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News + PoliticsCOVIDNow the anti-vaxxers are resurrecting AIDS denialist lunacy

Now the anti-vaxxers are resurrecting AIDS denialist lunacy

Far-right Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fans might want to be careful about clinging to nonsense that got its adherents killed.

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You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. Folks who lionize Kyle Rittenhouse, for example, should never be taken seriously when they call themselves “pro-life.” Now, a faction of America’s batshit-crazy right wing has embraced two of recent history’s most thoroughly debunked disinformation peddlers: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Peter Duesberg. 

I wish I was making this up.

An April 19 article posted on the site American Greatness by writer Lloyd Billingsley (sorry, I refuse to link to it—find it yourself if you must) hails anti-vaxxer RFK Jr.’s newly minted campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and his book attacking Anthony Fauci, the recently retired leader of US government infectious disease research. Apparently, the radical right’s hatred for Fauci, whom they mistakenly blame for any and all COVID-related restrictions, has boiled their brains.

And to bolster his loathing for Fauci? Billingsley tries to make a hero out of Duesberg, the effective leader of the thoroughly discredited AIDS denialism movement.

An image of the HIV virus via the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

I won’t waste your time debunking RFK Jr. Scientific American did it several years ago, and in 2021, FactCheck.org took apart Kennedy’s video attacking COVID vaccines. The man is a skillful but utterly dishonest merchant of unscientific garbage. 

And so is Duesberg, though now that he’s well into his 80s he’s been quiet of late. 

Billingsley seems to be getting much of his material about Duesberg and Fauci from another thoroughly debunked author, “mathematical biologist” Rebecca V. Culshaw, who’s written a couple of books touting denialist theories. In any case, the account he presents is hilarious in its selective use of facts and careful omissions of critical information.

“Fauci’s AIDS empire was based on the hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS,” Billingsley writes. “This was not accepted by the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis,” a collection of AIDS denialists including Duesberg that reached peak prominence circa 1999-2000. They claimed that AIDS wasn’t a real illness and that the conditions that were killing people were caused not by HIV, but by recreational drugs or by anti-HIV therapies themselves.

Billingsley rehashes arguments they made 25 years ago, sniping at some early predictions about the AIDS epidemic that turned out to be wrong (hardly a shock when dealing with something new and previously unknown) and repeating wild exaggerations about the alleged toxicity of early anti-HIV drugs like AZT.

This is a rerun of old arguments from Duesberg, a man who turned the dishonest presentation of scientific information into an art form – and whom the article treats as an unsung hero unfairly stigmatized by Evil Dr. Fauci. 

I have some personal experience with Duesberg’s factual sleight-of-hand, having been a footnote in his 1995 book, “Inventing the AIDS Virus.” In a passage arguing that drug use was the real cause of AIDS, he asserted that “millions” of US gay men were “addicted” to poppers—nitrate inhalants used as sexual stimulants. One of the references listed for this claim was an article of mine that appeared in San Francisco Frontiers, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poppers.”

There was just one small problem: My article, though it did mention the general popularity of poppers, gave no figures for the number of users, because I couldn’t find any reliable stats, and made no mention of addiction, because I saw no evidence that poppers were addictive. Duesberg cited my article as a source for “facts” that it did not contain.

While researching a series of articles about the AIDS denialists for AIDS Treatment News that appeared in 2000 and 2001, I discovered that if you bothered to check the references Duesberg cited, they contained plenty of such distortions and misstatements. For example, in arguing that AIDS wasn’t even a real disease, he had grossly distorted the contents of a 1973 article from the American Journal of Nursing

That’s the problem with Duesberg and his acolytes: The case they make sounds entirely plausible if you don’t know the background and don’t bother to look up their references.

But there’s an even more glaring giveaway in both this latest American Greatness piece and a March attack on Fauci by the same author: Their tale of alleged misdeeds by Fauci’s “AIDS empire” ends circa 1990. After that, both pieces essentially skip 30 years and pivot to alleged mishandling of COVID-19.

In Billingsley’s fairy tale, 1990 or so is where the AIDS story ends: Fauci and company were wrong but circled the wagons, squashed all dissent, and moved on to inflicting new horrors on America.

There’s a reason he ends the story there: The early 1990s marked the low point of HIV/AIDS research. The first wave of anti-HIV drugs, AZT and its relatives, had been major disappointments, and it wasn’t clear that anything better was coming soon. Indeed, my own dispatch from the Ninth International AIDS Conference in 1993, published in the Bay Area Reporter and several other newspapers around the country, was so downbeat that Project Inform’s Martin Delaney accused me of “killing hope.” But soon thereafter, things changed dramatically.

By 1995, new drugs called protease inhibitors were in late-stage clinical trials and were being offered to additional patients through the expanded access programs that ACT UP and other activists had agitated for. Used with the older drugs in three-drug combinations, they worked. I had friends who in 1994 literally wondered if they’d be alive in a year see their health revive so much that they went back to working full-time. It was called “the Lazarus effect,” and no one who lived through that era can ever forget it.

As a result, US AIDS deaths began to decline in 1995 and dropped like a rock in 1996, continuing to decline through the decade. The decline in AIDS deaths has continued in more recent years.

Still, AIDS denialism managed to attract adherents through the 1990s, including many who were HIV-positive. I personally knew seven or eight of them, who firmly believed that all they needed to do to stay healthy was avoid drugs, including anti-HIV therapies. These included Christine Maggiore, founder of the LA-based denialist group Alive and Well AIDS Alternatives, and three men who effectively took over ACT UP San Francisco: Michael Bellefountaine, David Pasquarelli and Ronnie Burke, plus a few others who were less publicly visible.

A couple began to get ill, reluctantly tried the new drug combinations, and saw their health improve. Several, including Maggiore, Bellefountaine, Pasquarelli and Burke, stuck to their guns and refused treatment. By the end of 2008, all were dead

The same disinformation that killed so many prominent “AIDS dissidents” is now being embraced by far right supporters of RFK Jr. —who was also gushed over by Tucker Carlson on Fox “News” shortly before Carlson’s sudden firing. 

Democrats, you’ve been warned. 

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