The Emperor's New Clothes: Beatrice Hahn and The Latest Mumbo Jumbo

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Sadly, some scientists seem to believe that by repeating an untruth often enough, you can persuade the world that it is actually true.

One such group of scientists is that led by Dr Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama, whose members seem to be much more interested in trying to earn themselves grants and glittering prizes than in actually helping us understand how the AIDS pandemic began.

Part of the reason that they just might succeed in persuading the world of the fineness of the emperor's new clothes is that their wonky version of events happens to be one that is politically acceptable to certain governments and scientific bodies, notably those in the USA and Belgium. But more of that later.

Hahn and her colleagues, which include English molecular biologist Paul Sharp, and Hahn's husband, the virologist George Shaw, have just announced to the press that they have found the origin of HIV, the virus that has caused the AIDS pandemic. But this is not the first time that they've made this announcement. In fact, Paul Sharp made virtually identical claims in a speech which he delivered at the 13th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, in Denver, Colorado, early in February 2006. [I responded to his claims with an essay posted on this site on February 19th, entitled: New Claims from Paul Sharp - But Has the Source of HIV-1 Really Been Located?. That essay was quite detailed, and in it I attempted to be diplomatic. But since he and Hahn continue to promulgate nonsense and flamboyance dressed up as proof, I shall be briefer and more forthright in this present response.]

On the occasion of the Denver conference, Paul Sharp's speech engendered a certain amount of press coverage - but obviously it was not enough for the ambitious Dr Hahn. So now, three months later, the claims have been made all over again, but this time with even more gaudy packaging - and this time, the mumbo jumbo has been disseminated widely by the world's journalists. The alleged reason for the new announcement relates to an article by Hahn's group that is due to be published in "Science". However, the more cynical might surmise that the timing could be linked to the fact that the American public broadcasting channel, PBS, is just about to broadcast a major 4-hour special, "The Age of AIDS", in two segments of two hours each.

Hahn's ideas feature prominently in that programme too. Indeed, the main article on the accompanying PBS website features George Shaw stating: "It has become incontrovertible that the HIV-1 virus that currently infects over 60 million humans arose as a consequence of a single transmission event from a single chimpanzee in West Central Africa to one human."

Like so many of the other claims that emanate from Dr Hahn and her team, this statement is, quite simply, untrue.

What is Beatrice Hahn Actually Saying?

Hahn claims that she and her team have found the missing link between the simian immunodeficiency virus of the chimpanzee and the virus that causes human AIDS. This is because they have apparently found a version of the aforesaid chimp virus (SIVcpz) that is genetically closer to the human virus (HIV-1) than any previously discovered. This new strain was allegedly found in three groups of chimps living in south-eastern Cameroon. Hahn and Sharp theorise that this virus subsequently infected a chimp-hunter in or around 1931 and then (possibly through him or through another person infected by him) spread more than 500 miles south-west to the city of Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo, which is where they believe that the early brewing of the AIDS pandemic occurred. Hahn adds that their findings show "for the first time a clear picture of the origin of HIV-1 and the seeds of the AIDS pandemic".

Hahn and Sharp have still not revealed the degree of homology between their strain of SIVcpz and HIV-1. However, Paul Sharp is quoted by "The Times" (of London) as saying: "Particularly when you consider that HIV-1 probably originated more than 75 years ago, it is most unlikely that there are any viruses out there that will prove to be [more] closely related to the human virus" than their new chimp virus.

Even without knowing the degree of similarity of the new chimp virus to HIV-1, I believe that this is almost certainly an irresponsible and exaggerated statement to make. It comes from the world of advertising, rather than the world of science. Why do I say that?

Firstly, because Sharp's claim that HIV-1 is probably more than 75 years old is based on a faulty scientific model, and a very unscientific piece of analysis. He claims that the age of HIV can be calculated by estimating the rate of mutation of the virus, which, he theorises, happens at a constant rate, like a ticking metronome, which he refers to as a "molecular clock". Dating evolutionary rates by means of molecular clock theory works very well for most organisms, and indeed, for most viruses. Unfortunately for Paul Sharp, it doesn't work for the HIVs and SIVs. This is because, unlike most viruses, SIV and HIV are RNA viruses, and furthermore they are retroviruses. Other studies have shown that 90% of the evolution of retroviruses like HIV does not occur by mutation, but instead by recombination - a process whereby two viruses meet inside a cell and have sex, producing progeny which contain bits of each parental strain. (The process is very similar to two humans having sex and creating a baby.) Molecular clock analysis, although very good at measuring rates of mutation, is incapable of measuring rates of recombination. To attempt to do so is like trying to use a thermometer to measure the speeed of a car. In short, Paul Sharp's dating of HIV is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.

Secondly, very, very few groups of chimpanzees have actually been sampled for SIV, and knowledge of the incidence of the virus across Africa is therefore patchy, to say the least. So although up to now the SIV that is closest to HIV-1 has been found in Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) chimps, like the latest ones from Cameroon that Hahn is highlighting, this does not prove that the closest SIVs to the human virus will turn out to come from that country, or indeed from that subspecies. A very similar virus to the Cameroonian strain has been found among Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (Pts) chimps from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC (the former Belgian Congo) and Tanzania. Indeed, it was reported more than forty years ago that the blood characteristics of certain groups of Pts chimps from Mambasa, in the north-east of the Belgian Congo, were very similar to those of the Ptt chimps to the west. To date, only four distinct groups of Pts chimps have actually been sampled for SIV (three of which were found to be infected with the virus). In short, it is far too early for anyone to be claiming that they have found the immediate viral ancestor of the AIDS virus.

An Alternative to the Certainties of Doctors Hahn and Sharp

In fact, for reasons that are revealed elsewhere on this site, a far likelier explanation for how HIV-1 emerged in humans lies in the experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV) that was propagated locally in chimpanzee cells at the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville in the latter years of the 1950s, and which was then administered to up to a million African "volunteers" in the countries now known as the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi. (Sadly, the "volunteers" were in reality designated for vaccination by their colonial masters.) Almost the only new information that Dr Hahn has revealed in her recent press statements is that three of the chimp troupes which her group tested had SIV infection levels of up to 35% - even higher than previously thought. The 400-odd chimps used in the Stanleyville experiments had been gathered from an area of over 200,000 square miles in the north of the Belgian Congo, and if the same infection levels applied to these Pts chimp troupes, about 140 animals would have been infected with SIV even before they entered the chimpanzee holding centre.

It is therefore highly likely that at least some of the locally-made polio vaccine batches contained SIV from two or more chimpanzees, which would then have recombined in the tissue cultures, that were based on chimp kidney cells and nourished with chimpanzee sera. Vaccine batches grown in such cultures would have contained recombined chimpanzee SIVs (representing the seeds of today's HIV-1), and these batches were given to hundreds of thousands of Africans in thirty or more vaccination sites in the former Belgian territories.

As detailed in "The River" and in other articles on this web-site, these vaccination venues, these same towns and villages, are the very places where HIV and AIDS first emerged in the years immediately following.

Follow the Money

No wonder certain governments and scientists are so vehemently opposed to the OPV theory of origin of AIDS. No wonder the dubious "science" of persons like Beatrice Hahn and Paul Sharp is so strongly and repeatedly promoted by those governments, and by insufficiently rigorous media representatives in those countries. The governments - and the scientists who developed the vaccine - are assisted in their attempts to deny any responsibility for the world's worst infectious disease outbreak (a pandemic now thought to be responsible for more than 40 million deaths), even while the careers of certain helpful scientists are advanced, and assisted with generous grants.

One last point. When scientists exaggerate or make unsupported claims, when science is based merely on assertion, it encourages journalists to be just as sloppy. So it is that the article in "The Times" goes on to claim that the OPV theory does not "fit with the latest evidence".

This is incorrect. For two or three years I have been pointing out in essays the substantial historical (and anecdotal) evidence that Ptt chimps (like those from Congo Brazzaville and Cameroon) have been brought up the Congo river on the huge ferries, and sold in the town of Stanleyville (now Kisangani) at the end of the 1000-mile journey. Indeed, the fact that the Stanleyville scientists of the 1950s were known to be eager to purchase chimps must itself have increased the up-river trading of that species.

And just four weeks ago, I discovered documentary evidence to prove this hypothesis. I came across an ancient scientific article which proves that at least one of the chimps that the scientists of the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville were using in their experiments was indeed a Pan troglodytes troglodytes. (More details will be published in due course.) And though we can prove the presence of just one Ptt, it is likely that in reality, several dozen Ptt chimps were held by the Stanleyville doctors. Besides this, since the chimps were co-caged and group-caged, any virus such as an SIV - once introduced - could have spread far and wide inside the chimp holding centre.

People like Hahn and Sharp claim that they have refuted the OPV theory by applying the cool, clear light of science. But in their eagerness to advance their theories, and their careers, they are talking rot.

Their first "disproof" - that they are able to date the age of HIV-1 through the molecular clock theory, has been revealed as innately flawed, and is increasingly recognised as such by those scientists who have taken the trouble to check the facts.

And now their second "disproof" - the claim that the OPV theory involves "the wrong subspecies" of chimps - has itself been disproved.

Hahn and Sharp's approach is flawed, their analysis is flawed, and yet still they shout their claims from the rooftops. They are like minor noblemen, shrieking their praise for the emperor and his beautiful new gown. And while they diplomatically avert their eyes from the evidence, they make sure that their shouts are the loudest, the very loudest of all.

Ed Hooper. May 26th, 2006.