Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Loreben Tuquero
By Loreben Tuquero June 9, 2023

No evidence of azidothymidine, or AZT, killing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people

If Your Time is short

  • We found no evidence that azidothymidine, or AZT, has killed "hundreds of thousands" of people. An expert said this claim is a conspiracy theory. ​

The erroneous narrative that the COVID-19 vaccines have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths is being deployed again for a drug developed in response to another pandemic that began decades ago.

"AZT is what killed a majority of the AIDS patients. Not the virus. Fauci pulled the same s—," read the caption of a June 5 Instagram post

The narrator in the video said, "My brother was killed by a drug called AZT. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died as a result of that prescribed poison. The pusher of AZT was none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci."

The post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

The video was excerpted from "Plandemic 3: The Great Awakening," the third installment of a series rife with conspiracy theories.

We found no evidence that AZT killed "hundreds of thousands" of people.

"This is a conspiracy theory that has been around since the 1980s and resurfaces again from time to time," said Marco Salemi, an experimental pathology professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in an email to PolitiFact. "There is absolutely no evidence or any scientific basis for it." 

Azidothymidine, or AZT, was first developed in 1964 as a potential cancer therapy but was shelved after it proved ineffective for that purpose. Also called zidovudine, it then evolved in the 1980s as a treatment for AIDS through a collaboration between the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and the National Cancer Institute. 

After promising laboratory tests, AZT was tested in humans for safety and effectiveness. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, AZT decreased deaths and opportunistic infections. But it came with serious adverse effects, including severe intestinal problems, immune system damage, nausea, vomiting and headaches.

A 1986 trial to gauge its effectiveness enrolled about 300 people diagnosed with AIDS. Participants were supposed to receive either the drug or a sugar pill for six months. But the trial was stopped after 16 weeks because evidence showed the drug was working. The group receiving medication had one death during the 16 weeks, while the placebo group had 19 deaths. 

Burroughs Wellcome said it would be unethical to deprive one group of a potentially lifesaving treatment.

Featured Fact-check

The trial results led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving the drug in 1987 as the first AIDS medication. It was considered a fast-tracked review by the FDA, which at that time usually took eight to 10 years on drug approvals. 

The drug worked by inhibiting reproduction of the AIDS virus in cells, prolonging some patients’ lives but not eradicating the virus in the body.

After the drug became available, documents from the trial were published suggesting there were problems with the trials. Some patients reportedly claimed they could tell whether they were taking the drug or a sugar pill based on the taste; patients shared medications to increase their chances of receiving the drug; almost half the AZT patients received blood transfusions that could have helped them better fight the virus; and a few patients had to be taken off AZT.

It soon became apparent that HIV quickly mutated, and people who were taking only AZT developed resistance to the drug in a matter of days. 

Scientists then tested combining drugs to combat drug resistance. A breakthrough came in 1996 when researchers found that triple-drug therapy, also known as highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART, could minimize HIV replication and create a high genetic barrier against developing drug resistance. 

This meant that combining AZT with other drugs improved effectiveness. A drug class called protease inhibitors, which were developed in the mid-1990s, was found to reduce the virus’s replication to undetectable levels. The National Cancer Institute said the number of AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. "declined rapidly" after the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy.

We found no evidence that AZT caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. We searched studies and news reports and found nothing to support that claim. 

Jonathan Appelbaum, clinical sciences professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine, said the clinical trials of AZT "clearly showed a survival benefit" and that it prolonged lives even when it was used alone.

Appelbaum and Salemi, the pathology professor, said that like any other drug, AZT can have side effects. "In general, however, there has never been any case reported in the literature, that I know about, of an HIV patient whose death has been linked to AZT use or abuse," Salemi said.

To date, the FDA has approved more than 30 antiretroviral drugs and more than 20 fixed dose combinations to treat HIV/AIDS patients.

We rate the claim that "hundreds of thousands of innocent people died" from taking AZT False. 

RELATED: A video clip shows Fauci plotted AIDS pandemic? Pants on Fire!

Our Sources

Instagram video, June 5, 2023

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Antiretroviral Drug Discovery and Development, accessed June 6, 2023

The New York Times, U.S. approves drug to prolong lives of AIDS patients, March 21, 1987

Time, The Story Behind the First AIDS Drug, March 19, 2017

Britannica, AZT, accessed June 7, 2023 

The Independent, The rise and fall of AZT: It was the drug that had to work. It brought hope to people with HIV and Aids, and millions for the company that developed it. It had to work. There was nothing else. But for many who used AZT - it didn't, May 2, 1993

National Cancer Institute, The First AIDS Drugs, accessed June 7, 2023

FDA, The history of FDA’s role in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, accessed June 7, 2023

The Lancet, Concorde: MRC/ANRS randomised double-blind controlled trial of immediate and deferred zidovudine in symptom-free HIV infection, April 9, 1994

Health Feedback, Claims that people were being killed by zidovudine (AZT) instead of AIDS are unsubstantiated, Sept. 6, 2021

Snopes, Did controversial AZT treatment kill more patients than AIDS in ’80s, ’90s?, Sept. 21, 2021

Email interview, Marco Salemi, experimental pathology professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, June 7, 2023

Phone interview, Jonathan Appelbaum, clinical sciences professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine, June 8, 2023

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Loreben Tuquero

No evidence of azidothymidine, or AZT, killing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up