As soon as AIDS came to the public’s attention in the eighties, skeptics alleged that it was less a public-health crisis than evidence of institutionalized evil. The most popular theories suggested that the disease was engineered by the government or military contractors and released into the population via vaccinations, drug tests, and even routine checkups.
The theories persist in part because of how information travels and mutates around the world, when anyone with a few letters after his name can seem vaguely authoritative. Many such theories trace back to a 1985 article by a German biologist named Jakob Segal that detailed how military researchers at Maryland’s Fort Detrick accidentally disseminated the virus via experiments on prison inmates (the article was later revealed to be part of a misinformation campaign hatched by the KGB). A retired dermatologist named Alan Cantwell self-published a series of books advancing a similar thesis in the late eighties, while a dentist named Leonard Horowitz suggested that the AIDS crisis had resulted from government-mandated vaccinations. These ideas found a zealous audience among marginalized communities that were disproportionately affected by the disease. In one famous example, a South African health minister distributed a chapter on the AIDS conspiracy from Bill Cooper’s fantastical Behold the Pale Horse as fact.
The AIDS-as-bioweapon theory sits within a larger and older community of HIV/AIDS denialists, who believe that the medical community’s consensus around HIV/AIDS has been shaped by some combination of government conspiracy, Big Pharma, and political correctness. What’s ultimately chilling is that these theories drew their narrative power from real-life precedents like the Tuskegee experiment, a decades-long study of the untreated effects of syphilis, administered under the guise of providing thousands of poor African-Americans free health care.