Laying Blame for HIV

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New book charges 1950s polio vaccine spread AIDS in Africa

[Commentary on The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS]

Laurie Garrett, Staff Writer

 Newsday, Tuesday 14 December 1999

EVER SINCE the AIDS epidemic began, it has sparked conspiracy theories. The latest, reincarnated from an idea forwarded in 1992, asserts that African polio vaccines of the 1950s were contaminated with the animal version of HIV and that a subsequent cover-up has hidden the evidence.

Pushing the theory that HIV was spread from chimpanzees to people in Africa via contaminated oral polio vaccines is British freelancer Edward Hooper, author of the voluminous new book "The River." Based on prodigious research, Hooper argues that American scientists Drs. Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin developed polio vaccines using chimp kidney cells as their medium at laboratories in the Congo and at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. In those chimp cells, Hooper charges, lurked SIV - the monkey form of the AIDS virus.

They unwittingly started the AIDS epidemic with their oral polio vaccine (OPV), Hooper charges.

Both doctors categorically deny using chimp cells and Hooper's allegations have let loose a firestorm of controversy within the scientific community and in some AIDS activist circles. Because of the book, several scientists have embarked on studies of old polio vaccine samples, searching for evidence of contamination.

Nobody is arguing that current polio vaccine supplies are contaminated. All sides in this fight urge worldwide vaccination.The debate centers on vaccines used in Central and Western Africa between 1957 and the mid-'60s. Hooper alleges that Belgian, French and American scientists unwittingly made contaminated vaccines.

"The central hypothesis of my book ... is that an experimental oral polio vaccine named CHAT, which was initially developed by Dr. Hilary Koprowski at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and later administered to more than a million Africans living in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi between the years of 1957 and 1960, represents the point source of the HIV-1 pandemic," Hooper said in a news conference at his publishers' office in Manhattan last week.

[This reporter must disclose that, for reasons never made apparent in the content of Hooper's 1,070-page book, I am listed as a member of the "Cast of Characters." Hooper never interviewed me, and though he refers on a couple of occasions to a book I wrote, he never portrays me as a player in the events.] Beyond intellectual interest in learning the origins of the HIV pandemic, which has cumulatively infected 50 million people and killed 16 million, the debate raises serious concerns. Professional reputations are at stake. The credibility of western public health efforts in Africa is questioned. And there are indications that "The River" has already sparked problems for western AIDS vaccine researchers in Africa.

"Mr. Edward Hooper's recent book and reactions to it have created great interest here [in Kenya] and elsewhere in Africa," wrote UNICEF immunization director Robert Davis in a letter recently distributed on the Internet. "We are now in the last stages of polio eradication in black Africa, and attacks on earlier strains of OPV are of no small interest to us." John Moore, an immunologist with the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Manhattan, was particularly critical of the book: He argued that "the only thing that's going to come out of this is more and more difficulty in getting cooperation for AIDS vaccine studies in Africa." Vaccine researchers in Uganda were delayed two years in conducting tests of a potential HIV vaccine because of strong suspicions of western intentions. "The River," some scientists argue, will simply exacerbate such tensions.

Coverage of Hooper's hypothesis in African newspapers has largely been favorable.

If Hooper is correct, a grievous error was made-and the largest pandemic of our time was the result of a terrible medical mistake. This idea was first raised in 1992 by freelance writer Tom Curtis in an article for Rolling Stone. Two South African scientists also published support for the notion back then in letters to the British medical journal Lancet.

In fall 1992, a committee of AIDS experts, led by Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, convened to review the allegations. Based on information available to them at that time, the committee rejected the polio vaccine hypothesis.

Hooper says the committee was the victim of a cover-up, executed by the Wistar Institute, several key scientists, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Belgian vaccine makers and others. He charges that samples and files have been destroyed, and that only a new committee investigation can lay his claim to rest.

Moore retorted: "He's arguing there's a cover-up back in the '60s-why would they make it secret that they used chimp kidneys when nobody knew about SIV and there was no reason to cover it up?" Nevertheless, Hooper argued at the news conference: "I believe that the evidence ... should now be analyzed soberly by a team of independent scientists." Leading such an investigation, he said, should be Drs. David Ho and Stanley Plotkin, British AIDS researcher Dr. Robin Weiss and Dr. Simon Wain- Hobson of the Pasteur Institute.

" ... This book has taken up so much time for so many people, whose efforts are better spent on real research issues. Let's move on," Ho responded.

Nevertheless, Plotkin and Wistar have initiated new studies. Samples of old vaccines and experimental materials have been sent to four independent laboratories for scrutiny, Plotkin said in an interview, and results should be published by February.

"My interest is not in proving things to but in providing the scientific community with as much evidence as it needs," Plotkin said. "To my knowledge there's no cache of protocols and materials that, unfortunately, could refute what he says. I have some materials in my own personal files that will bear on the issue, however." The controversy has consumed AIDS vaccine researcher Plotkin, and brought anxiety to 83-year-old Koprowski who, Plotkin noted, faces "the end of his career" under a "rather trying cloud." In a letter to the New York Times criticizing a favorable review of Hooper's book, Plotkin and Koprowski wrote: "We wish to state categorically that no chimpanzee tissues were used by us for polio vaccine production." The bottom line on "The River," in the absence of Plotkin's promised new data, leaves most AIDS experts skeptical for at least three reasons. First, there is evidence that HIV entered the human population well before 1957. Dr. Jaap Goudsmit thinks there were AIDS patients in Germany during the 1930s. At Los Alamos National Laboratory in Santa Fe, N.M., geneticist Bette Korber has used advanced computer techniques to date the mother of all HIVs - the point at which the virus first entered humans. Her work has not yet been published, but Hooper asserted last week that it would validate his 1950s date.

"Hooper has never seen my work or contacted me on this topic," an angry Korber said in an interview, adding that he is, "just guessing what he thinks we've done from rumors he has heard. He happens to be guessing incorrectly." Because her work will be published in a major scientific journal, Korber could not disclose further details of her findings. In previous published accounts, her research has indicated that HIV was, indeed, older than Hooper claims.

Hooper also fails to address a leading theory of the origin of HIV: the Lake Victoria hypothesis. Most genetic and epidemiological studies indicate that the epidemic is oldest in the Lake Victoria region, where its spread is now stabilizing. Leading researchers argue that HIV undoubtedly infected random individuals for centuries who were exposed to chimpanzee blood while hunting and butchering the animals. But the virus' spread into epidemic form, they say, occurred first in Uganda during the 1970s amid the brutal Idi Amin regime.

Whatever the origins of the worldwide epidemic, finger-pointing and animosity sparked by "The River" will no doubt linger. Hooper said that he has no intention of backing off on his hypothesis, even if every single sample of the 1950s polio vaccines turns up negative for SIV contamination.