Seeds of Doom - Chapter 5
Story of a controversial theory about the origin of AIDS
Chapter 5: The River
What does the word `slim` mean to you? The ideal physique? Marketing hype? The latest fashion trends? "Slim" is what they called AIDS in Uganda in the middle of the 80s. "Slim", because before it kills you, it renders your figure truly slender and light as air. "Slim" is also the title of Englishman Ed Hooper's first book<ref name="ftn80">(HOOPER, E., "Slim: One Man's Journey Through the Aids Zone of East Africa.", 1990).</ref>, which tells about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Uganda. "Now why", he asks himself, "do the Ugandans use an English word for this illness? It's obviously new for them, too! But in that case, what is its origin?"
Hooper analyzed all the theories on the origin of AIDS from the most far-fetched to the most plausible.<ref name="ftn81">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 151-69. Some of the theories, but not the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, has been reviewed by the important historian of medicine Mirko Grmek (GRMEK, M. D., J Hist Med Allied Sci , 1995); (GRMEK, M. D., Periodicum Biologorum , 1998).</ref> One of them, for example, said that HIV had fallen from the tail of a passing comet.<ref name="ftn82">The paternity of the theory is assigned to an astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle (NEWMARK, P., Nature , 1986); (MCCLURE, M. O., New Scientist , 1990).</ref> For a while another one circulated that suggested HIV was an organism, which had escaped from a laboratory for bacteriological weapons. Come on, when you first heard it you kind of believed it too, didn't you? According to the most popular version of this theory, HIV was created at the end of the 70s in a US military laboratory. The aim? To reduce the number of blacks, homosexuals and sinners.<ref name="ftn83">Different versions of this theory have been proposed since the mid-Eighties with the goal of discrediting American or Soviet researchers (MEDVEDEV, Z. A., J R Soc Med , 1986); (SEALE, J. R. et al., J R Soc Med , 1987) ; (SEALE, J., J R Soc Med , 1989). For more details (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 153-8.</ref>
But there's another variation. According to this theory, the Nazis invented HIV during World War II. They called it Virus Q so as not to confuse it with "H I V", "Heil Führer!" It was allegedly created in a German laboratory to exterminate the American army, which, as we know, is full of homosexuals. "Zo ze Erkräft was lodit zu go und bomp ze YOU ESS. But wenn ze Plän arrreifs über Afrika - obviously the most direct route to the States - Pech, bäd luck, eet kräschis und infekts Afrika". And the laboratory in Germany? "Ze day after, Pech, bäd luck, ze Royl Erfoss bomp ze Labor in ze Vaterland und so ze Epidemik begins in Afrika only, ausschliesslich!"<ref name="ftn84">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 152-3.</ref>
Other theories are more believable - and alarming. One, for example, concentrates on experimentation with monkey blood. In an attempt to cure syphilis, chimpanzee blood was injected directly into the patients: an ideal method for transmitting a virus such as HIV!<ref name="ftn85">(GILKS, C., Nature , 1991); (GILKS, C., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences , 2001).</ref> Another study records the grafting of particles of monkey testicles to the abdominal rectus muscle or the scrotum to induce sexual rejuvenation. It seems this practice was rather common at the beginning of the last century, but little documented.<ref name="ftn86">(GOSDEN, R. G., Nature , 1992).</ref> I wonder if it worked...
Then Hooper turned his attention to the "bushmeat" hypothesis. But he, too, asked himself exactly the same question: why now? In 1992 he read Curtis' article and, as a result, became involved in research on the oral polio vaccine theory.<ref name="ftn87">(HOOPER, E., Bmj , 1997). His first studies on early AIDS cases helped to reveal the HIV-negativity of the Manchester sailor and he catalysed the effort to sequence the HIV in the blood sample collected in Leopoldville in 1959 (ZHU, T. et al., Nature , 1998).</ref> And what did he discover?
Well, above all it was Hooper who found out that the Manchester sailor had not even been to Africa. The furthest point he had reached was Gibraltar.<ref name="ftn88">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 123-8, 193, 225-6, 335-6, 512-6. </ref> In addition, he managed to discover that the vaccination campaigns involved a much greater number of people. Not 300,000 as Curtis thought, but over a million people were vaccinated between 1957 and 1960 in 28 separate campaigns in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.<ref name="ftn89">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000), see pp. 742-743. Koprowski's polio vaccines were also tested on about 360,000 people in Switzerland and about 5,000 people in Sweden (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 328-337.</ref>
Hooper did research in several archives around the world. However, in the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, which contains documentation pertaining to the colonial administration in the Belgian Congo, precisely the files from October 1956 to July 1958.... missing!<ref name="ftn90">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000), see p. 530.</ref> In the successive documents, part of the correspondence between Belgium and health authorities in the Congo concerned, strangely enough, the safety of Koprowski's vaccine, because several small epidemics of polio had developed after the vaccinations.<ref name="ftn91">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000), see pp. 530-534.</ref> Some of these discrediting events were even reported in scientific journals at the time.<ref name="ftn92">(AGERHOLM, M., British Medical Journal , 1958); (AGERHOLM, M., British Medical Journal , 1960); (FOTHERGILL, W. C., British Medical Journal , 1960); (GARD, S., Bull WHO , 1960).</ref>
And what about the World Health Organization, who made it clear on several occasions that they had given no official consent for the Congo experiments and were plainly distancing themselves from the project.<ref name="ftn93">(PAYNE, A. M. M., British Medical Journal , 1958).</ref> Moreover, in a document in 1958, they stated that the vaccinations being carried out in the Congo were a glaring example of how such experiments should not be undertaken. Apart from this, the vaccinations were practically useless, the majority of the African population being naturally immunized at birth. What do you think? Did the Belgian authorities in the Congo go to each African and say, "look, this is an experimental vaccine, we're not really sure that it works and we're not even sure if it's safe, the fact is you probably don't even need it, but will you agree to take part in the experiment anyway for the benefit of the Western countries?
OK, I know I shouldn't make such a case out of it. In Koprowski's time ethics in scientific experimentation were just at the beginning. Now these things no longer happen. But then, how is it possible that Koprowski tested an experimental genetically-engineered rabies vaccine on some cattle in Argentina in 1985 without proper authorization and without notifying the farmers or the local population, who continued to drink the milk from those cows?<ref name="ftn94">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see p. 449.</ref> But if we go into this any further we'll be here all night and I won't be able to tell you the whole story.
On top of that there's a real problem with the theory. Up until the SV40 case, Asian monkeys were used, right? Then they started to use African green monkeys. In certain rare cases baboons were used. But the ancestors of HIV-1 and HIV-2 are found in chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, which were never used in the production of vaccines. Therefore the theory is invalid. Period.<ref name="ftn95">In fact, Curtis was wrong pointing to the African Green Monkeys. He did notice that "Koprowski's uncertainty on this issue only enphasized that almost any species of kidney could have been used", but Hooper replied that chimpanzees were "a much likelier bet" (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see p. 227.</ref>
But are we sure that chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys were never used?<ref name="ftn96">The Wistar Institute Panel Report noted that "around the time of the vaccine trials, however, the Indian government put an embargo on monkey exports and thus monkeys of African origin may have been used".</ref> Sabin for instance was always very explicit in his articles and always referred to the species of Asian monkey used.<ref name="ftn97">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 246-7.</ref> Whereas Koprowski... In his articles at the time, Koprowski was never specific about the type of monkey used. (!) Is it possible that nobody asked Koprowski what kind of monkeys he used? Koprowski has three alternative versions: Indian monkeys, African green monkeys and Philippine monkeys.<ref name="ftn98">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 245 citing (CURTIS, T., Washington Post , 1992).</ref> "The laboratory records were lost in a move." - his exact words.<ref name="ftn99">See for instance (HOOPER, E., Science as Culture , 2000); (TYER, B, Houston Press , 2000); (BURTON, T. X. X., POZ Magazine , 2000).</ref>
But is it at all possible chimpanzees were used in the production of Koprowski's vaccine? Here we have another dramatic surprise: both Curtis and Pascal indicated the existence of a large colony of chimpanzees in the Belgian Congo in 1958.<ref name="ftn100">(COURTOIS, G. et al., British Medical Journal , 1958).</ref> Hooper discovered from various sources that more than 400 were kept there, the largest chimpanzee colony in the world at the entire disposal of Doctor Koprowski! To produce polio vaccine perhaps? Officially to test his vaccine which was a completely useless measure. But let's not get into animal rights, at the time there wasn't even any respect for the rights of the Africans, so you can imagine those of the animals. However, their numbers are clearly disproportionate.
One document mentions that chimpanzee kidneys were sent to the US to produce tissue cultures, but for a different research project on hepatitis.<ref name="ftn101">(DEINHARDT, F. et al., Am J Hyg , 1962)</ref> So chimpanzee kidney cultures were in fact used. What would have been the motive not to use them for the production of polio vaccine? If you ask any virologist who was active at the time, he will tell you: the price. Obtaining kidneys from chimpanzees was more expensive than using those of lesser species. But if you had 400 at your disposal? Pascal even speculated that the name of the vaccine, CHAT, could have stood for CH impanzee AT tenuated ...<ref name="ftn102">(PASCAL, L., Science and Technology Analysis Research Programme, University of Wollongong (AUS) , 1991). For other hypotheses on the meaning of CHAT (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 411-9.</ref>
OK, so let's say the oral polio vaccine theory is true. That would explain the HIV-1 epidemic. But how do you explain the HIV-2 epidemic? Well, Koprowski wasn't the only one to test his vaccines in Africa. In a test carried out in Morocco in 1953, about 6,000 babies were vaccinated with a so-called polio vaccine, which two years later turned out to contain a parasitic rabbit virus, fortunately harmless for humans.<ref name="ftn103">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 299-300. </ref>
Then there was Pierre Lépine of the Pasteur Institute who also did experiments.<ref name="ftn104">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 296-305, 618-9. One can suspect that other French vaccination campaigns were also conducted in their African colonies, but the Pasteur archives didn't furnish elements of proof. (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 852-8.</ref> One was recorded in Mitzic in 1957. Where's Mitzic? In Serbia? No, it's in Gabon! 2,000 people were vaccinated within a few days and the only reference to the test in scientific literature was in the last two lines of an article about something else.<ref name="ftn105">(ANDRÉ, L. J. et al., Med Trop (Mars) , 1958)</ref>
But lo and behold in 1994 in the region of Gabon another AIDS epidemic was discovered which had nothing to do with HIV-1 or HIV-2.<ref name="ftn106">(CHARNEAU, P. et al., Virology , 1994). </ref> HIV-3? No, because after an in-depth analysis it was revealed that this new virus belonged to the chimpanzee SIV family after all, so it's a bit similar to normal HIV-1, which is found everywhere in the world.<ref name="ftn107">HIV-1 Group O, at first meaning "Outer", to distinguish from HIV-1 Group M, for "Main" (mainly localized in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Nigeria). A new strain, Group N (for non-M, non-O), rare and localized in Cameroon, was later identified in 1998 (SIMON, F. et al., Nature Medicine , 1998).</ref> However, one thing is clear: this is a further example of a separate and independent passage of a virus from chimpanzee to man.
The first trace of this particular variation of HIV-1 goes back to 1962, to the case of the Norwegian sailor. But wasn't the sailor from Manchester? Not that sailor, another one. This one was in Cameroon between 1961 and 1962, contracted HIV, transmitted it to his wife and children and the whole family died in 1976.<ref name="ftn108">(FROLAND, S. S. et al., Lancet , 1988).</ref> Blood samples were preserved, and in 1997 it was discovered that the virus of the Norwegian sailor was precisely this other HIV-1.<ref name="ftn109">(JONASSEN, T. O. et al., Virology , 1997).</ref>
And as the first cases of HIV-2 were recorded among some Portuguese veterans around the middle of the 60s, is it not possible that the Portuguese were also developing their own version of a vaccine in East Africa using, for example, sooty mangabeys?<ref name="ftn110">For this hypothesis Hooper couldn't find documents to sustain his thesis. (HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 2000) see pp. 640-3. </ref>
Edward Hooper, "The River: a journey back to the source of HIV and AIDS", 1999.<ref name="ftn111">(HOOPER, E., "The River : A Journey to the Source of Hiv and Aids.", 1999) The first edition was published in 1999, the second (an extended paperback version) in 2000.</ref> Ten years of research. Thousands of documents consulted in dozens of archives, American, European, African. Hundreds of hours of interviews. All of it printed by one of the biggest publishing houses in the world. It could not be ignored as Pascal was, nor could it be silenced by a lawsuit as Curtis was. (The cover's different because this is the pocket edition.) More than a thousand pages.
A tough read!<ref name="ftn112">The comment is intended to be ironic. Although "The River" is a 1,100 page book with 270 pages of notes, it has been found highly readable by most of its readers.</ref>