Exclusive: AIDS Scientist Investigated for Misconduct After Complaint

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University of California, Berkeley, professor of molecular and cell biology Peter Duesberg tells ScienceInsider that he is the subject of a misconduct investigation launched by the university. Duesberg has been a controversial figure for decades because of his vocal skepticism that HIV is the cause of AIDS. But he says this is the first time he has ever been investigated for misconduct, and ScienceInsider has learned that an AIDS activist may have helped initiate the investigation.

The charges apparently stem from a paper Duesberg and four colleagues published last summer in Medical Hypotheses that challenged the assertion that HIV has caused massive loss of life due to AIDS, and more specifically, disputed a 2008 study arguing that hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in South Africa because of delays in distributing antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Under pressure from AIDS researchers, Elsevier, the journal's publisher, withdrew the paper and told its editor to either implement a peer-review process or hand in his resignation

The university would neither confirm nor deny that Duesberg is under investigation, but he forwarded a letter to ScienceInsider, signed by university Vice Provost Sheldon Zedeck and dated 18 November 2009, that says the university has appointed a faculty member to investigate allegations it received. According to this letter:

The specific allegations are that an article you submitted to Medical Hypotheses was investigated and then withdrawn by the publisher based on issues of credibility and false claims. The allegations also state that you failed to declare a relevant conflict of interest with regard to the commercial interests of your co-authors.

Duesberg says he heard nothing more until last week, when he received an e-mail from the university's investigator, epidemiologist Art Reingold, requesting a meeting to discuss the allegations. Duesberg says he declined to meet until he receives more information about the charges against him. According to the university's faculty code of conduct, disciplinary actions can range from a written reprimand to salary reduction to dismissal.

In response to Duesberg's request, Reingold sent him two letters of complaint the university received in August 2009. The authors' names are redacted, but ScienceInsider confirmed one of them is Nathan Geffen of Treatment Action Campaign, an advocacy group in South Africa.

Geffen says his chief concern is an undeclared conflict of interest. "In particular, there is no mention in the Medical Hypotheses article that [co-author] David Rasnick worked with Matthias Rath, a vitamin salesman, and that the basis of their business model was to claim that vitamins, not ARVs, treat AIDS," Geffen says. (Rath was not an author on the Medical Hypotheses paper.) This information about Rasnick was not disclosed in the paper, but it should have been, Geffen says. And as first author, Duesberg should have taken responsibility, he says.

Rasnick says he worked as a salaried senior scientist with Rath's nonprofit foundation in South Africa from March 2005 to July 2006. But he says he currently has "no financial interest whatever" in the Dr. Rath Health Foundation.

Given that Rasnick stopped working with Rath almost 3 years before the Medical Hypotheses paper was published, Duesberg says, "I don't see that there was a conflict of interest." Duesberg is convinced that the allegations stem from a desire to censor his unpopular views. "There is clearly some movement to get rid of any dissent against the HIV-AIDS hypothesis," he says.