Thursday, September 2, 2010

House of Numbers (Knowledge Matters Films, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On September 1, 2010 I led a showing of Brent Leung’s AIDS documentary House of Numbers at my alternative AIDS organization, H.E.A.L. [Health, Education, AIDS Liaison]-San Diego, which has been meeting regularly since January 1996. The showing took place at the Activist Center, 4246 Wightman Street in the City Heights area of San Diego, and attracted members of H.E.A.L. as well as volunteers with Activist San Diego for a showing of the film and a lively post-screening discussion. I would especially like to thank Matt Romain of Activist San Diego (ASD) for running the projector during the screening, and Matt and Gabe Conaway, also of ASD, for posting the event on their Web site. Brent Leung released this film to DVD in two versions: a “standard version” retailing for $19.99 containing the 90-minute theatrical release print; and a deluxe edition for $49.99, which also contains two discs of additional material. Some of that material will be screened at the next H.E.A.L. event on Wednesday, October 6, 7 p.m. at the same location. To purchase either version, log on to Brent Leung’s Web site,

Though I was interviewed for House of Numbers and I had ordered the DVD for delivery as soon as it was available, I decided not to pre-screen it and instead to let it be a surprise for me last night. I heard of Brent Leung, its director and principal producer (and also the on-screen narrator — it’s presented as his worldwide quest for the truth about HIV and AIDS but another person, Llewellyn Chapman, is credited as writer), when he requested a chance to meet with my alternative AIDS group, H.E.A.L.-San Diego, part of an international network that probably reached its height in the early 1990’s. The original H.E.A.L. (the initials stand for Health, Education, AIDS Liaison) was founded in New York City in 1984 by a group of people diagnosed with AIDS who felt the treatments they were offered by their doctors weren’t working for them and decided to strike out on their own and research for themselves what AIDS might be and what kinds of treatment might work for them. When Michael Ellner, a professional hypnotherapist and a strong skeptic about the medical system in general, became H.E.A.L.-New York’s president in 1987 the group moved beyond questioning the existing treatments for what was slowly coming to be called “HIV/AIDS” or simply “HIV disease” and instead looking skeptically at the whole idea that the multiple phenomena lumped together under the name “AIDS” could possibly be an infectious disease caused by a single virus.

For “newbies” who may see this on my blog posts and may not be familiar with the issue, on April 23, 1984 Margaret Heckler, then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, called a press conference in which she appeared alongside Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) and announced, “The probable cause of AIDS has been found, a variant of a known human cancer virus.” She then introduced Dr. Gallo as the researcher who had allegedly discovered it — a statement that, it turned out, contained three errors: first, it wasn’t a variant of a known human cancer virus (Dr. Gallo had previously claimed to have discovered a human cancer virus, which he called HTLV-1 — his name for the presumed AIDS virus was HTLV-3 — only later it turned out that it was the product of cross-contamination in his lab between three primate cell cultures); Gallo hadn’t discovered it (it had previously been found at the Institut Pasteur in Paris six months earlier by Dr. Luc Montagnier and his assistant, Dr. Françoise Barre-Sinoussi) and the studies Gallo offered didn’t actually prove the virus caused AIDS because only about 40 to 50 percent of the blood samples he took from AIDS patients showed signs of antibodies to the “new” virus (and it’s basic microbiology that in almost all cases antibodies mean that a person has been exposed to a pathogen — a potentially disease-causing organism — and successfully defended itself against it; not, as is almost universally assumed with HIV and AIDS, that a person has become actively infected with the virus and will get sick and die from it).

Three years later, Peter Duesberg, another National Cancer Institute research grant recipient and a man with a formidable reputation in virology as the discoverer of the transforming oncogene (a viral mutation that gave a virus the ability to cause cancer), published a paper in the journal Cancer Research containing three sections: the first two questioned whether retroviruses (the class of virus to which the supposed “AIDS virus,” now universally known as HIV, belongs) could possibly cause cancer in humans; while the third section said basically that, for all the reasons retroviruses couldn’t possibly cause cancer, they couldn’t possibly cause AIDS either. Duesberg himself was thrown off the gravy train of federal funding three years later (by a panel that included, among other “impartial” reviewers, Robert Gallo’s girlfriend Flossie Wong-Staal) and the scientific establishment went out of its way not only to wreck his career but to go after any other scientist who dared question the “probability,” now hardened into dogma, that HIV was the one and only cause of AIDS.

Part of their policy in maintaining the dogma was to refuse to participate in any critical examination of the HIV/AIDS dogma by the popular media; Gallo, Anthony Fauci (leader of the AIDS research effort as chair of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) and other mainstream AIDS scientists simply refused to debate other scientists who questioned the dogma, or to participate in news stories in which dissenting scientists would also be interviewed. Thus, as Leung documents in a series of man-on-the-street interviews that pepper his film, most ordinary people not only don’t know that there is scientific dissent on the question of whether HIV causes AIDS but don’t understand the difference even the mainstream concedes there is between HIV (the virus) and AIDS (the syndrome — collection of presumably related diseases — it supposedly causes).

What made Leung’s movie more powerful than previous attempts at films on the topic (including those by alternative health advocate Gary Null; Robin Scovill, husband of the late Christine Maggiore; British TV journalist Joan Shenton; African-American TV journalist Tony Brown and others) was that he was able, while making the film, to stay sufficiently “under the radar” that he was able to gain interviews with major advocates of the HIV/AIDS model — including Montagnier, Gallo, Fauci, Robin Weiss (a British virologist who also claimed a role in the discovery of HIV); David Baltimore (an important U.S. virologist and former head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering reverse transcriptase, an enzyme retroviruses like HIV need to be able to reproduce); John Moores (who’s listed in the credits and his chyron tag as “Moore”), a highly combative figure who runs a Web site aimed at attacking the “lies” of opponents of the HIV/AIDS model; Peter Piot, former head of the United Nation AIDS Program (UNAIDS); Harold Jaffe of the National Institutes of Health; two physicians considered pioneers in diagnosing and treating AIDS, Michael Gottlieb of Los Angeles (who first discovered the syndrome in Gay men in Los Angeles in 1980-81 and called it Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID) and Donald Francis of San Francisco (the hero of Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On) — without them finding out that he was also talking to the heroes of the dissident movement: Duesberg, Kary Mullis (winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, a technology basic to the HIV “viral load” test even though Mullis rejects that use of it as well as the HIV/AIDS model itself), German physician Claus Köhnlein; Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Valendar Turner of the so-called “Perth group,” a team of doctors at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia who reject not only the idea that HIV causes AIDS but believe it has not been shown even to exist; and journalists Neville Hodgkinson, Celia Farber, Liam Scheff and yours truly.

The biggest surprise for me was seeing that though the mainstream scientists publicly proclaim themselves as utterly certain not only that HIV causes AIDS but that the existing treatment regimens can slow the “progression” (Christine Maggiore once grimly joked about that word, “Why do I have to get sicker in order to show ‘progress’?” of HIV to AIDS but that nothing can actually stop it (as Leung mentions in his opening narration, one shibboleth of the AIDS mainstream is that AIDS is literally incurable; once you are exposed to the virus, you will get infected, you will develop AIDS and you will die from its effects sooner than you would have otherwise), amongst themselves (and in Leung’s interviews) they disagree quite radically about whether the human immune system ever mounts an effective response against HIV and just how HIV causes AIDS. (Some of the more honest mainstream papers on AIDS have statements like, “The pathogenesis of HIV remains a mystery” — which is science-speak for “We know HIV causes AIDS but we don’t have an [expletive deleted] idea how.”) Montagnier is shown saying that he doesn’t think HIV can cause AIDS unless something else — a so-called “co-factor” — is also present (and Leung posted a longer version of his interview with Montagnier to the Internet when he was accused by HIV mainstreamers of selectively editing Montagnier’s footage to make Montagnier look more skeptical of the HIV-causes-AIDS-alone model than he supposedly is), and some of the other mainstreamers pay lip service to HIV as the cause of AIDS while making skeptical comments that don’t sound all that different from the dissident case against the HIV/AIDS model.

Granted that the story of AIDS is a lot more complicated than one movie can depict in 90 minutes, and that certain aspects of it are told better in Null’s or Scovill’s films than in this one (and personally I think Scovill got more out of me and what I had to say about the topic than Leung did, especially on the nagging question of why, once presented with the HIV/AIDS model, the Queer community that was the initial target group for the epidemic accepted it almost completely and vehemently rejected the alternative explanations of Duesberg and others that attributed AIDS to the heavy use of recreational drugs by certain sexually hyperactive Gay men and other risk factors specific to Gay sexual practices — not homosexuality itself — in the early 1970’s), this is probably the best documentary on AIDS and the controversy over its causes and treatments yet made. It’s probably ill-timed simply because AIDS is no longer as salient an issue as it was in the 1980’s or 1990’s; in his introduction Leung laments that as someone born in 1980 he has literally never known a world without AIDS — or a world in which added to the historic burdens of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality in adolescence is the horrendous fear factor of being told a single sexual encounter with the “wrong” person may be totally fatal (though in Leung’s interviews some of the mainstream scientists are quite open about how difficult a virus HIV really is to catch and how many sexual encounters are needed for most people to become exposed) — but, ironically, the introduction of the protease inhibitors at the 1996 Vancouver AIDS conference helped dispel some of the fear surrounding AIDS.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this topic, the protease inhibitors and the drug “cocktails” (the combination therapy regimens that they are a part of) drew an unanticipated wedge between what I call the “treatment” and the “prevention” wings of the AIDS establishment. The “treatment” wing hailed the new drugs as finally turning the corner on HIV and making it from an invariably fatal infection to a “chronic, manageable condition” — which was excellent news not only for people already diagnosed “HIV-positive” and desperate for any shards of hope but also for the pharmaceutical industry, since it meant that instead of selling people one drug for three years and then losing them to death (at the hands of HIV, say the mainstreamers; because of the toxic effects of the drugs, say the dissidents), they could sell them three drugs (or more) for 30 years. (One cynical interviewee in Leung’s film say the drug companies have it calculated how long they can sell a drug in high doses before so many people die from its toxic “side” effects that they have to lower the dose to be able to continue to market it at all.)

Meanwhile, the “prevention” wing — the part of the AIDS establishment that launched a permanent scare campaign throughout first the U.S. and the developed world, and now through what’s variously called the less-developed world, the Third World or the Global South, to tell people that they can’t ever have sex without condoms (which, as some activists in African countries have pointed out, means that they can’t reproduce and has led to suspicions that “AIDS” is a Western-concocted myth to depopulate Africa so the imperialist European powers can re-colonize it) and, increasingly (on the basis of highly dubious research sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that has been contradicted by other studies in other countries with longer terms and larger sample sizes), that men in countries where infant circumcision is not routine should have their foreskins removed on the idea that having their dicks mutilated in that fashion makes it less likely either that they will get HIV themselves or be able to pass it to women with whom they have sex. I’ve been to meetings at which HIV prevention educators have described the toxic effects of the anti-HIV drugs in such excruciating detail that they’ve sounded like people at a H.E.A.L. meeting!

House of Numbers is a film I can’t really be objective about, not only because I’m in it (and I come off in a very weird way, with my voice crashing through the soundtrack like the voice of God — no, I’m not suffering from any delusions and, in fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by it!) but because I’ve been an activist in the movement challenging the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy for 17 years now and I’m convinced that if it weren’t for the effectiveness of the propaganda not only in promoting the view that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS but suppressing every other possibility from public consciousness, we’d be looking back on the HIV/AIDS model and regarding it as not only wrong but ridiculous. Leung might have gone more into detail in his movie about how the HIV/AIDS advocates managed to short-circuit the corrective mechanisms by which scientists are supposed to avoid getting caught up in these sorts of mass mistakes, but there’s a telling exchange in his movie in which Leung asks David Baltimore why he didn’t redo Robert Gallo’s experiments that supposedly isolated HIV and proved its existence. “Because he already did them; why should I waste my time doing them again?” I couldn’t help but mutter under my breath, “It’s called replication. It’s what scientists are supposed to do. You’re supposed to write in your paper so detailed a description of how you did your experiment that any other scientist in your field can do the same thing in his lab and test you, and if comes up with the same result that helps confirm your theory. If he doesn’t come up with the same result, then it suggests that either or both of you are wrong and the question has to be kept open and available for further research.”

The fact that HIV was politically proclaimed to be the cause of AIDS on April 23, 1984 and from that day forward the U.S. government refused to fund any research on AIDS not based on the assumption that HIV was its one and only cause — and the rest of the world woefully followed our lead — means that the usual workings of the scientific method were short-circuited, and the result is what we see vividly dramatized in House of Numbers: a disease defined by the impossibility of ever getting well or being cured, drugs that are highly toxic and sometimes create the same symptoms as the disease they’re supposedly treating, millions of people around the world given medical death sentences (most of them in poor countries where simple projects to give them clean water and decent sanitation could save far more lives than the high-priced “HIV medications” Bill Gates and other ultra-wealthy Western donors are buying for them) and a medical establishment with an appalling level of arrogance even beyond their usual standards (old joke: “What do you call a person who thinks he’s God? A schizophrenic. What do you call a person who knows he’s God? A doctor”) and a scare campaign to make people afraid of expressing themselves sexually in the ways nature gave them and conditioned to equate “unprotected” sex with the risk of an invariably fatal disease.