Course of a Killer Virus

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Copyright 1999 South China Morning Post Ltd.
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)

For those under the age of about 35, it would be hard to remember a time before Aids. Since the virus was first noted among Los Angeles gays at the start of the 1980s, we have learned to live under the shadow of a deadly menace that has infected about one per cent of the world's population. Yet there was a time before Aids. As scientists race to develop cures or vaccines that could stem the disease, the question of when and where Aids started, or more to the point, how it started, is largely overlooked.

But for former UN official and BBC correspondent Edward Hooper these questions have been the subject of a nine-year crusade. Since 1990, he has spent thousands of hours in libraries becoming an expert in various scientific branches and conducted more than 600 interviews spanning several continents.

There has been no shortage of theories to explain the origin of Aids. About the only consensus is that the disease crossed over from being an African monkey virus harmless to its hosts to one that was lethal to the human immune system. Divine punishment, a CIA experiment gone wrong, or just a chance infection of hunters by African monkeys? Hooper manages to put such ideas in their place quickly.

The author likens his search to following a giant mysterious river to its source, hence the book's title. Hooper followed many other tributaries on his voyage up the Aids river and many of them quickly came to dead ends, while throwing up intriguing information along the way. There is the case of a Manchester sailor who died of Aids-like symptoms in 1959, but who turned out to be a red herring.

Hooper relates how British sailors were used as guinea pigs deliberately exposed to atomic clouds in the mid-1950s. The Americans similarly unleashed radiation and even biological agents on unsuspecting populations. Through all of this, he treks relentlessly to what he believes to be the source of Aids - that it emerged as a result of oral polio vaccinations (OPV) given to millions in Africa during the late 1950s.

As might be expected, the former vaccinators are not exactly in a hurry to admit that they may have started Aids; think of the law suits and compensation claims.

Central figure in the controversy is one Hilary Koprowski, a hard-driven, ambitious - even ruthless - but brilliant scientist who was one of the leading pioneers of OPV. Most of the evidence is circumstantial, although persuasive nonetheless.

Koprowski and others were developing vaccine prepared from live but weakened polio virus grown in monkey cells. There are a lot of ifs to the theory. If chimpanzee (carrier of the closest simian virus to Aids) cells were used; if simian Aids was unknowingly present in the vaccine; if it survived preparation of the vaccine; if the virus was transmittable orally to the vaccine recipients.

Hooper is not the originator of the theory, but thanks to his investigations, many of the pieces fit. What is more, he convincingly shows that the vaccine distribution fits the march of the disease across Africa in both time and place.

What he lacks is hard evidence. Crucially, Koprowski failed to record many details about vaccine preparation, most notably the kind of monkeys used, nor can he recall much of which vaccines were used where. Mystery also surrounds a chimp research facility he set up in the former Belgian Congo in which up to 400 chimps were killed to test vaccines.

This is not the only aspect that would raise ethical questions today. There is Koprowski's use of women prisoners and mentally handicapped children in the United States as guinea pigs for largely untried live vaccines, not to mention the millions of Africans.

Many of the scientists interviewed reject the OPV/Aids theory out of hand, but others are more ready to listen. Koprowski himself has reacted with fury and writs.

"The magnificent response to the OPV/Aids theory would have involved a handing over of keys to filing cabinets and freezers, so that other scientists could independently examine the evidence," Hooper writes.

"However, the impact of the Aids epidemic has been so enormous, the human tragedy so great, that nobody should be surprised that the response has been rather less scientific, less noble."

In trying to unravel the mess, Hooper gets tangled up in a web of medical and scientific detail that perhaps only he and a select bunch of scientists could understand.

After the initial revelations of Cold War skullduggery and scientific blunders, the minutiae start to overwhelm.

That such detail is necessary to build his case against OPV is beyond doubt, but the author might have served his ends better in trying to produce a more slim-line and focused book. The couple of thousand footnotes alone run to 200 pages.

As it is, he adopts an elegant but longwinded narrative style to tell his story: "I felt it would enable not just the scientific information about the likely genesis of an epidemic to be detailed, but also something of the process of discovery," the author writes. "Furthermore, I hoped that this might help demonstrate how it was that so many of the original protagonists had developed memory loss about this particular period, and how it was that other members of the scientific establishment - including the great and the good - could have failed to spot (or to investigate) the evidence that lay beneath their noses."

Evidence may yet emerge to disprove (or prove) the OPV/Aids hypothesis.

Until that happens, Hooper's work here will remain an astounding feat of scientific investigation and potentially one of the most important books of the century.

The River, Edward Hooper, Little, Brown, $ 350

GRAPHIC: Deadly prevention . . . the oral polio vaccine, given to millions in Africa in the late 1950s, is pinpointed by Edward Hooper as the likely source of Aids.