by Neville Hodgkinson
As a veteran medical and science correspondent, I have a special reason for tearing my hair out (what is left of it) at the damage being done to democracy, social cohesion and above all our health by the global hysteria surrounding COVID-19.
Similar mistakes were made when hysteria over the immune system failure that came to be called AIDS swept the world during the late 1980s – and 35 years on, the mistakes remain largely unacknowledged and uncorrected, with some of the perpetrators now driving the new panic.
I feel especially frustrated because as medical correspondent at The Sunday Times from 1985-89, I helped to spread alarm over AIDS in the first place. Later I spent several years as science correspondent at the same paper, trying to draw attention to efforts by a small group of experts, including top-ranking Nobel prize-winning scientists at the heart of the fight against AIDS, to let us know that the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was never scientifically established as the cause of the syndrome. These efforts were shouted down almost universally.
The HIV theory caused a generation of young people to falsely equate sex with death. Yet no apology, no inquiry by the scientific community, no mass media analysis of how we could have got it so wrong, has ever been forthcoming.
What’s more, in deciding how to handle the current COVID-19 epidemic, governments are relying heavily on advice from scientists who also played a central part in misleading the country on AIDS.
These include Anthony Fauci, the “AIDS Czar”, who as head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has presided over an era in which several hundred billion dollars have been spent on AIDS research and treatment, including a completely futile but continuing search for a vaccine.
Another is Sir Roy Anderson, the current Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, London. He co-authored an influential, 150-page Royal Society study, published in September 1989, analysing the AIDS epidemic and making predictions about future spread. The other main author was Sir David Cox, professor of statistics at Imperial for more than 20 years, now long since retired.
The predictions were wrong, as demonstrated by an 8,000-word analysis first submitted to the society in September 1990 by the late Professor Gordon Stewart, one of its most distinguished members, with a lifetime’s work in public health.
The error, he said, came about because the statistical model used rested on two false assumptions. The first of these was that the essential cause of AIDS was HIV; and the second was that the virus was already spreading heterosexually, beyond the original susceptible groups of homosexual men with multiple sexual partners, and drug addicts, and would cause a global pandemic.
Stewart, an early adviser on AIDS to the World Health Organisation (WHO), had made predictions of his own that were almost identical with what was actually being seen. Despite an apparent spread of HIV, he wrote at the time, AIDS was occurring
foreseeably as it began, i.e. in subsets of the population whose behaviour or misfortune places them at high risk of exposure to the various infections, drugs, trauma and depletion of immunity which contribute to the variable symptomatology in the complex of diseases registrable as AIDS.
The Royal Society, the national academy of science for the UK, gave Stewart the run-around for four years before his report was finally rejected. It was a betrayal both of the people and of science. “Coming from the top scientific body in the country, this is a pretty disgraceful state of affairs,” Stewart told me before his death in 2016. “It was the Royal Society that convened the meeting that made the wrong predictions. They are honour bound to put it right.” A demonstrable error had been made that in other walks of life “would have been washed out years ago”.
One of the consequences, as now, was a huge misallocation of money to the detriment of genuine medical need. A 1993 report from the University of Northumbria Business School, to which Stewart contributed, found that for each AIDS death, health authorities were spending an average of £290,000 on HIV prevention and research, compared with £50 for each death from heart disease. Many UK health regions had considerably more AIDS workers than patients.
Whereas in 1985 a Royal College of Nursing report predicted that one million people in Britain would have AIDS in six years “unless the killer disease is checked”, the actual cumulative, year-on-year, total of AIDS cases by 1990 was still below 5,000. Today, AIDS kills fewer Britons than die from falling down stairs. Even those deaths might have been avoided if the true nature of the condition had been recognised.
Stewart’s findings and recommendations also remained unpublished by the WHO. It was not until June 2008, 25 years after the panic over AIDS began, that the organisation finally admitted the threat of a world pandemic among heterosexuals was over, though it continued to maintain that sub-Saharan Africa was being devastated by the disease.
In fact, Africa was and is one of the biggest victims of the illusions around AIDS, as I found when Andrew Neil, then editor of The Sunday Times, sent me there in 1993 to find out what was happening. My reports, showing that scarce resources were being misdirected to an imaginary epidemic created by an unvalidated “HIV” test, got the scientific and medical establishment in the UK into a frenzy but were never refuted.
How can scientists, who we look to with so much respect, get things so wrong? The answer is that they are human beings, just like the rest of us.
One of the key lessons that could have been drawn from the AIDS debacle is that there is no such holy grail as “the data” or “the science” demanding a particular course of action, contrary to the repeated claims by the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary. It’s how the data are interpreted that is important, and in this regard the Government is receiving a very one-sided and out-of-date perspective.
Apart from the group at Imperial, who should have been rumbled long ago for their mistakes over AIDS, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, can hardly be seen to have an objective view. Until two years ago, he was President of Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline, the British multinational pharmaceutical giant, with whom the UK Government has signed a coronavirus vaccine deal. (And he has a £600,000 shareholding in the company, according to the Telegraph.) GSK proudly proclaim that new medicines for “HIV infection”, among others, have been developed under his leadership.
Similarly, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, now being wheeled out alongside Sir Patrick to provide the rationale for further lockdown measures because COVID-19 infections are “heading in the wrong direction”, is a former Professor of Public and International Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – which played a big part in spreading fear of “HIV”/AIDS in Africa, where the real killers were and are malnutrition and lack of treatment for long-established diseases and conditions.
There is a strong case, articulated especially powerfully by the US physician and educator Dr Zach Bush, that the coronavirus we are seeing today as public enemy number one may actually be making a positive contribution to the virome, part of a dynamic network of organisms in the human body called the microbiome. This network is coming to be seen as vital to biodiversity, and in regulating the ability of the immune system to help us adapt to changing conditions.
The entire purpose of viruses, Bush says, is to accelerate gene transfer, like updates in a computer, and that may be exactly what we are seeing as new “cases” are reported in young and middle aged people as the easing of the lockdown facilitates spread.
When these updates occur, some systems crash, as we have seen in the very elderly and in others with pre-existing diseases. But they also confer unexpected benefits, of which we may deprive ourselves with the old-fashioned thinking that sees a war against the virus through drugs and vaccines as the only way forward. It’s a natural process that doesn’t necessarily signify disease, although as winter approaches there may of course be more casualties in the elderly, as every year with flu.
Boris, if you really care, please listen to those voices in your Cabinet that are urging you not to inflict any more damage already done to British life by the fiction that this tiny virus is putting all of humanity under attack. And clean out your scientific advisers. There are some sensible people at the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine in Oxford!
Neville Hodgkinson is former medical and science correspondent at the Sunday Times and the author of AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science, published in 1996 by Fourth Estate.