Letter to Guardian

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It is most certainly not members of the Royal Society who should be criticised, but those who have backtracked about appearing at the conference, or worked to undermine it.

Two leading opponents of the "cut hunter" theory of origin, doctors Beatrice Hahn and Bette Korber, both readily agreed to speak when invited in January, but withdrew some weeks later after learning of those scheduled to speak in opposition. Doctors Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski, who helped produce the polio vaccine at the heart of this controversy in the late 50s, also floated the possibility of withdrawal, even though Plotkin had agreed to speak, and Koprowski to attend. The organisers were receiving correspondence from America, some of it from senior scientists, questioning - among other things - the balance of the meeting. At this point, they decided to postpone the event to the autumn, an unprecedented move for a Royal Society meeting.

The conference was never intended to be about my book, The River, but intended as a multi-disciplinary debate about how HIV and Aids began, based on a comparison between the only two really viable theories of origin: viral transfer from butchered chimp to hunter; or transfer via contaminated polio vaccine. This is still the schedule: all those invited to speak at the May meeting will be reinvited in the autumn. One hopes that some at least of the withdrawals will decide, after all, to participate in this open debate.

Edward Hooper
Bridgewater, Somerset