It has emerged that the University of California, Berkeley launched an investigation last November into whether Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology who is well known for denying the link between HIV and Aids, had violated its policies when submitting an article on the theme to the journal Medical Hypotheses.
The article, “HIV-Aids hypothesis out of touch with South African Aids – A new perspective”, argues that there is “as yet no proof that HIV causes Aids” and says the claim that the virus has killed millions is “unconfirmed”.
Its publication last July led to a furore, and prompted the publisher of the unorthodox journal, Elsevier, to issue an ultimatum to its editor, Bruce Charlton. It demanded that a peer-review system be introduced to replace the journal’s current model, under which Professor Charlton decides which papers to publish on the strength of how interesting or radical they are.
Professor Charlton has refused to implement the changes and faces the sack as a result.
Elsevier withdrew the Duesberg paper to submit it to a peer-review test, which resulted in its being “permanently withdrawn” last month.
In a letter to Professor Duesberg, dated 18 November 2009 and seen by Times Higher Education, Berkeley says it had received allegations that submitting the paper amounted to “unacceptable conduct”.
“The specific allegations are that an article you submitted to Medical Hypotheses was investigated and then withdrawn by the publisher based on issues of credibility and false claims [and] that you failed to declare a relevant conflict of interest with regard to the commercial interests of your authors,” it says.
Two anonymous letters of complaint accompany Berkeley’s letter.
One alleges that a co-author of the paper, David Rasnick – who also denies the HIV-Aids link – had “until recently” worked as a researcher for the Dr Rath Health Foundation Africa. It alleges that the foundation “promoted and distributed micronutrient products as alternatives to the use of antiretroviral drugs”.
It continues: “[The affiliation] is a material and relevant fact that should have been disclosed in the paper by Duesberg et al. As the responsibility for making such a disclosure is the corresponding author’s, it appears…that Professor Duesberg has likely committed an ethical breach that should be investigated.”
The second letter accuses Professor Duesberg of damaging the credibility of Berkeley and science by making “false claims”.
“If the University of California is to maintain its reputation as one of the most outstanding academic institutions in the world, it cannot support the use of the university or an academic position as platforms to disseminate dangerous opinions and deny principles which are the very foundations of science,” it says.
Professor Duesberg acknowledged that Dr Rasnick had worked for the South African organisation from 2005 to 2006, but stressed it was non-profit and that Dr Rasnick’s employment had ended three years prior to the submission of the Medical Hypotheses manuscript.
He noted that the faculty investigative officer appointed to examine the allegations – Art Reingold, division head of public health biology and epidemiology at Berkeley’s School of Public Health – had received grant money to study HIV-Aids. He also criticised the university for “hiding” the identities of the complainants.
“The HIV-Aids establishment has censored our paper because it undermines the primary prediction of the HIV-Aids hypothesis,” he said.
“I am under investigation for scientific misconduct at a university that is the cradle of free speech because I have published a paper that proposes an alternative.”
On the allegation that he had brought Berkeley and science into disrepute, the academic said it was “odd” that the university was only now responding to such charges, “23 years after I first advanced arguments that HIV is not compatible with the epidemiology and biology of viral disease”.
If Professor Duesberg is found guilty of misconduct, the university could impose a sanction ranging from a warning letter to demotion or even dismissal. Professor Duesberg said he expected the outcome of the investigation to be known in the next few weeks.
Berkeley did not respond to THE’s request for comment.
For more information on Peter Duesberg and other scientists involved in the AIDS debate, watch House of Numbers.