DATE July 17, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Kertzer, author of "The Popes Against the
Jews," discusses the roots of modern anti-Semitism
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A new wave of anti-Semitism has spread around the world, set off by Islamic
extremism and the Middle East conflict. Many people in the Muslim world
believe that a Jewish conspiracy was behind September 11th. Jewish
individuals, schools and synagogues have been attacked in parts of Europe and
Africa. My guest, David Kertzer, has studied the history of anti-Semitism.
He's the author of the recent book, "The Popes Against the Jews: The
Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism." He's a professor of
social science, anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University.
Kertzer says that Islamic anti-Semitism is relatively new when compared to
Christian anti-Semitism. In the Middle Ages, when Jews were expelled from
several European countries, many of them took refuge in Islamic countries.
But the strain of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world today is informed by
myths that date back to medieval Europe.
Professor DAVID KERTZER (Brown University): If you look at what's happening
recently in the Islamic world, and particularly the Arab world, you find a
rise, curiously and disturbingly, of many of the anti-Semitic ideas that
really grew up in Christian Europe and had been associated with Christianity
and not only in medieval times but unfortunately right up until the Second
World War. It took, really, the Holocaust to cure European Christianity of
these anti-Semitic views.
GROSS: What's an example of one of those anti-Semitic myths that is floating
around the Islamic world now that has its roots in European anti-Semitism?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, a good example is the ritual murder myth. This holds
that Jews are somehow commanded by their religion to kidnap non-Jewish and
torture them as painfully as possible, draw out all their blood, because this
blood, according to this myth, is required by Jews for various rituals, the
most commonly cited one being the use of non-Jewish children's blood for matzo
Well, this grew up in Europe, beginning in the 1100s, and can be found,
unfortunately, right into the 20th century in Christian Europe, and in fact
was backed by the Vatican into the early part of the 20th century, but of
course has been totally discredited as we got into the 20th century in
Christian Europe, although it was used by the Nazis to considerable effect.
Today, we find in the year 2002 various government-sponsored newspapers in
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, else where in the Arab world, repeating this myth and
charging the Jews with taking the blood of now Islamic children, as well as
Christian children, to use for their Jewish ritual.
GROSS: Now you mention that current theories circulating about the Jews,
particularly among some Islamist extremists is the Jewish conspiracy theories,
that the Jews control the banks and the press. They're trying to control the
world. Is this connected to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Do you find
that that writing is gaining currency again?
Prof. KERTZER: Yes. Amazingly, this is being published apparently in scores
of different editions in the Arab world today. Well, this is a forgery. It
began at the turn of the 20th century in czarist Russia where the czar's
secret police came up with this fanciful tale of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy
aimed at taking over the world and essentially enslaving all the non-Jews of
the world. It became popular, basically became the bible of European
anti-Semitism in the 1920s, was adopted by the Nazis but also was published by
rather respectable people in Europe and in the US, where Henry Ford was
involved in its distribution, but of course, even by the 1920s and 1930s was
rejected by responsible Europeans. However, today, it's making a reappearance
in the Arab world.
GROSS: You said that you found a quote from the Protocols on the Web site of
Prof. KERTZER: Well, right in the covenant of Hamas, the founding document of
Hamas, it refers to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to make its case that
they have evidence that the Jews not only want Israel but they want to take
over all of the Arab world as part of their quest for world domination.
GROSS: In reading your book, "The Popes Against the Jews," I learned a lot
about the many times over the centuries in which Jews were expelled or
ghettoized in countries throughout Europe. Do you think that that connects to
the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe that we're seeing now?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, there's a very long tradition of anti-Semitism in
Europe, something that many Europeans essentially try to deny, and it's not
surprising that you would still find anti-Semitism in Europe, given its
historical pedigree. For hundreds of years, Jews were persecuted, they were
banned from living in Britain, in France, in large parts of Germany. Of
course, there's the famous case of Spain and Portugal where they were thrown
out beginning in 1492, or forced to convert. And in those areas where they
were allowed to exist, for example, the Papal States in central Italy, with
its capital, Rome, under the pope's dominion, the Jews were not allowed to
live in most areas, were only allowed to live in a handful of cities which had
ghettos which locked them in at night. So given--and that last ghetto, of
course, was Rome, which was only liberated in 1870 when forces of Italian
unification took it from the pope, so 1870 is not that long ago, really, from
a historian's perspective anyway, and the legacy remains.
GROSS: Now your latest book is called "The Pope Against the Jews: The
Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism." What would you say was
the most extreme period in which the Vatican played a big part in
Prof. KERTZER: Well, my interest particularly is the rise of modern
anti-Semitism. When we talk about modern anti-Semitism, we're talking about a
social/political movement with its roots beginning in the 1880s, and it then
ultimately goes on through the 1930s and one wing of it would develop as
Naziism. The Vatican has denied that it played any role in the rise of modern
anti-Semitism, claiming a distinction between that they call anti-Judiasm,
which is based on religious negative views of the Jews, like Jews as the
killers of Christ, and opposing that to modern anti-Semitism, which they see
as based on negative economic, political and social characterizations of the
Jews. So in "The Popes Against the Jews," what I tried to demonstrate is that
this distinction does not hold, that is, between religious anti-Judaism of a
sort that the church was involved in, and an economic, political, social
anti-Semitism which was responsible for the kind of hatred that could
ultimately lead to the Holocaust. And so for me, the most interesting and
most important period, really, is the period where anti-Semitism gets started
in the 1880s, 1890s and the beginning of the 20th century.
GROSS: Now how does anti-Semitism change its colors during that period?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, it begins to focus on the role of the Jews as being
responsible for all the evil of modern times. You see, when the Jews for
centuries had either been banned from much of Europe or been forced to live in
ghettos, not allowed to own their own houses, their own property and so forth,
this wasn't an issue, but once the Jews were emancipated, given equal rights,
progressively, in Europe through the 19th century--something, by the way, the
Vatican always opposed--now they could become the scapegoat for all the
traumas associated with the transition to modern times.
GROSS: So this is where the whole Jewish conspiracy theory starts to come in,
of Jews controlling the press and running governments and conspiring to take
over the world, these more almost like secular forms of anti-Semitism where
it's not about the religion per se, it's more about these other plots.
Prof. KERTZER: Right. In fact, one of the features here is in the past, the
real enemy was the religious Jew, whereas now the real enemy was the secular
Jew. The Jew was responsible for capitalism, the Jew was charged with being
responsible for communism and for socialism and for the spread of secularism,
for the desire to separate church and state, all these aspects of modern times
that were being denounced by the church, and this continued in one form or
another well into the 20th century.
GROSS: Now how are worried are you personally--as a scholar of anti-Semitism,
how worried are you personally about the latest waves of anti-Semitism?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, am concerned, not in the United States--I mean, there is
some anti-Semitism in the United States, but fortunately, it's quite
peripheral and it's not something I think we need to be terribly worried
about. I mean, there's some incidents and those need to be dealt with. But
in Europe, it's quite different, and of course, in the Arab world and in the
Muslim world, more generally it's different still. In the Arab world, the
teaching of the hatred of the Jews to young children on a mass level is
something that's producing generation after generation of those whose minds
are essentially being poisoned about Jews, and of course, about--now in many
areas, anti-Americanism is associated with anti-Semitism in parts of the Arab
and Muslim world.
In Europe, the situation is preoccupying when you see, for example,
anti-Israeli demonstrations which quickly turn into anti-Semitic and
anti-Jewish kinds of demonstrations, and even at the highest kinds of
intellectual levels. Of course recently there's been this case of the editor
of these academic journals in Britain who kicked the two Israeli members of
the editorial board of these two journals off the editorial board, saying that
they bear some kind of responsibility for Nazi-like behavior because of
Israel's activity with respect to the Palestinians.
GROSS: Do you find that it's getting difficult to draw the distinction
between anti-Israeli feelings and anti-Semitic feelings? Because, I mean, you
know, a government's policy is very controversial. You could take what ever
side you want to on it, and disagreeing with a government policy is very
different than vilifying a whole religion.
Prof. KERTZER: This is true, and it's an important distinction to keep in
mind, that it is easy for certain defenders of Israel to try to besmirch
anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as being anti-Semitic, particularly if
they're not Jewish, and this can intimidate some non-Jews into criticizing
Israeli policy as they think they should.
The other hand, you also have to ask--at least Jews certainly ask this
question--why is it that with all the destruction, the murders, the mass
murders, the violence of governments around the world that have been going on
for the last decades, unfortunately, it's Israel that has become almost a
single focus of particularly European ire, and the boycotts are aimed at
Israeli academics, for example, and not academics from other countries who
might be seen as being engaged in more nefarious behavior than even the worst
critics of Israel would accuse it of. And so there is the suspicion that this
peculiar focus on Israel, the fact, apparently that there have been more, for
example, United Nations resolutions aimed at criticizing Israel than at all
other countries in the world combined, as a Jew, one has to ask, is there some
kind of basic anti-Semitism and focus on the Jews as a source of evil that's
GROSS: My guest is David Kertzer. He's the author of the book, "The Popes
Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kertzer. He's a
professor at Brown University and author of the book, "The Popes Against the
Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism."
As part of your research for this book, "The Pope Against the Jews," you got
access to the archive of the central office of the Inquisition. That archive
was recently opened when you started doing research there?
Prof. KERTZER: That's right. In fact, first of all, I should say the
Catholic Church and the Vatican deserves tremendous credit for opening its
historical archives to researchers like me; in other words, not only its own
in-house kind of researchers, but to the larger scholarly world. The research
for "The Popes Against the Jews" couldn't have been done unless the Vatican
had opened its archives in this way.
GROSS: I'd love to hear about some of the documents that you found from the
Prof. KERTZER: Well, one comes from the 20th century. In the very end of the
19th century, in 1899, in November, the Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore
Romano, which is still today the daily newspaper of the Vatican, ran the
latest in its decades-long series of articles on Jewish ritual murder. The
actual title of the piece was Judaic Ritual Murder, charging the Jews with
murdering some child to drain him of his blood recently, as the latest case of
the many, many cases that were, they claimed, taking place in Europe then.
Well, the archbishop of Westminster, who's the head of the Catholic Church for
Britain, was upset to see this latest article in the Vatican newspaper, and of
course, he's coming from a place where Catholics themselves were a persecuted
minority, so he wrote to the pope, Leo XIII, and said, `You've got to do
something about this. It's embarrassing to the Catholic Church, it's
embarrassing to the Vatican to be associated with this kind of medieval
superstition of Jewish ritual murder.'
So we now know that Pope Leo XIII referred the whole matter to the central
office of the Inquisition, which is a group of cardinals, chaired, actually,
by the pope himself, and we can find not only their kind of official document
and what they came up with six months later when they reached their decision,
but also the notes of the coordinator, the cardinal coordinating their work.
And what we find is that these cardinals not only believed in Jewish ritual
murder--now we're talking about the 20th century, and they ended up in July of
1900 telling the pope that ritual murder had been established for centuries by
the Vatican as the nefarious practice of the Jews, and therefore, the petition
of the archbishop of Westminster had to be denied, but the private notes by
the cardinals say clearly the archbishop of Westminster has become a dupe of
the powerful Jews of London.
GROSS: What years was the office of the Inquisition open between?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, the Inquisition began in the 1540s. It was not, by the
way, initially aimed particularly at the Jews. The timing is significant
here. It's during the Reformation, so it really became one of the first
instruments of the counter-Reformation, that is, countering the spread of the
Protestant heresy, as it was seen in the Vatican, seen in Rome, and so it
aimed at trying to enforce orthodoxy. The Jews became a kind of victim by the
way, in that, again, the main initial object was dealing with the Protestants.
GROSS: And so when did it close?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, it lasted, actually, into the 20th century. In fact,
today there is a--one of the congregations of the Vatican is the congregation
headed by Cardinal Ratzinger to ensure orthodoxy; deals with issues, for
example, of excommunicating priests, and this congregation, which still is in
the building of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, is the successor of the
Inquisition, but during the 20th century, the name was changed and its
mission, of course, has been changed as well.
You have to realize that also there was a big difference when the pope had
control over certain territories, as he did in the Papal States, which ran
from Rome up through Bologna and Ferrara and central and northern Italy, the
Inquisition also had police powers behind it. Well, with the end of the Papal
States in 1870 with the fall of Rome, the inquisitors could no longer order
the police to seize people, including seizing Jews as they did in various
circumstances, so the whole nature of the Inquisition changed then.
GROSS: Your book is about the Vatican's role in the rise of anti-Semitism.
What would you like to see the Catholic Church do in response to the latest
waves of anti-Semitism?
Prof. KERTZER: Well, first of all, I'd like to see the church come to terms
with its own history and its own role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism.
The current pope, John Paul II, has, first of all, it should be noted, done a
great deal to increase a better understanding with other religions, including
with the Jews. Remember early in his papacy his dramatic visit to Auschwitz,
also a very important visit to the synagogue of Rome, the major synagogue of
Rome; of course more recently, in the year 2000, his visit to Israel. So he's
done a great deal to try to improve relations between the Catholic Church and
the Jews, and he deserves credit for this.
On the other hand, when these issues have come up about how his predecessors,
previous popes and the Vatican, had been involved in modern anti-Semitism, he
reacted initially by referring the matter to a group of cardinals who spent 11
years deliberating, doing historical research and coming up with a report in
1998, a report that's a very important one of the Vatican called We Remember:
A Reflection on the Shoah, on the Holocaust, and it's in that report that the
Vatican denies that it played any role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism,
clinging to this distinction of anti-Judaism, simply religious negative views
of the Jews, that it does admit being involved in but saying it wasn't
involved in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, which it claims was linked to
anti-Catholic nationalist groups.
Well, so first of all, I think the church needs to take a frank look at its
past, as the pope, in fact, has called on the church to do, because it's hard
to criticize what's going on in the Muslim world until one takes
responsibility for one's own involvement in very similar activities in the
past. That said, it would be nice to see the Catholic Church, if we focus
just on the Catholic Church for the moment, in areas where anti-Semitism has
been spreading, whether in Europe or in the Muslim world, to take more
aggressive action in confronting it than it has.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. KERTZER: You're welcome.
GROSS: David Kertzer is the author of "The Popes Against the Jews: The
Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism." He's a professor at
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, designer bugs: synthetically created and genetically
engineered viruses. They can help us, but they can also be used against us as
bioterrorist weapons. We talk with science journalist John Cohen. He'll also
report on the international AIDS conference which he attended.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John Cohen discusses AIDS therapies and the creation of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A team of scientists announced last week that they had synthesized a live
polio virus. It's the first time a live virus has been constructed from
scratch. The experiment was financed by the Pentagon as part of its research
on combating bioterrorism. Science journalist John Cohen has an article in the
current edition of The Atlantic Monthly about designer bugs, genetically
engineered viruses that could help humanity or be used as biological weapons.
The virus Cohen has followed most closely is HIV. He's the author of a book on
the search for an AIDS vaccine called "Shots in the Dark," and last week he
attended the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, which we'll talk
about a little later.
Let's start with the synthetically made polio virus. It may help the Pentagon
protect against biowarfare, but could it also help inform the work of
bioterrorists? I asked Cohen if the Pentagon funding of this experiment is
Mr. JOHN COHEN (Journalist): This is coming out of the Darpa Group, which
funds really high-risk experimental stuff. I don't think it's hugely
controversial. I think most scientists thought that you could do this. It's
not such a great shock that you can do it. Polio's really small. It's easier
to do this with polio than just about any other virus that might hurt humans.
And if you compare it to, let's say, smallpox, polio has about 7,000
components; smallpox has about 200,000. It's much more complex to do this
with a nasty bug like smallpox, and there are lots of people who doubt that
given the technology that exists today that you could do it.
GROSS: Now in the current edition of The Atlantic magazine, you have an
article about a mousepox experiment. Mousepox, I guess, is kind of like
smallpox, but it only affects mice, not people. What was the goal of this
experiment that you write about?
Mr. COHEN: Originally--Australia has a horrible problem with rabbits and other
introduced species. Australia is a big island that didn't have a lot of
species that now exist there. And rabbits were brought in in 1859 by a
sportsman, essentially, and rabbits do what rabbits do, and they soon overtook
the island and created what was called a gray blanket. And ever since the
late 1800s, Australians have been trying to figure out how to take care of
their rabbit problem. And this experiment initially set out to stop the
production of new rabbits. It was biowarfare against rabbits.
GROSS: And what did the scientists create?
Mr. COHEN: Well, in 1950, the Australians tried to deal with their rabbit
problem by releasing a virus that had never been released there called myxoma
virus. And I have to tell you this background, because it explains what they
ended up doing this time around.
Mr. COHEN: The myxoma virus was put into the environment there, and the first
year it killed about 99 percent of the rabbits. It was a terrific way to kill
rabbits. But over about three years' time, the virus and the rabbits started
to figure out how to live together and only about 95 percent of the rabbits
died from the release of the virus. And then as more years passed, it became
lethal to about 50 percent of the rabbits. So myxoma wasn't that good of a
virus to attack rabbits. So the scientists in this current experiment set out
in 1988 to engineer myxoma to sterilize rabbits, rather than to kill them.
They just wanted to sterilize them and that's the genesis of this experiment.
GROSS: And then they tried to do the same with mice?
Mr. COHEN: Right. Well, they tried to engineer myxoma virus to carry a gene
from the egg of rabbits. So the thinking was they would teach the rabbits to
attack their own eggs. But they didn't have the right genes to work with
rabbits, but they did have them for mice in mousepox, so it was sort of a
parallel system that they could test the idea in of making a sterilizing
vaccine, if you will. That's what they were up to. So they took mousepox,
which is a cousin of smallpox and is highly infectious in mice, and stitched
in the egg protein into that background, into that vector, is what mousepox is
called. It's a Trojan horse that's gonna then deliver this egg protein. And
it worked, but it didn't work that well.
GROSS: The larger point of your article in The Atlantic is this is good news
and this is bad news at the same time. How is this designer virus good news?
Mr. COHEN: Well, it's kind of the great conundrum with all these designer bugs
is in this case if--rats, for example, destroy about 20 percent of the world's
crops. If we could better control rats, we could feed many millions of more
people, people who are the poorest people in Earth; people who are some of the
angriest people on Earth at countries that have a lot of money. So some
people have argued that, look, by doing things like this, you actually reduce
the likelihood of a terrorist attack by feeding more people.
GROSS: And how is this bad news?
Mr. COHEN: Well, the bad news is when they first started doing the experiment,
they didn't have tremendous success in sterilizing mice, so they decided to
introduce yet another gene to the mousepox virus. And this other gene they
introduced was meant to tilt the immune system so that it would have even a
stronger response against the eggs of the mice. And it surprisingly ended up
killing the mice. The mousepox went into a strain of mice it usually didn't
harm and when it was engineered this way they died. So then the scientists
through, `Well, let's give them the smallpox vaccine,' which actually protects
against mousepox because they're so closely related. And about 60 percent of
the vaccinated mice again died. So it raised the specter that you could
engineer a smallpox virus that would get around the smallpox vaccine. And
that was terrifically frightening, and it is frightening that you could do
such a thing because it's a great vaccine that has eradicated that virus from
the Earth. It's the only virus that humans have ever wiped off the face of
GROSS: So with this designer mousepox and with the synthesis of the polio
virus, what are some of the possibilities we're facing in terms of
Mr. COHEN: Well, I try to keep a really even keel when I think through this
stuff and look at what does it really mean. What are we really facing in
terms of danger? On the one hand, there are few bugs that are nastier than
natural smallpox. There are few bugs that are nastier than natural polio
virus. It's pretty hard to design something that's going to be better. And
in fact, if you do design something and put it out there, the odds are you're
gonna end up with a situation similar to the rabbits and myxoma virus. It
will find a natural way to get along with humans that probably isn't as
devastating to us as what already exists. So that's the rational, positive
side of all this.
The other side of it is there are really nasty, evil people in the world who
spend their time thinking up horrible things to do to each other, and there
are more ways to hurt people now more quickly than existed in the past because
of these advances. So I think the real bottom line here is we have to be
aware of what the potential attacks are and defend ourselves against them
ahead of time. We could potentially make a vaccine that could deal with this
smallpox bug that can now get around the existing vaccine. If indeed that's
even true. This is a mouse experiment. I mean, who knows once you put this
into smallpox virus what it will do.
GROSS: You write that the Bush administration has removed from public access
thousands of federal reports about germ warfare and that the Bush
administration is starting to draft a new policy on information security.
What are some of the things the administration has done and what are some of
the things that are under consideration now?
Mr. COHEN: There have been lots of studies of germ warfare that have been
published and put on the Web by the government, and those have now been taken
off. They've also clamped down on what they will release through the Freedom
of Information Act request. I recently had a response that was filled with
blank pages to a pretty innocuous question about smallpox vaccine procurement.
In addition to that, the Bush administration officials in a backroom meeting
met with heads from the American Society of Microbiology, which publishes 10
journals, and asked them to at least consider withholding publication of some
data. And one of their journals is indeed the journal that published the
mousepox story, the Journal of Virology.
GROSS: My guest is science journalist John Cohen. His article on designer
viruses is in the current edition of The Atlantic Monthly. He was in
Barcelona at the International AIDS Conference last week. We'll talk about
the conference after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Cohen.
John, in this month's Atlantic magazine, you have your story on designer
viruses, and you just got back from Barcelona where you were reporting on the
AIDS conference for Science magazine. Is there a connection between AIDS and
these designer viruses that may be used for good or may be used for biological
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, there is. It's a strong one, too. HIV essentially is an
emerging infectious disease that showed up in a big way in 1981. By
introducing a designer bug into a population, you're effectively introducing
an emerging infectious disease. Very much in the way that HIV shocked people
when it showed up, you could shock a population by introducing a new, strange
bug. Polio, by the way, showed up as a strange, new bug as well in the 1890s.
GROSS: Well, you just got back from Barcelona. What would say was the
general mood at the AIDS conference?
Mr. COHEN: There are two worlds that exist there. One is the poor countries
of the world and their needs, and the other is the rich countries. The
overall thrust of the meeting was really directed at getting treatment and
prevention to the poor countries of the world. The epidemic, in the words of
Peter Piot, who's the head of UNAIDS, is really just beginning, and I think a
lot of people have a hard time accepting that, but the new figures are
GROSS: What are they?
Mr. COHEN: Well, there are now 40 million HIV-infected people in the world.
The projection is that by the year 2010, unless something is done in a
comprehensive way, there will be 45 million new infections. I mean, that's
GROSS: Yeah. What are some of the signs of optimism that you saw at the
Mr. COHEN: Well, there's a movement to get drugs to poor people, and it didn't
exist two years ago. It really started two years ago. And the prices of
drugs have plummeted. There are new drugs coming on the market for people in
rich countries that will help deal with some of the severe limitations that
exist to the existing drugs. There is basic research moving forward into new
avenues that promise to deliver in five or 10 years. So there are positive
things happening. Overall, though, the thrust of the meeting, the real
gestalt and Zeitgeist of it, was the world has failed to really acknowledge
what a horrible thing is happening in most of the world. Ninety-four percent
of the infected people in the world live in poor countries. And many people
feel as though the leaders of the world are just standing by and watching.
GROSS: What else struck you as being particularly important at this AIDS
Mr. COHEN: Well, two years ago in Durban this incredible sea change occurred
where people realized that the world could no longer ignore poor people and
the world had to start thinking seriously about getting drugs and prevention
efforts everywhere. And a series of events happened after Durban, and
something was created called the Global Fund to Treat AIDS, Malaria and
Tuberculosis(ph). That fund now has a few billion dollars in it. The goal is
to have $10 billion for HIV and AIDS alone each year, and an additional $3
billion for TB and malaria. And much of the conference focused on that fund
and how to build up its coffers.
A lot of criticism was directed at the United States because the world really
looks to the US to see how much it will contribute, and so far it has
committed $500 million. Many of the people at the conference argued that it
should be putting in $2.5 billion. And Tommy Thompson, the secretary of
Health and Human Services, in fact, was--there was a demonstration by
activists there who would not allow him to speak. And he read his speech, but
you couldn't hear a word of it. And much of their anger was directed at the
US contribution to the Global Fund which they saw as paltry.
GROSS: Is there speculation that the money would be higher were it not for
the war on terrorism? Is the war on terrorism seen as competing with money
for AIDS prevention and treatment?
Mr. COHEN: You know, I don't think so. I think that's used as a polemic by
people who want more money. They argue, `Hey, look how much you're spending
on this. Why don't you spend this much on that?' The argument--when you go
to the international AIDS meeting, it's really like getting in the space
shuttle and traveling to another planet. I mean, you arrive in this place
that has people from every nation with all different concerns who are watching
this virus destroy the Earth. I mean, that's really what's happening. And I
know that sounds overly dramatic and apocalyptic, but you can't go to this
planet and not see that. It's what's happening right now. So people pull out
all sorts of rhetorical arguments to try to wake up the world to this reality
that this is the worst epidemic humans have faced. And people may be tired of
hearing about it. They may be unconcerned because they're not connected to
it. The reality is we are at the beginning of this and so, you know, let's
GROSS: Now you mentioned that Tommy Thompson was jeered so loudly that no one
could even hear his address. Former President Clinton spoke at the AIDS
conference. What kind of reception did he receive?
Mr. COHEN: The audience loved Bill Clinton. He was his charismatic self and
he received a standing ovation. And I had a little bit of difficulty figuring
out what his role here will be. He didn't really describe it in any detail.
It's the first time he's come to an international AIDS conference. And the
back-room discussion in the press room, the journalists--many of us were very
confused because he elected not to speak with us. He did decide to speak with
a small group of reporters from powerful publications together, but they
didn't issue a pool report. There was no way for us to really know what
happened. And for many of us who have covered this for a long time, it was
sort of a bizarre experience to have him show up and then not really address
our questions, as most every other world leader does about what they hope to
contribute, where they fit in.
GROSS: Did Nelson Mandela meet with the press?
Mr. COHEN: Nelson Mandela did not, but he remains extremely accessible to the
press. So it wasn't as much of an issue. It's not hard for journalists to
reach Nelson Mandela. Traditionally, he goes for walks every day, and people
can join him for his walks. And I think there was a clearer sense of what
Nelson Mandela's role here is. Nelson Mandela spoke at the last conference in
Durban, and it was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever seen anyone
make. The whole room started singing his name and swaying, and it went on for
minutes. And I think anyone who was there will never forget that. His
symbolism is so very clear in a country that has 20 percent of the adults
infected, and his leadership in the face of Thabo Mbeki, the president of
South Africa, who has questioned whether HIV even causes AIDS, needed no extra
comment. But with Clinton, who's a newcomer to the arena here, I think there
are a lot of questions about where he fits in.
GROSS: You are the author of a book about the search for an AIDS vaccine.
Are we any closer to a vaccine, any new information about that, that came out
of the conference?
Mr. COHEN: Nothing new came out of the conference that made me think we're any
closer. There are more players involved now with deeper pockets than ever
before. There's some positive momentum with a few big pharmaceuticals really
trying to help solve the problem. The basic research news that came out of
the conference regarding vaccines was very sobering and depressing; made the
goal seem a little further away.
GROSS: What was that?
Mr. COHEN: Then again--well, one of the things that is curious about HIV is
it's difficult to find people who become infected who can become infected
again with another strain of HIV. That gives people hope that, hey, the
immune system can learn to defeat the virus. But at the conference there were
three very solid examples of people who became infected with a second strain.
It's called superinfection. And in one person, the researcher who made this
presentation showed that the person had a terrifically strong immune response
to his first virus and still could not defeat the second one. And that takes
the shine off at least that immune component as being the way to go.
Now nothing that's simplistic. It's a system. There are all these components
that fight the virus in the immunologic response. But there are always stars
that rise to the top and become the favorites of the field. And this
particular study really did take the shine off this one particular star, the
star du jour.
GROSS: So if the body can come down with one AIDS virus and not be immune to
a different strain of the AIDS virus, that makes it more difficult for a
vaccine to succeed against all viruses--these viruses?
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it does. It does. And there are lots of different strains
of the virus circulating in the world. So the simplest thing would be a
vaccine that protected you from the very strain you have. That would be the
easiest thing to train the immune system to do. But what you need in the real
world is a vaccine that protects you from absolutely anything you come across.
And that's the dream, and this conference made it seem like a little bit more
distant of a dream.
The flip side of the coin is there are vaccines in human trials. One of them
is in a full-blown efficacy trial and we'll have the information later this
year as to whether it works. It might. Lots of people in the scientific
community doubt it. I think the majority would say they have very low hopes
that it will work. But who knows? You have to do the experiment.
GROSS: My guest is science journalist John Cohen. He's a correspondent for
Science magazine and has an article in the current edition of The Atlantic.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is science journalist John Cohen. He's been following the
AIDS epidemic for years. He's the author of a book on the search for a
vaccine called "Shots in the Dark." Last week he was at the International
AIDS Conference in Barcelona.
Are any of the new AIDS drugs running into problems of drug resistance?
Mr. COHEN: Basically all drugs that aim to stop viruses or bacteria run into
problems of drug resistance. With HIV, it happens more quickly because the
virus accumulates mutations so quickly and it replicates at such a rapid rate.
So, yes, basically every drug that exists is facing drug resistance problems.
And there also is increasing evidence of people transmitting drug-resistant
viruses to each other. A study that came out at the end of last year showed
that 78 percent of people had some drug-resistant virus in their bodies, and
it's a staggering number of people. You can have some drug-resistant virus
and you can still respond to other drugs, but over time you're going to accrue
more and more resistance. That's the natural way of things. It's not going
to go in the other direction. And...
GROSS: Do you mean--was that a reference to 78 percent of the people with
AIDS have some kind of resistant drug or...
Mr. COHEN: Seventy-eight percent of the people with HIV infection...
GROSS: Right. OK.
Mr. COHEN: ...in the study--and it was a very large study--had evidence of
drug-resistant virus in their body--of at least resistance to one drug. There
are now 16 drugs that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration
in the United States, so you have a big quiver to choose from. But people are
running out and people are still dying from AIDS who are receiving the latest
treatments, so some of that is certainly due to drug resistance.
GROSS: The Global AIDS Fund is building a collection of money to be used for
the prevention and the treatment of AIDS, but what are some of the issues
behind how to actually use this money?
Mr. COHEN: It's a dizzying question and I think it was probably--in the
conference that was probably the most confusing question of all. Where does
the Global Fund fit in with other efforts? And then how should countries
receive the money? Countries have to asked the Global Fund for money and have
to lay out their plans of how they would spend that money. This is all just
getting off the ground.
And there are some people who are now calling for a militarylike operation
that has a master plan of how to go about stopping the virus on the globe as
though we were one people. Let's pretend for a moment that we are all in this
together; how should we best go about spending money? How much is really
needed? How much should each county devote to this based on gross national
product or some other formula? All these questions defy easy answers. And
they are ultimately what will decide who gets drugs when.
And right now in sub-Saharan Africa, which has about 70 percent of the
infections in the world, about 36,000 people are estimated to be receiving
treatment and it's trivial. There are six million people in the world who
need treatment now by the estimations of UNAIDS, and about 2 percent of them
receive treatment. We're failing. You can't slice it any other way. It's a
failure of the world. I mean, this virus takes apart societies. You have to
see, I guess, firsthand what happens in countries that have 20 or 30 percent
of the adults infected to just watch countries crumble.
GROSS: Which hard hit...
Mr. COHEN: There will be countries I think that may not exist in five or 10
years because of HIV. They may actually implode.
GROSS: Which countries are you thinking of?
Mr. COHEN: Botswana has 39 percent of the adults infected. Thirty-nine
percent--I mean, think about it. That's more than 1:3. What happens to a
country that has that much devastation? Now maybe treatments will come in and
prolong life enough in Botswana to make a big difference, but that's going to
take a giant effort. And Botswana isn't alone. It has the highest prevalence
of the virus, but there are other countries that once you get up, you know,
into the range of 15, 20 percent--I mean, just take a moment and look around
wherever you're sitting and count the people in the room and imagine a fifth
of them gone within 10 years who are 15, 25, 30 years old. I've been to a lot
of very hard-hit countries and, frankly, I get very depressed by it. And it
takes me a long time when I come home to sort of readjust myself.
Mr. COHEN: And I--and, you know, I'm not an activist. I'm a journalist. But
you can't go into this situations like this and not feel it. You'd have to
have a heart of steel not to.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. COHEN: Thanks so much for having me, Terry.
GROSS: John Cohen is a correspondent for Science magazine. He has an article
in the current edition of The Atlantic Monthly, and he's the author of a book
about the search for an AIDS vaccine called "Shots in the Dark."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.