60 Minutes of Controversy

Lionel Resnick's appearance on 60 Minutes this past June was a high point in his career. The piece, narrated by Mike Wallace, examined the case of Dr. David Acer, the dentist thought to have transmitted the HIV virus to six of his patients in Jensen Beach.

In his interview with Wallace, Resnick challenged this accepted view, asserting that the scientific evidence of transmission generated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was far from conclusive. The doctor thus served as the linchpin of the segment, which suggested that each of the six patients might have contracted the virus through some other means A and implied that the CDC was guilty of a "rush to judgment" against the dentist.

Just three months after the program aired, Resnick himself faced implications of guilt, after he was accused of using his publicly funded virology lab at Mount Sinai Medical Center to conduct private research projects for which he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not only is the doctor now contending with questions about his finances, but even his cameo on 60 Minutes has become the subject of a monumental feud: CDC officials are still fuming about what they claim is dubious science by Resnick and a sloppy investigation by CBS.

In 1990 the CDC had employed a new method of DNA sequencing to show that Acer and his six HIV-infected patients had nearly identical strains of the virus that causes AIDS. The agency was also unable to uncover any other source of infection in these patients.

Resnick first became involved in the Acer affair later that year, as a paid consultant for CIGNA, Acer's insurance company. As he explained in a 1991 deposition, this involvement A for which he later would bill CIGNA approximately $300,000 A came at his own behest. "I wasn't contacted [by CIGNA]," he said. "I actually had a scientific curiosity to scientifically in my own way investigate this issue."

Resnick reanalyzed the data and concluded that the CDC had overstated the reliability of the DNA tests. By the time 60 Minutes came calling, he had also found what he claimed to be other HIV-infected individuals in the Jensen Beach area with no affiliation to Acer, but a strain of the virus similar to the dentist's.

Wallace was happy enough to report all this.
But he never mentioned that Resnick was on CIGNA's payroll, or that Resnick's data had been re-evaluated by other experts A and found wanting.

The initial criticism had come from two recognized AIDS researchers, James Mullins and Gerald Myers, who were hired as consultants by the CDC. They blasted Resnick's work as inaccurate and unreliable. A more distanced assessment came in the spring of 1994, when Dr. David Hillis of the University of Texas reviewed all the available DNA data from the CDC and Resnick. In a letter published in the magazine Nature, Hillis concluded that Resnick's results, if correctly interpreted, actually supported the theory that Acer had infected three of his patients, and cast doubt on only one case.

Wallace also neglected to impart that the U.S. General Accounting Office had reviewed the entire Acer investigation in 1992 and published a report supporting the CDC's conclusions.

"From what we could see, 60 Minutes had their angle and they were going to use only those facts that supported that angle," says Dr. Harold Jaffe, the CDC researcher Wallace interviewed.

Jaffe points to several other significant omissions. The show, for instance, made much of evidence indicating that Acer patient Kimberly Bergalis, the college student who lobbied Congress for HIV testing of health-care workers, had lied about being a virgin. But, as Jaffe points out, the CDC had tested the two boyfriends with whom she had been most seriously involved, and both tests had come back negative for HIV.

Wallace noted that Lisa Shoemaker, another of Acer's patients, "freely admitted to Dr. Acer's receptionist in 1989 that she believed it was an HIV-positive boyfriend, and not the dentist, who had infected her." He failed to report that this boyfriend had tested negative for HIV two months after Shoemaker tested positive. The boyfriend only tested positive months later, and the CDC subsequently determined that he had contracted a different strain of the virus.

Barbara Webb, an elderly schoolteacher, appeared to be the one patient least likely to have been infected through a source other than the dentist. But Wallace cast doubt on her story by noting that Webb had admitted to "at least one extramarital affair" and to having received blood transfusions, another possible source of infection.

Again, what Wallace didn't include was as significant as what he did. Webb's affair had occurred more than fifteen years earlier; her last sexual contact with the man was in the late Seventies, an era when AIDS was present in the U.S. only in low levels in large communities of gay males. The CDC also scrutinized Webb's original hospital charts and found no record of her ever having received a blood transfusion. "She apparently thought she'd received a transfusion," Jaffe says. "She was wrong."

The CDC representative insists he turned over all this information to 60 Minutes long before the Acer segment aired. "What we resented most was the implication that the CDC had some kind of vested interest in proving Acer had done this," Jaffe stresses. "The fact is, we were shocked when the DNA data came back. We were working from the premise that the dentist had not transmitted the infection, because we'd never seen a case like that before, and haven't since."

Josh Howard, who produced the 60 Minutes report, concedes a few relevant facts were left out. "If we had more time, we would have reported everything," Howard says. "But that wouldn't have changed the thrust of our story. We were basically raising a question, using information that the CDC had either failed to uncover or ignored. Overall, I think we did a helluva job. We must have, because the CDC has sure spent a lot of time mounting a PR campaign against us."

Indeed, incensed CDC officials recently wrote a lengthy paper disputing the 60 Minutes report. The article was published this past December in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Howard says a rebuttal is in the works.
On the advice of his lawyer, Lionel Resnick declined to speak to New Times about any matters, including his research regarding David Acer. "In relation to the Acer case, Dr. Resnick made a very controversial stand that has caused a great deal of animosity in certain parts of the AIDS research community," says attorney Richard Sharpstein. "Whoever is taking shots at him over that plainly has an ax to grind."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steven Almond