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40 Years Later: The Denialism That Shaped The AIDS Epidemic


Forty years ago today, some people opened a newspaper - a paper newspaper then - and read the first article published about cases of AIDS in the United States. It was a milestone in public awareness and a milestone of denial. Government officials, world leaders, even medical experts questioned the facts. That story from decades ago has carried over into the mistrust of science today. This story, we should warn, lasts 11 minutes and contains language that may not be appropriate for kids. Here's Noel King.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Before Dr. Lawrence Mass made history, the kind of history no one really wants to make, he was just a 30-something guy who'd gone, like so many others, to find a life in New York City.

LAWRENCE MASS: It was dilapidated. It was decrepit.

KING: It was the late '70s. He used his savings to buy an apartment in Chelsea.

MASS: My mother came and visited, and she saw this apartment and me in it. And she looked around, and she started crying. What has my crazy son done? He's taken all of his savings and bought into this situation.

KING: And then her son found his people. Dr. Mass, Larry, is gay.

MASS: We were still an outlaw culture. We had no civil liberties protections of any kind. There was this little gay liberation movement with these events, and there were these things happening - bars and bathhouses and all this kind of thing.

KING: Was there, like, also interesting, fun stuff going on, like drugs and sex and rock 'n' roll, like the...

MASS: All of the above.

KING: Then one day in 1981, a friend who worked in an emergency room called him.

MASS: She was very concerned. And she said, there's gay men in New York City intensive care units.

KING: He thought it was bizarre. Larry is a medical doctor. He also wrote articles for the gay press. So he could at least look into it. And on May 18, 1981, he published an article in the New York Native...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Last week, there were rumors that an exotic new disease had hit the gay community in New York.

KING: ...About this mystery illness. The headline - "Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded." Yes, he wrote, some gay men with severely compromised immune systems had gotten an infection but only 11 of them. And there he made history. It was the first-ever article about AIDS in a U.S. publication. He tried to stop a rumor and prevent a panic. And then more gay men got sick. More died. More got frantic. What was causing it?

MASS: People didn't know whether it was saliva or fellatio. There were questions about poppers, amyl nitrites and people engaging in fist-[expletive].

KING: And because science couldn't say for sure...

MASS: I was having a lot of casual sex, including unprotected, unsafe sex. And I started curtailing that. We were, you know, hoping for the best. I knew, of course..

KING: Was that really it? I'm interrupting because...

MASS: Yeah, go ahead.

KING: ...There is some part of me that is astonished. You are a physician who hears about some sort of disease or virus that is affecting gay men. You have no idea what it is. And your response is, I'm going to head out to the bar and hope I just dodge it?

MASS: The advice that we got was limit the number of partners with whom you have sex and try to make sure they're healthy. People were already urging condom use, but that was in some dispute.

KING: I'm curious - as you're still going out to the bathhouses in the early '80s...

MASS: Right, well, what you're...

KING: ...What is going through your mind?

MASS: What you're - you know, that was true. And basically, what you've caught me in is I was speaking out of both sides of my mouth.

KING: He was in denial. He'd spent years in the closet. And now, finally, he was out living. And science hadn't settled on an answer. So denial. There was denial among so many people who wanted to keep living, some of whom did at the expense of staying alive. This may right now be reminding you of another virus. Anyhow, it took three years for scientists to figure out what was causing AIDS.


MARGARET HECKLER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. First, the probable cause of AIDS has been found.

KING: A virus, human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. And now one form of denial was over, but another one was just starting. This denial would change science right up to the present day. HIV is a tricky virus. To explain how, here's Michael Specter.

MICHAEL SPECTER: Are you vaccinated?

KING: I got my first vaccine shot yesterday. Are you vaccinated?

SPECTER: Yeah, I'm fully vaccinated for a while. This is the benefit of being too old.

KING: (Laughter).

He's a reporter for The New Yorker, and he's covered HIV and AIDS for years. The confusion about AIDS starts with antibodies.

SPECTER: They protect you. That's their whole purpose.

KING: When a doctor gives you a vaccine, your immune system jumps on it, makes antibodies, knocks that virus out.

SPECTER: In all of human history, we've had all these viruses. Edward Jenner got cowpox into a dairymaid. It made antibodies, and it protected her. And this has been the way it's been. And there are no exceptions. There have been no known exceptions.

KING: Until HIV. Really sick people would turn up at the doctor's, and the doctor would test for HIV antibodies. The antibodies were there, but the people would get sicker, not better. And so some really smart scientists thought if people have antibodies for HIV, it is not HIV that's making them sick. It has to be something else. The most prominent of these was a doctor named Peter Duesberg. He was a professor of molecular biology at Berkeley and a leader in the field of cancer research. In 1987, Duesberg's denialism went semi-mainstream. A journal, Perspectives in Cancer Research, published his theory. HIV does not cause AIDS. And a year later, there was a big scientific summit about AIDS in D.C. Michael Specter says it was held in large part to put Duesberg's theories to rest. Specter was there reporting for The Washington Post.

SPECTER: I asked him specifically at that forum, if you're so convinced that HIV does not cause AIDS, you have two daughters - why don't you just infect them? And he did not answer. I was angry, and I think it's not what you would call the finest example of a balanced journalist in that moment. And, you know, kids were dying. People were dying all over the place. And he was important. He'd done a lot of research. He was not a nobody.

KING: Did people put him on the news? Did he have, you know, radio hour with Dr. Duesberg?

SPECTER: Yeah, he was on the news. I mean, come on. You are a high-minded journalist. I like to think I am, too. But let's face it - when you have a famous researcher saying the opposite of what everyone else says, you put them on the air. And you'd be crazy not to.


DONALD TRUMP: And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

KING: NPR aired that. OK, back to Duesberg. Among scientists, his was still a minority view. New medicines started to get the virus under control in the U.S. in the late '90s. In South Africa, though, it was a different story. AIDS was burning through that country. And the president, Thabo Mbeki, was frantically looking for a reason why.

SPECTER: Do you know how Thabo Mbeki found Peter Duesberg?


SPECTER: He was looking on this somewhat brand-new thing called the Internet. And he ran across the statements of Duesberg. And they were exactly music to his ears.

KING: Duesberg's denialism became Thabo Mbeki's.


THABO MBEKI: How does a virus cause a syndrome? It can't.

KING: Instead, poor nutrition caused it and drugs, recreational drugs and also those new drugs that treated HIV. Here is Duesberg in a 1996 documentary.


PETER DUESBERG: You can't expect to take chemical at a dose that gets you so high that you don't sleep anymore. You don't want to eat anymore. And you have 10 or 20 sex partners per night - to expect to be totally inconsequential for your health.

KING: Now, does that sound familiar?

MASS: People didn't know whether it was saliva or...

KING: Peter Duesberg went from writing in respected but relatively arcane science journals in the '80s, then wrote a mass-market book in the '90s, then appeared in that documentary that you can still easily find on the Internet. And then in 2012, he got a spot on Joe Rogan's show.


JOE ROGAN: So HIV is a virus.

DUESBERG: Is a virus. It's one of the most harmless type of viruses we know.

KING: We reached out to Peter Duesberg for an interview. But through his wife, he declined. So what did all this lead to? A virus that evaded science for years, people who just wanted to go out and live, a scientist who gave them another option? Well, here's what Michael Specter argues.

SPECTER: I think the legacy of AIDS denialism is that it raised doubts in a lot of people's minds about whether the consensus that had been arrived at by 99.6% of all scientists was necessarily something they had to listen to. And what we have now is we live in a country where...


TRUMP: If you don't test, you don't have any cases.

SCOTT ATLAS: Children almost never transmit the disease.

JARED KUSHNER: And this is a great success story.

LARRY KUDLOW: There is no second wave coming.

SPECTER: You know, when I was young, medical authorities were taken as gods, and you just did what they said. And I'm glad that world doesn't exist anymore. But what we have now are people who think they know as much as anyone else, and medical authorities or scientists are treated like any other interest group, like they're the AFL-CIO or the teachers union. We have trouble giving kids flu shots or the basic measles, mumps, rubella shots because so many parents are skeptical of expertise.

KING: Expertise tells us a virus doesn't care who you have sex with or how, what drugs you use or whether you think it's real. A virus doesn't want you to get a vaccine or wear a mask. It wants to live. To live, it needs to spread. And with every denial, we send it on out into the world to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM-E STACK'S "EVERYTHING TO SAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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