Harper’s Races Right Over the Edge of a Cliff

The magazine is scorned for an article advancing a discredited theory about AIDS.

The essay on AIDS in this month’s Harper’s magazine by Celia Farber starts off like a scientific whodunit — as Farber herself puts it, the tale she tells sounds eerily like the “Constant Gardener,” the recent movie based on a John Le Carre novel about evil pharmaceutical companies engaged in unethical human testing.

In the first half of her article titled, “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” Farber describes what led to the death of a pregnant HIV-positive woman who was taking an experimental drug, Nevirapine, to avoid transmitting the virus to her unborn child. The drug’s toxicity, which had never been properly tested, killed the woman, and Farber traces the negligence back to tests in Uganda that were improperly conducted on human subjects. She also tells the story of a whistleblower at the NIH who was attacked for exposing the faulty trials.

It’s an engaging piece of investigative journalism that exposes deep problems with the standards of medical research when it comes to AIDS. As she writes, “the emergence of the syndrome in the 1980s sparked a medical state of emergency in which scientific controls, the rules that are supposed to bracket the emotions and desires of individual researchers, were frequently compromised or removed entirely.”

Her argument is that AIDS has become an industry and a certain kind of sloppiness has entered the search for new anti-retroviral drugs. So far, so good, and if this were the only story Farber hoped to tell, we might well be tipping our hat to her.

But she goes on to use the Nevirapine trial as a launching pad for what she really wants to say — that big pharmaceutical companies have basically invented the concept of AIDS in order to sell their product, which, being extremely toxic, is what is actually killing people who are diagnosed HIV-positive.

She doesn’t take responsibility herself for this startling — some might say preposterous — thesis, but rather approvingly points to UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who has taken much heat for questioning the causality between HIV and AIDS. Duesberg has gained a name as a “denialist” for asserting that AIDS is actually a “chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use,” or that “75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued … thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight.” And, most bizarre to our ears: “AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water.”

Farber takes up that banner and complains that AIDS researchers “have spent many billions of dollars in the last twenty years on HIV research and practically nothing on alternative causes or co-factors.” Which, again, would be a legitimate complaint to make — were it not for the implication that HIV as the cause of AIDS has been invented for the sake of keeping certain scientists and pharmaceutical companies in business.

The article has inspired great anger among “so-called AIDS activists,” as Farber dismissively refers to them, who are seething at Harper’s decision to give Farber such a prominent soapbox. One example is a letter from Gregg Gonsalves, director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis: “Farber is a well-known AIDS denialist and publishing her work is akin to giving the folks at the Discovery Institute a place to expound upon the ‘science’ of intelligent design, Charles Davenport a venue to educate us about the racial inferiority of the Negro or Lyndon LaRouche a platform to warn us about aliens, bio-duplication, and nudity.”

The debate between the public health community and the “denialists” is an old one. What’s most interesting in this latest dustup is that the Nation has decided to join the incensed scientists in shaming Harper’s for running the Farber piece.

On the magazine’s blog, The Notion, Richard Kim claims that Farber does not do justice to the varying approaches taken by those researching AIDS, writing that “conspiracy theories like Duesberg’s warp and exploit some of the best political interventions made by AIDS activists: that patients should be engaged with their medical diagnosis and treatment, that clinical drug trials should be grounded in sound ethical practices, that the emphasis on virology has circumvented immunological approaches to AIDS and that attention to the effects of poverty, malnutrition and other diseases is vital to preventing and treating AIDS.”

Kim also writes that “it’s a shame that a magazine as well respected as Harper’s has shirked its duty to report on these issues and instead published Farber’s article.”

We have to agree. The if-it’s-conventional-wisdom-it-must-be-wrong ethos that Harper’s has come to embrace in the last days of the counterintuitive Lewis Lapham as editor has served the magazine poorly here, giving space to an idea that, as Kim points out, has been widely refuted for years — and one that, frankly, has been consigned to the dustbin of crackpot theories.

In short: when the Nation, of all places, is criticizing you for your knee-jerk anti-establishmentarianism, it’s a pretty good bet that you have probably wandered off the deep end.

Next time, Harper’s should be more careful about giving so much legitimacy — 15 pages of it — to such an illegitimate and discredited idea.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.