explanation has to account for what the drugs are doing, right?

I think Duesberg et al disagree with the initial study that
concluded AZT should be used as a treatment. For instance
see this article, http://www.duesberg.com/jltrial.html
(linked to from http://www.duesberg.com/article.html which
has other articles arguing a similar point).

This was a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment
(or was only supposed to be, if you agree with Duesberg
et al). That means neither patients nor the
experimenters they came in contact with knew what treatment
they were recieving. In this case, either AZT or the
placebo control (or “sugar pill”).

Once a drug is considered standard treatment, as seems to be
the case with AZT, no ethics review board would ever allow
you to use a placebo control again. You would have to use
the standard treatment as a control, and provide evidence
the experimental treatment is likely to help.

As stated in Duesberg’s FAQ
“In the US, it is not possible to work with HIV without the
approval of the National Institutes of Health and the
university. Thus I would need an NIH peer-approved grant to
do this. Without such a contract I would risk my lab and
And so it seems that Duesberg et al cannot sidestep an
ethical review. (Indeed, they might experience other legal
chalenges if they tried.)

The best way to decide if a drug should be used instead of
nothing is the double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment.
If such a study is done correctly, then it is pretty much a
debate stopper. If you find fault with any such study that
has already been done, and you can’t do another one, then
you have the difficult task of exploring the issue in a more
indirect manner. The methods available to you leave a lot
of room for debate compared to the double-blind,
placebo-controlled study. This seems to be the situation
Duesberg et al find themselves in.

A 1993 Washington Post article.

A 1997 article from The Data Lounge

A nice little slide-show (well, sort of) showing step-by-step infection

The sci.med.aids FAQ

Duesberg has been largely discredited, at least in this area.
Here is a link to the Duban Declaration, which was signed by 1000s of leading scientists stating that HIV is the cause of AIDS. They also refer to and cite some pretty convincing evidence.

Duesberg claims that people will not listen to him and that science is about testing new ideas. He misses the point that dozens of experiments have been performed specifically to address the issues he has raised. His ideas were listened to, and then rejected based on the evidence at hand. Science defined.

Incidentally, I heard Kary Mullis give a talk shortly after he won the Nobel. Bright guy, but I second the idea that he’s had one too many hits. He had several slides of his very attractive and much younger girlfriend in with his formal slides, along with numerous surfing and mystical references. In short, on anything other than PCR, I’d be a bit skeptical with him.

I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing one way or the other
on this issue, since I haven’t formed any conclusion, and I
don’t think I have the background necessary to make an
informed conclusion. But Darwin’s Finch, you post links
that are supposed to claim that a mechanism by which HIV
causes AIDS has been found. Reading them, the first 2
appear to simply report the finding of how the virus attacks
an individual cell. Don’t many viruses attack cells, even
relatively harmless ones? I didn’t gather much from the
3rd (slide show) link. As far as I can tell, it is just a
slide show of the virus attacking a cell. And I can’t find
where the fourth link says that a mechanism by which HIV
causes AIDS has been found.

(The first article actually makes the mistake (at least I
think it is a mistake) of using the phrase “AIDS virus”.
I have been lead to believe there is an “HIV virus” which
is believed to be the cause of the AIDS syndrome.)

That’s what viruses do - they kill cells. Massive HIV infection results in massive loss of lymphocytes. Massive loss of lymphocytes results in AIDS. The first two sites mention that the mechanism for virus’ invasion of lymphocytes is known (or at least, strongly suspected). From the first site:

The third site shows such an infection taking place; the virus is caught red-handed, as it were.

The fourth site is more of a general-purpose site (for purposes of the debate), which lists both Duesberg’s arguments and the counterarguments, among other facts. Among other things, it is mentioned that HIV causes AIDS, but it may be the case that not all cases of AIDS are caused by HIV (that is, HIV causes it, but it may not be alone).

They are using “AIDS virus” in the sense that HIV is, of course, the virus thought to cause AIDS.

Ooo, lots of points to address here. Firstly, curiousgeorgeordeadcat mentioned the AZT clinical trial. I don’t know about the trials mentioned in your link, but I do know about one specific trial of zidovudine (basically the same thing). In fact, I have a copy of the New England Journal of Medicine article about this trial in front of me. This was a placebo-controlled randomised double-blind study, and it was so thorough and well-carried out that they now make medical students study it as an example. They investigated the efficacy of zidovudine in preventing mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus, and the trial actually had to be stopped after two years because they found it was so effective that it was unethical to continue giving one group of participants a placebo. It’s very rare for this to happen in clinical trials; the evidence had to be pretty overwhelming.

As for the comments regarding the toxicity of AZT, I guess you could put it in the same category as chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer patients - there may be all sorts of nasty side effects, but the medical profession believes that the results are good enough to overcome the side effects.

Darwin’s Finch, that third site you listed had some amazing pictures - wow! I guess it just shows that I’m not really up to date with the research literature on this - I’ve been relying on what they teach me in lectures :slight_smile: For curiousgeorge, the reason these piccies are so special is that they show the infection of the CD4+ lymphocyte cell by the HIV virus. This isn’t just any old cell, it’s an immune cell which controls the response of the immune system to pathogens. Noone (not even Duesberg) questions that the decline in the CD4+ lymphocyte count is what causes AIDS; the questions have been as to whether the HIV virus actually causes the decline in the CD4+ count.

Finally, I obviously got my scientists confused in my earlier post. Ellis=Mullis, and the 3rd guy I conjured from nowhere doesn’t exist :slight_smile:

I use PCR every day. It is a great tool. Kary Muills thought of it while driving on the Pacific Highway with the top down. It is a famous story among scientists. Also famous is how Kary Mullis is a total crackpot who has taken way too much LSD. I have heard many extremely strange stories about him. He testified in the OJ Simpson trial that PCR actually wasn’t a reliable technique and nobody was really sure how it works. I can assure you that PCR is one of the simplest and easiest to conduct protocols that I do from day to day.

Kary Mullis and Peter Duseberg are not credits to the scientific community. They are in many respects like evolution deniers – they cling to outdated “problems” with a theory that have long since been proven, they use altered definitions of science in order to support their theories, they claim that their being shunned by the scientific community is no different than Galileo or Copernicus, and they overextend their field of expertise into a realm where they have no training and make faulty conclusions. Most perniciously, they have convinced politicians that they in fact are right and that mainstream science, with its peer review and cross checking, is wrong.

The fact that Koch’s postulates have not been shown with HIV, or the fact that the exact molecular mechanisms are not completely known does not make it impossible for us to say beyond the shadow of a doubt that HIV causes AIDS. The vast majority of those with AIDS are HIV+, and those that aren’t have weird immunologic findings more often than not. We can treat HIV infection, and AIDS goes away. Their claims that retroviruses are generally harmless is discredited by other retroviral diseases of humans, namely HTLV-I and HTLV-II. I could list the evidence for HIV->AIDS for months and never convince these guys. They are just plain fringe scientists and their theories should be treated as such.

Darwin’s Finch, Duesberg claims HIV is a “passenger virus”,
and from the context I assume that means harmless virus.
I am operating under the assumption that a virus can infect
cells and still be a “passenger virus”. Please correct me
if I am wrong. If I am not, how do the articles you cited
indicate HIV is not just a passenger virus?

Tritone, you mention a study you consider well-done that a
certain drug prevents transmission of the HIV virus from
mother to child. How does such a study say anything about
HIV causing AIDS? Couldn’t it just be saying the drug
prevents the transmission of a harmless passenger virus from
mother to child?

Again I am not trying to argue one way or the other. These
are real questions I have as I look at the issue for the
first time.

curiousgeorge, without knowing what Duesberg means by “passenger virus”, I couldn’t tell you. However, it seems a little odd to make the claim that HIV, being present in the vast majority of cases, is just tagging along with the real agent, whatever “it” might be. That’s rather like stating that the influenza virus doesn’t really cause the flu - it’s “just a passenger.”
Since we see HIV attacking the cells which are directly linked to AIDS (e.g., my third link, above), it is curious that Duesberg would declare that this virus isn’t really causing the disease, but something else, which we don’t see is.

I think what he means by passenger virus is something akin to CMV or any one of a number of other viruses which infect and often don’t give any symptoms and are carried for life. Even EBV doesn’t always produce disease, and is carried for life. These viruses (ironically) are of course often issues in the immunosuppressed. This is based, I believe, in his claim that retroviruses besides HIV aren’t really known to cause disease in humans or in the animal kingdom. I could point to many exceptions to that rule.