It’s an established medical truth that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), if untreated, can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). While the virus was initially guaranteed to be deadly when the epidemic began in the 1980s, current antiviral treatments can give those who contract the virus long life expectancies—and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can lower users’ viral loads to the point where they are unable to transmit the virus to others.
Despite these facts, conspiracy theories surrounding life-saving antiviral medicines and the origins of the virus have continued to swirl. One particular book, by mathematician Rebecca Culshaw Smith, which advances such theories, is set to be released in just one week.
Scores of signatories have signed a letter to the publisher demanding the book’s publication be stopped; the publisher responded with accusations of censorship.
Titled The Real AIDS Epidemic: How the Tragic HIV Mistake Threatens Us All, the book argues that HIV was falsely identified as the cause of AIDS in the 1980s, and makes the claim that antiviral medications are a health risk to those taking them. An earlier version of the book, titled Science Sold Out: Does HIV Really Cause AIDS? and published in 2007, previously faced criticism for “egregious errors” from leading infectious disease scientists Kenneth Whitaker Witwer, associate professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology and neurology at John Hopkins School of Medicine, and Ruy Ribeiro, assistant professor of biology at the University of New Mexico.
Individuals and organizations have responded to news of Smith’s update with outrage; a coalition of more than 30 organizations and 70 public health advocates and writers penning a letter to publishing house Simon & Schuster on March 20, urging them to drop distribution of the book before its imminent release. Signatories include GLAAD, ACT UP and PrEP4All; and individuals including AIDS activist and novelist Alexander Chee and artist Nan Goldin.
“Research has shown conclusively that misinformation and denialism do material harm to HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment,” the letter reads. “With new prevention tools on the market, as well as revolutionary treatment options […] misinformation, which helps exacerbate stigma, discrimination and medical distrust should not be an added barrier to accessing life-saving drugs.”
The letter also emphasizes the years of scientific research that prove the causal link between HIV and AIDS, contrary to the argument put forward in Smith’s book.
“That HIV causes AIDS was demonstrated first in the 1980s when the virus was discovered, and subsequently research has only strengthened that causal link,” the letter says. The signatories also highlighted the range of methods used to prove the link, including research “via in vitro systems, in animal models, including non-human primates, via molecular phylogenetics and in human samples.”
That the causal link is provable is something that Dr. Robert Gallo feels strongly about—he is an individual with some authority on the matter, given he co-discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1984.
“There is no infectious disease in the history of medicine with anywhere near this amount of evidence,” Gallo said in a recent article from USA TODAY, fact-checking the idea that HIV causes AIDS. “It is conclusive. Anyone saying differently is ignorant.”
So, what does Smith argue?
In an email statement to Xtra, Smith said that “the history of AIDS medicine and activism has an ugly underbelly,” claiming that patients have been denied informed consent. She stated that patients have also been misled “regarding the deficiencies in the lab tests used to diagnose them and measure their disease progression,” as well as arguing that the medical field and activists have “attempted to censor and suppress examples of the manifest harm that has been done to patients who were far too trusting.”
Notably, Smith also claims that PrEP is a danger to people’s health, stating that there is a “continual gaslighting of non HIV/AIDS patients into believing that they aren’t seriously ill despite being demonstrably so.” Contrary to Smith’s claims, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of getting HIV through sex by around 99 percent when taken as prescribed, and continued innovations around the drug promise increased accessibility and efficacy in the future.
President and publisher of Skyhorse Publishing, the group publishing the book (and a distribution client of Simon & Schuster) Tony Lyons, stood by his decision to publish the book. In an email statement to Xtra he said:
“The people signing this letter are demanding that Simon & Schuster cancel a book that they haven’t even read. If they believe it makes flawed arguments, they should read it and then explain where the author gets it wrong,” he said. “Real science requires ongoing dialogue and debate and people who believe genuinely that they have better, stronger, more convincing arguments don’t need to stoop to cancel culture or censorship. Censorship, at its core, is anti-science.”
The publishing house also noted that Smith’s argument explores issues raised by “many prominent scientists,” including Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier, who was one of the co-discoverers of HIV. Before his death last year, Montagnier faced criticism from the scientific community for promoting alarmist conspiracies against COVID vaccines. He was the subject of an open letter from his peers, criticizing his stance on vaccination and stating that he was “using his Nobel Prize status to spread dangerous health messages outside of his field of knowledge.”
Though Smith told Xtra that her book “does not state that AIDS patients [should] not be allowed to access treatment at their discretion,” signatories of the letter to the publishers argue that the book could influence vulnerable populations.
“Research has shown that AIDS denialism poses real health risk to people living with HIV and their sexual partners. We know that patients who fall into AIDS denialism are more likely to experience HIV-related symptoms of illness and have higher, detectable viral loads, meaning the virus (which is real) can be transmitted to their sexual partners,” the letter says. “By releasing an AIDS denialist book, Simon & Schuster would be encouraging vulnerable people to ignore medical directions and to stop their medications, which is dangerous to their health and is likely to lead to a higher amount of virus in their bodies.”
With only a matter of days remaining until Smith’s book hits the shelves, the activists who signed on to the letter are demanding that the publishers immediately end plans for distribution and reassess future releases to ensure that other texts won’t assist similar damage to public health. The individuals and organizations also noted that major publishing houses have a duty of care to their potential readers.
“Simon & Schuster has a duty to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS misinformation and denialism,” their letter concludes. “Every occurrence adds needless life to an epidemic that has persisted for far too long.”