The Top 5 AIDS Denialists

A man with AIDS reading test results

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According to Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, AIDS denialists can be characterized by four symbolic roles:

  • "Hero scientists": doctors or scientists who use whatever scientific credentials they may have to create a patina of legitimacy for unsupported research.
  • "Praise singers": those who actively promote the denialist cause to the public, generally under the construct of a conspiratorial narrative.
  • "Living icons": individuals with HIV who provide "living proof" that an alternative remedy is keeping them alive.
  • "Cultropreneurs": those who use a conspiratorial premise as a marketing strategy for an alternative remedy or for commercial gain.

The list of top five AIDS denialists represent elements of these various symbolic roles. They are rated not only on the influence they had during a specific time in HIV history but on the impact that some of their messages or actions still carry today.


ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is the seminal AIDS activist group co-founded by playwright Larry Kramer in 1987. While the organization was credited for effecting positive changes in biomedical research and healthcare access for those living with HIV, the ACT UP/San Francisco chapter went on an entirely different course—disputing HIV as the cause of AIDS, and officially breaking from the parent group in 2000.

While their causes embraced animal rights, gay liberation, vegetarianism and the promotion of medicinal marijuana, their arguments were usually framed as a near-anarchic disavowal of societal greed and decay. According to the group's website:

"The truth is that people aren't dying of AIDS. People are getting sick and dying from… immunosuppressive aspects of everyday life in our toxic, fur worshipping, ozone-depleting, money-driven, consumerist (sic) society."

Despite dwindling membership numbers in later years, their anti-establishment posture drew support from the likes of Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde (who donated $5,000 to the cause) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with whom they marched in protest of animal testing.

It was, perhaps, the scattered, haphazard nature of the group's mission that allowed them to cull support from those who might have otherwise questioned their denialist beliefs. The leader of ACT UP/SF, David Pasquarelli, died in 2004 at age 36 from complications of HIV, while compatriot Michael Bellefontaine died in 2007 at age 41 of an unspecified systemic infection.

Matthias Rath

German-born Matthias Rath, well-known vitamin magnate and head of the Dr. Rath Research Institute in California, made international headlines when he claimed that vitamins (which he refers to as "cellular medicine") could effectively treat HIV while insisting that antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were both toxic and dangerous.

During the height of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa in 2005, Rath's organization distributed tens of thousands of brochures to poor black townships urging HIV-positive residents to abandon their ARVs and use vitamins instead.

Shortly after, Rath was taken to court for conducting unauthorized vitamin trials (in which several people were reported to have died) and was subsequently banned from publishing any further advertisements promoting his products or from continuing research within South Africa.

The perceived support from the government—South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and the Medicines Control Council were also named in the suit—evidenced the influence of Rath's dissident claims.

Christine Maggiore

Christine Maggiore was considered by many to be the poster child of the AIDS dissident movement. The founder of the organization, Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives, Maggiore promoted the view that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and advised HIV-positive pregnant women not to take ARVs.

Maggiore was diagnosed with HIV in 1992. While she had initially worked as a volunteer with such well-regarded HIV charities as AIDS Project Los Angeles and Women At Risk, it was upon meeting with AIDS dissident Peter Duesberg that she began to actively question the mainstream science. She made headlines soon after for eschewing ARVs during her pregnancy and subsequently breastfed her daughter, Eliza Jane while professing that HIV was perfectly harmless.

So compelling was Maggiore as an activist that the South African government invited her to exhibit at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban. Her meeting with then-President Thabo Mbeki was said to have influenced his decision to block funding to medical research on HIV-positive pregnant women.

Beyond Maggiore's ability to draw support from those who saw her as a beacon of hope, she gained frequent—and sometimes morbid—media attention from those who questioned whether she would truly martyr herself for the cause, even as her own health began to fail. (Conversely, during the same period, HIV-positive activist Zackie Achmat drew international attention for refusing to take ARVs until the South African government agreed to distribute the drugs to the larger public.)

Among Maggiore's supporters were members of the rock group, the Foo Fighters, who organized a sold-out benefit concert for her in 2001 (a stance they have since distanced themselves from on their band's website). Eliza Jane died at the age of three of pneumocystis pneumonia. Maggiore died in 2008 at the age of 58 of disseminated herpes infection and bilateral pneumonia.

Dr. Peter Duesberg

Peter Duesberg is largely considered the father of the AIDS dissident movement. Born in 1936 in Germany, Duesberg received much acclaim in his early career for his research on cancer-causing viruses and quickly rose in prominence, eventually being awarded tenure at the age of 36 from the University of California, Berkeley.

However, by the start of the AIDS crisis in 1987, Duesberg became the center of a scientific controversy by hypothesizing that recreational drugs such as alkyl nitrates (also known as "poppers") were the cause of AIDS and that HIV itself was harmless. He later went on to include ARVs as causative agents for the syndrome.

While Duesberg managed to garner support during the early days of the crisis—including Nobel Prize biochemist Kary Banks Mullis (who was honored, ironically, for his work on PCR technology used in viral load testing)—it was not until his meeting with then-South African President Thabo Mbeki that Duesberg's influence was truly felt.

In 2000, Duesberg was invited (alongside fellow denialists Harvey Bialy, David Rasnick, Robert Giraldo, Sam Mhlongo, and Etienne de Harven) to sit on Mbeki's Advisory Panel on HIV and AIDS, a highly publicized think tank which led to Mbeki's ideological declaration that "it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus."

Mbeki's unyielding stance on HIV—even his insistence on using "HIV and AIDS" to symbolically separate the two—was considered a key reason for his eventual removal from office in 2008. When addressing Duesberg's role in South Africa, Max Essex of the Harvard School of Public Health, questioned whether Duesberg was simply a "tease to the scientific community" or an "enabler to mass murder" for the deaths caused by years of government denial. Duesberg continues to publish his dissident theories, most recently in the December 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology.

Former-South African, President Thabo Mbeki

It would be far too easy to conclude that the denialist policies of former-South African President Thabo Mbeki were driven by a simple "coming together" of aligned ideologies, or that he was somehow "bamboozled" by the dissidents he chose to embrace.

From his earliest days as deputy President to Nelson Mandela, Mbeki was seen to readily embrace "African solutions" to the disease over those of mainstream "Western" science. At one point, this included the use of a powerful industrial solvent called Virodene, which was tested illegally on humans in both South Africa and Tanzania.

In many of Mbeki's speeches on or around the subject of HIV, there were often undercurrents of anti-colonialism or suggestions that HIV was a means by which "the West" could either manipulate, exploit or repress the African people.

In a published biography by journalist Mark Gevisser, Mbeki reportedly compared AIDS scientists to Nazi concentration camp doctors and black people who accepted orthodox AIDS science as "self-repressed" victims of a slave mentality. In justifying his decision to block the distribution of ARVs to the general public, Mbeki similarly commented:

"I am taken aback by the determination of many people in our country to sacrifice all intellectual integrity to act as salespersons of the product of one pharmaceutical company."

Because he remains so unswayed in the face of ever-rising HIV deaths, many concluded that AIDS denialism simply serviced Mbeki's political ideologies, allowing him to embrace misguided policies with the complete assent of Western "experts."

Since Mbeki's removal from office in 2008, there has been an enormous turnaround in South Africa, which today operates the largest ARV program in the world. But according to Harvard University research, the tragic delay in response resulted in over 340,000 HIV-related deaths, 170,000 new infections, and 35,000 babies born with HIV between the years 1999 and 2007. Yet Mbeki remains oddly untouched, asserting in a Newsweek interview in March 2016:

"Why would the South African government...have been expected to focus on the ninth leading cause of death as virtually to treat as less urgent and important the first eight leading causes of death, even taken together?"

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Article Sources

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