July 05, 2003
Hepatitis C epidemic - where is the virus?
On Friday, 13 June 2003, The Age in Australia reported that according to a
secret Health Department report, hepatitis C has become "an epidemic". The
report has been kept under wraps by Health Minister Kay Patterson since she
received it in November last year.
The epidemic However does not seem to be confined to Australia only.
According to an article in The Toronto Star the Canadian Liver Foundation
estimates that "up to 240,000 Canadians are infected with the hepatitis C
virus". Clean needles for intravenous drug users are suggested to avoid
infection with hepatitis C.
Yet, it appears that for hepatitis C, just as for AIDS, no virus has been
isolated, at least not one that could plausibly be the cause of the
disease. Some say the virus does not exist - hepatitis C has other causes.
Discussion of hepatitis C "virus" on Heal Toronto's website
A third type of hepatitis was found in the 1970s, again restricted to
heroin addicts, alcoholics, and patients who have received blood
transfusions. Most scientists assumed these cases were either hepatitis A
or B, until widespread testing revealed neither virus in the victims.
Roughly thirty-five thousand Americans die each year of any type of the
disease, a fraction of those from this "non-A, non-B hepatitis," as it was
known for years. Today it is called hepatitis C. This form of hepatitis
does not behave as an infectious disease, for it rigidly confines itself to
people in well- defined risk groups rather than spreading to larger
populations or even to the doctors treating hepatitis patients. Yet
virologists have been eyeing the disease from the beginning, hoping one day
to find a virus causing it.
That day arrived in 1987. The laboratory for the job was no less than the
research facility of the Chiron Corporation, a biotechnology company
located directly across the bay from San Francisco. Equipped with the most
advanced techniques, a research team started its search in 1982 by
injecting blood from patients into chimpanzees. None of the monkeys
contracted hepatitis, although subtle signs vaguely resembling infection or
reddening did appear. For the next step, the scientists probed liver tissue
for a virus. None could be found. Growing desperate, the team fished even
for the smallest print of a virus, finally coming across and greatly
amplifying a small piece of genetic information, encoded in a molecule
known as ribonucleic acid (RNA), that did not seem to belong in the host's
genetic code. This fragment of presumably foreign RNA, the researchers
assumed, must be the genetic information of some undetected virus. Whatever
it was, liver tissue contains it only in barely detectable amounts. Only
about half of all hepatitis C patients contain the rare foreign RNA. And in
those who contain it, there is only one RNA molecule for every ten liver
cells - hardly a plausible cause for disease.
The Chiron team used newly available technology to reconstruct pieces of
the mystery virus. Now they could test patients for antibodies against this
hypothetical virus and soon discovered that only a slight majority of
hepatitis C patients had any evidence of these antibodies in their blood.
Koch's first postulate, of course, demands that a truly harmful virus be
found in huge quantities in every single patient. His second postulate
requires that the virus particles be isolated and grown, although this
supposed hepatitis virus has never been found intact. And the third
postulate insists that newly infected animals, such as chimpanzees, should
get the disease when injected with the virus. This hypothetical microbe
fails all three tests. But Koch's standards were the furthest thing from
the minds of the Chiron scientists when they announced in 1987 that they
had finally found the "hepatitis C" virus.
Now more paradoxes are confronting the viral hypothesis. Huge numbers of
people testing positive for the hypothetical hepatitis C virus never
develop any symptoms of the disease, even though the "virus" is no less
active in their bodies than in hepatitis patients. And according to a
recent large-scale study of people watched for eighteen years, those with
signs of "infection" live just as long as those without. Despite these
facts, scientists defend their still-elusive virus by giving it an
undefined latent period extending into decades.
Paradoxes like these no longer faze the virus-hunting research
establishment. Indeed, rewards are generally showered upon any new virus
hypothesis, no matter how bizarre. Chiron did not spend five years creating
its own virus for nothing. Having patented the test for the virus, the
company put it into production and began a publicity campaign to win
powerful allies. The first step was a paper published in Science, the
world's most popular science magazine, edited by Dan Koshland, Jr.,
professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at
Berkeley. Edward Penhoet, chief executive officer for Chiron, also holds a
position as professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of
California at Berkeley. The NIH-supported virology establishment soon lent
the full weight of its credibility to the hepatitis C virus camp. As
Chiron's CEO boasted, "We have a blockbuster product." A regulatory order
from the Food and Drug Admin-istration (FDA) to test the blood supply would
reap enormous sales for Chiron.
Their big chance presented itself in late 1988 as a special request from
Japanese Emperor Hirohito's doctors. The monarch was dying and constantly
needed blood transfusions; could Chiron provide a test to make sure he
received no blood tainted with hepatitis C? The biotech company jumped at
the opportunity, making for itself such a name in Japan that the Tokyo
government gave the product its approval within one year. The emperor died
in the meantime, but excitement over Chiron's test was fueled when the
Japanese government placed hepatitis C high on its medical priority list.
Chiron's test kit now earns some $60 million annually in that country
alone. By the middle of 1990, the United States followed suit. The FDA not
only approved the test, but even recommended the universal testing of
donated blood. The American Association of Blood Banks followed suit by
mandating the $5 test for all 12 million blood donations made each year in
this country - raking in another $60 million annually for Chiron while
raising the nation's medical costs that much more. And all this testing is
being done for a virus that has never been isolated.
Profits from the test kit have generated another all-too-common part of
virus hunting. With Chiron's new income from the hepatitis C test,
Penhoet's company bought out Cetus, another biotech company, founded by
Donald Glaser, who, like Penhoet, also holds a position as professor of
molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley. And
Chiron made an unrestricted donation of about 12 million to the Department
of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley
that generates $100,000 in interest each year.
Unfortunately for Peter Duesberg, who belongs to the same department, his
supervisor is yet another professor who consults for Chiron Corporation -
and displays little sympathy for Duesberg for challenging modern virus
hunting by restricting his academic duties to undergraduate student
teaching and by not appointing him to decision-making committees. Such
conflicts of interest have become standard fixtures in university biology
The modern biomedical research establishment differs radically from any
previous scientific program in history. Driven by vast infusions of federal
and commercial money, it has grown into an enormous and powerful
bureaucracy that greatly amplifies its successes and mistakes all the while
stifling dissent. Such a process can no longer be called science, which by
definition depends on self-correction by internal challenge and debate.
Despite their popularity among scientists and their companies, "latent,"
"slow," and "defective" viruses have achieved only little prominence as
hypothetical causes of degenerative diseases before the AIDS era. Their
hypothetical role in degenerative diseases, which result from the loss of
large numbers of cells, remained confined to rare, exclusive illnesses like
kuru and hepatitis C.
However, because latent, slow, and defective viruses cannot kill cells,
such "viruses" eventually achieved prominence as hypothetical causes of
cancer and thus entered the courts of health care and medical research. The
next chapter describes the terms under which these viruses were promoted as
causes of cancer and how some of these terms were eventually used to
promote latent, slow, and defective viruses as causes of degenerative
diseases including, above all, AIDS.