In the late 1980s, as the world struggled to get a handle on the modern-day scourge that was AIDS, a virologist at University of California, Berkeley, published a paper positing that everything researchers had learned about the epidemic was wrong.
The Berkeley scientist, Peter Duesberg, said that despite evidence to the contrary, HIV, the virus that had been identified as the common thread among those affected with AIDS, was not responsible for the disease. His theory was that AIDS was caused by long-term use of recreational drugs or antiretroviral medications. Even after drugs designed to cripple the virus were successfully developed and found to be effective in controlling infection, Duesberg maintained his AIDS denialism. By virtue of the Internet, he picked up supporters internationally, including leaders of hard-hit countries such as South Africa.
Citing Duesberg’s views, South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki instituted policies starting in the early 2000s denying citizens life-saving anti-HIV drugs. Even as the country’s government confirmed that 1 in 10 South Africans was HIV-positive, Mbeki adhered to long-since discredited claims that the virus was not the cause of AIDS.
TIME’s Tony Karon reported at the time:
Distinguishing AIDS in Africa as a primarily heterosexual phenomenon that is destined to slash average life expectancy in his region to 47, Mbeki insisted that “as Africans we have to deal with this uniquely African catastrophe” and that simply accepting Western conventional wisdom on AIDS would be “absurd and illogical.”
During Mbeki’s rule, South Africa’s health minister urged patients to avoid drug therapies from the West and to rely instead on unsupported remedies including garlic and beetroot to help treat AIDS. Such policies may have cost 365,000 South African lives, according to a study by Harvard researchers.