April 16, 2000
By Rob Granatstein -- Special to The Free Press
TORONTO -- Nicholas Regush wants to get one thing straight: His book, The Virus Inside, is not about AIDS.
Well, it's not supposed to be, anyway.
It's about a killer virus that lurks in the bodies of most North Americans in a dormant state. It's about a virus that may have more efficient killing power than HIV.
It's about human herpes virus 6 (HHV-6) and the scientists who are trying to learn more about it and put it on the map.
But it's not about AIDS.
Except for one thing: "The book suggests HIV may not be the only factor in AIDS," said Regush. "And in some people it may not be a factor at all. AIDS may be a much more complicated thing than simply a virus attacking the immune system.
"This is part of the book the HIV establishment goes bonkers over," Regush said from his home in New York City.
To say some HIV scientists' blood cells are exploding over the Montreal-born author's book would be an understatement.
"I think Regush is the equivalent of a murderer,'' Mark Wainberg, a Montreal AIDS researcher and president of the International AIDS Society, told Maclean's magazine. "There are people who will be taken in by his half-truths and may die of AIDS as a result."
While Regush has been the target of some scientists and critics since his book was published, the former Montreal Gazette reporter and current ABC News producer and online columnist, found what might be considered an unlikely ally.
After having lunch together, HIV co-discoverer Dr. Luc Montagnier e-mailed Regush telling him he wanted to endorse The Virus Inside.
"Here's the father of HIV basically endorsing my book while these bunch of jerks across Canada who have been slamming it probably haven't read it," said Regush, 53.
"This book is not a rabid attack on HIV," he said. "Science is meant to be challenged and that is what this book does."
Regush has been tracking HHV-6 since 1986. In the early '90s he latched on to Milwaukee scientists Donald Carrigan and Konnie Knox -- the two main characters of his book -- and he tells their stories of discovery amid swirling controversies about their research.
The virus Knox and Carrigan are exploring is HHV-6, a dormant virus living in the bodies of most people in North America. The virus is potentially linked to multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS.
"We're talking about a virus everybody has," said Regush, who's covered primarily science and medicine in his 30-year journalistic career. "We're talking about a virus with a powerful ability to destroy parts of the immune system and parts of the brain.
"For most of us, probably nothing will happen because most of us keep reasonably healthy. The virus sits in us and pretty well goes to sleep," he said.
"It sits there like a ticking time bomb, but it can awaken if our immune systems begin to fail.
"In people with AIDS, people whose immune systems have been damaged, HHV-6 can awaken," Regush said.
The studies show that in people with AIDS it can become active and cause
lot of damage. It has an affinity for brain cells and appears to be active
in patients with multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue syndrome.
"It can go on a tear. It can go on a rampage," Regush said.
Regush does stress one important point, The Virus Inside does not come to any definite conclusions about anything.
"We don't really understand fully anywhere near what we need to know about how this virus awakens; what actually gets it to go on a rampage. It may involve genetics, it may involve a number of other factors."
Knox and Carrigan are fighting a losing battle to learn more about HHV-6 because they don't have the funding needed to pursue their science.
While money is being poured into AIDS research, work by Knox and Carrigan barely registers on the funding chart.
Regush said his book is a mystery, building up the drama of scientific discovery. But he strives to do it without losing readers in the mumbo-jumbo of complex scientific wording.
He feels he also has a couple of characters in his scientists who are worth reading about. Knox is a mother of five, while Carrigan divided his college years between sex and drugs.
While there are a lot of questions raised by Regush's book, one question is the most disturbing: What if this common virus does one day become active?
And what about AIDS?