A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is AIDS a manmade disease?

June 4, 1993

Dear Cecil:

The enclosed ad describes something called The Strecker Memorandum, a video that purports to show that AIDS is a manmade disease. This sounds like the usual AIDS-conspiracy mumbo jumbo, but it's so well documented it's made me wonder. Can you get to the bottom of it?

Cecil replies:

Cecil is reluctant to spend too much time on this, because it seems so obviously nuts, but I've gotten a few letters about it and hey, we live to serve. There are two main alternative AIDS theories, as we might call them: the Strecker AIDS theory and the Duesberg risk-group theory. The Strecker theory, which is the wilder of the two, is the work of Robert Strecker, an LA gastroenterologist. He claims that "AIDS was a disease that was requested, manufactured and deployed and does exactly what it was intended to do," i.e., it's a germ weapon.

Strecker says scientists cooked up AIDS around 1972 from something called "bovine visna virus." He guesses that smallpox vaccine made from the lesions of BVV-infected cattle was injected into humans in Africa, where it transmuted into AIDS. One item of evidence in support of Strecker's theory is a quote from the July 1, 1969 Congressional Record in which a physician mentions a government-sponsored research project that would create a "synthetic biological agent … for which no natural immunity would have been acquired."

Strecker's work has been expanded on by others. Among the claims (I rely here mainly on a 1990 story in Essence): (1) it was invented by the CIA or (2) the Russians. (3) It was manufactured at the U.S. Army biological research center in Fort Detrick, Maryland. (4) It has something to do with Agent Orange. (5) It was intended to wipe out black people; gays were a pilot test. Crack cocaine was also invented to kill blacks.

Mainstream AIDS scientists say Strecker's a kook. From a microbiological standpoint, AIDS bears little resemblance to bovine visna virus; it bears a lot of resemblance to simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), from which AIDS is widely thought to have naturally evolved. There may have been some proto-AIDS cases substantially predating 1972. And frankly, inventing a fatal disease that singles out minorities, gays, and drug abusers would require the CIA/Russians/U.S. Army to be a lot smarter a lot earlier in the day than there is any evidence of them ever being.

The Duesberg risk-group theory, which we may as well cover while we're on the subject, isn't quite as bizarre. Peter Duesberg, a respected (until now) virologist at UCal-Berkeley, says human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) doesn't cause AIDS, as is otherwise almost universally believed. Instead, AIDS is caused by a general weakening of the immune system due to drug abuse, disease, parasites, malnutrition (in Africa), etc. Evidence: U.S. AIDS patients don't get the same opportunistic diseases that African AIDS patients do; predictions of a sharp upswing in heterosexual U.S. AIDS cases have not come true; the HIV virus isn't especially virulent and is suppressed by the immune system, etc.

Duesberg ideas, like Strecker's, are dismissed by mainstream AIDS researchers. The main counterargument is that people without HIV don't get AIDS (although a couple apparent exceptions have turned up), while most of those with HIV do get it. Also, drug abuse, parasites, malnutrition, and so on have been around for a long time, but nobody got AIDS until HIV showed up. Cecil's chief AIDS advisor, SDSTAFF Jill, an AIDS epidemiologist, adds: "We now routinely do viral load tests on people with HIV, which show that in fact people with AIDS have varying quantities of HIV in their bodies.  A huge viral load generally corresponds either with recent infection (before the immune system brings it into check) or advanced disease.  Current therapies bring the viral count down and people get better.  If HIV weren't to blame for the disease, that wouldn't happen."

Still, Duesberg isn't a paranoid conspiracy theorist like the Strecker crowd. A few scientists think he may be on to something; more than a hundred have joined the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis. There have been efforts to portray the guy as a latter-day Galileo, scorned but maybe right. Cecil, Lord knows, isn't about to dismiss a fellow contrarian out of hand. But I wouldn't bet the mortgage money on him either.

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