Published online 4 May 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.210

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AIDS contrarian ignored warnings of scientific misconduct

Peter Duesberg was told publication of paper carried risk of charges.

Peter Duesberg.Peter Duesberg.

A controversial scientist who is under investigation at the University of California, Berkeley, for making false claims in a paper and failing to declare a colleague's alleged conflict of interest ignored an earlier warning that he could face misconduct charges if the paper was published.

Earlier this month, molecular and cell biologist Peter Duesberg told the ScienceInsider policy blog that the publication of his paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses prompted two letters of complaint to Berkeley. After receiving the letters, the institution opened a misconduct investigation.

But Duesberg had earlier submitted the paper for publication in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS), and a review of the paper, seen by Nature, explicitly warns Duesberg that "cherry-picking" of results and a co-author's "obvious conflict of interest" could lead to misconduct charges if the paper were to be published. Despite the warnings, Duesberg chose to publish the paper in Medical Hypotheses, which does not peer review submissions.

Resubmission

In the 1970s Duesberg won international acclaim for his groundbreaking work on cancer, but the following decade he began to focus on AIDS. He denies that HIV causes AIDS, and instead proposes that HIV is a mere 'passenger' virus, and that AIDS is actually caused by environmental toxins or the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to combat the disease.

His work has attracted some supporters, including the former South African president Thabo Mbeki. In 2000, Mbeki put Duesberg on a panel of AIDS advisers along with several other researchers who deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS. The resultant policies prevented the roll-out of ARV drugs in South Africa at a time when the country was in the throes of an AIDS epidemic, with a quarter of the population testing HIV positive. Since then, two studies have estimated that the lack of medication during Mbeki's administration led to some 330,000 premature deaths1,2.

One of these studies, led by epidemiologist Max Essex at Harvard University in Boston, was published in JAIDS in December 20082. Early last year, Duesberg submitted a paper to JAIDS that attempted to refute Essex's death-toll estimates while also denying the effectiveness of ARV drugs.

When the paper was rejected, Duesberg submitted it in June to Medical Hypotheses, where it was accepted within two days. But its publication in July 2009 generated a string of complaints to Elsevier. The publisher responded by sending the paper out for review and, after all five referees recommended rejection, withdrawing it permanently (see 'Editor says no to peer review for controversial journal').

But the paper also sparked two letters to Berkeley, one of which points out that the withdrawal was based on "issues of credibility and false claims" and both state that Duesberg failed to declare a conflict of interest on the part of David Rasnick, his co-author. Rasnick was previously a paid employee of Matthias Rath, who sells vitamin pills as remedies for AIDS, although Rasnick denies a conflict of interest and says he has had no connection with Rath since 2006.

Early warning?

Now, an earlier review of Duesberg's paper, which he would have received upon rejection from JAIDS but before he resubmitted to Medical Hypotheses, shows that Duesberg was warned of the risks of publication.

The reviewer, who asked to remain anonymous, states that Duesberg and his co-authors are "committing a serious breach of professional ethics" by failing to state a possible conflict of interest. "Clearly, the views in the present article could assist Rasnick and Rath in their commercial activities, by denigrating rival (and effective!) products," he wrote.

The reviewer also says that the authors are guilty of cherry-picking from past research: "They select only those publications that (allegedly) support their arguments, but ignore all those (many, many more) that do not. Worse, they take quotations and statements out of their original context, to create a message that is the opposite from the one provided by the original publication."

"This conduct is so egregious," the reviewer states, "that if the present article were to be published, Duesberg et al. could well find themselves answering scientific misconduct charges."

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William Blattner, a physician scientist and an editor-in-chief of JAIDS, says it is "baffling" that Duesberg did not address the reviewer's comments before submitting the paper to Medical Hypotheses.

Nature has also learned that, before Duesberg wrote his paper, he tried to have Essex's JAIDS study withdrawn by claiming to Harvard that Essex himself had a conflict of interest because he owned shares and received consultation fees from companies manufacturing AIDS tests. These claims were false, Essex says, and Harvard has not taken any action against him.

Meanwhile, Duesberg, acting on legal advice, says he cannot comment on any aspect of the investigation until it is concluded. Berkeley does not comment on internal investigations and will neither confirm nor deny that the investigation is under way. The university's code of conduct cites penalties for misconduct ranging from a written reprimand to loss of faculty position. 

  • References

    1. Nattrass, N. Afr. Affairs 107, 157-176 (2008). | Article
    2. Chigwedere, P. et al. J. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 49, 410-415 (2008). | Article

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  • #61399

    This is not a defense of the aid nor am I saying that I agree with the reasoning behind the aid (I do not) ... but this an explanation of what is going on since there is SO much misinformation.

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