Michael Worobey’s Possession of 1950s Tissue Samples from Stanleyville (Kisangani)

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Michael Worobey’s first active participation in the origins-of-AIDS debate is believed to have occurred in late 1999, when Professor Bill Hamilton (a highly-respected evolutionary biologist, then rated by many as the “star” of the Royal Society) was seeking someone to accompany him on his second trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to test the SIV of wild chimpanzees.

Some background. Since I first met him in 1993, Bill Hamilton had been my mentor, and he wrote a powerful and highly supportive foreword to “The River”. In July 1999, after the book was completed but before it was published, Bill and I spent just over a week in the DRC, but we had some quite serious disagreements during the trip, which focussed on whether I was there mainly to help him with the collection of samples from local chimpanzees, or was also there to conduct my own historical research into Lindi Camp and the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville. We had obtained visas from the rebel government based in Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) that were good for six further months, and Bill in particular wanted to return there to do more research. Since he and I were, by late 1999, still going through a cooling-off period (and since I was busy dealing with the response to The River, published in September 1999), Bill looked around for a companion in his own Department of Zoology at Oxford University, and came across a young Rhodes Scholar, Michael Worobey, who suggested that they also bring along a Canadian friend of his, Jeff Joy, who had practical skills and experience of living in the wilds.

(Bill and I spoke regularly by phone in the final weeks of 1999, and good relations were restored between us. I had intended to drive up to Oxford to see him the day before his departure for the DRC, but was prevented when my car broke down. However, we did speak once more together when he called briefly by satellite phone from Africa.)

Hamilton, Worobey and Joy set off for Kisangani in early January 2000. The expedition enjoyed success in terms of locating faeces from wild chimpanzees, but worked less well on a practical level. While on safari Worobey got a scratch on his thumb which became infected, so eventually it was decided that he would return to Kisangani a day and a half before Hamilton and Joy, and carry out some of the chimp faecal samples. According to Worobey he was nearly too late, for by the time he got back to the city he had serious blood poisoning and the thumb almost had to be amputated. Hamilton, meanwhile, was declining to take any malaria prophylaxis, and within a few days he got a bout of what appears to have been cerebral malaria (just as he had done during our safari in July 1999). Shortly before they left Kisangani for Kigali, Rwanda, Hamilton became seriously ill, despite which he frequently refused treatments such as rehydration salts. Finally the Canadians managed to get him on board an onward flight to Entebbe, Uganda, where he was confined to a hospital bed for several days.

Eventually he appeared to have recovered, and the three men flew back together to London. However, after one night spent at his sister’s house, Bill again felt unwell, and was taken to University College Hospital in London. While waiting for blood tests, he experienced a massive intestinal haemorrhage, which was probably sparked by a pre-existing condition – and may possibly have been exacerbated by the aspirins he is believed to have taken to cope with the malaria. He fell into a coma from which he never recovered, and he died six weeks later.

While Bill was lying comatose, Mike Worobey flew back to Nairobi to get hold of the samples of chimp faeces which had for some reason become entangled in Kenyan customs. Later, at Bill’s memorial service, Worobey was praised warmly by Richard Dawkins for the role he had played in the expedition. At that service, Dawkins maintained that Bill was a fair-minded neutral who had gone to Africa to test an unpopular and controversial theory (the OPV theory).

This was misleading, in that by 2000 Bill Hamilton and I had been collaborating on OPV/AIDS research for seven years, and Bill was strongly persuaded that the OPV theory was correct. That the Dawkins account did not gain further credence was largely due to the efforts of Bill’s partner of his last six years, the Italian science writer Maria Luisa Bozzi. She read a paper at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei conference on “Origin of HIV” in 2001 in which she quoted from one of Bill’s letters to an Oxford colleague, which stated “I rate the chance at about 95%….[that] the OPV theory is right”.

From the start, I recognised Worobey as someone who was committed to his work, but was less sure about what to make of him on a personal level. He was a member of Eddie Holmes’ evolutionary biology group in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, which broadly supported the bushmeat analysis and molecular dating claims of Bette Korber, Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn. Worobey, however, claimed to be a fair-minded neutral who was not convinced by either theory (bushmeat or OPV). On several occasions he told me that the molecular dating of HIV-1 was a “dog’s dinner” because of its failure to take recombination into account. (He seems now to have set aside these reservations, although his reasons for doing so are not apparent.)

On the other hand, Worobey did not appear to be someone who was inclined to rock the boat. Indeed, he seemed to be in awe of certain leading figures in the origins debate, notably Beatrice Hahn and Robin Weiss, and he defended them vigorously against my charges that they had at times acted unscientifically. Broadly, his response to this seemed to be: “So you think you know more about this than they do, do you?”

At one stage in early 2002, I visited Oxford three times to discuss a possible collaboration with Mike Worobey involving the testing of samples from Africa, but I always made it clear that I was not going to put anything in writing in advance about the source of the samples that I might be able to help to provide. Despite this, I was eventually asked to contribute some paragraphs to his grant proposal, which I declined to do. Worobey apparently took umbrage, for he ignored a series of six e-mails I sent him over the next six months, and then when I challenged him to reply within 48 hours if he wished the collaboration to continue, he sent an inappropriately angry and defensive reply.

Soon after this, Worobey was appointed head of his own lab in Arizona, quite a coup for someone so young. And then in 2004, he published his brief communication in Nature (co-written with Beatrice Hahn, Paul Sharp and others) about obtaining an SIV sequence from a single Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii chimpanzee from the Parisi Forest, some 110 kilometres from Kisangani. In summary, they claimed that the chimp faecal samples gathered during the January 2000 safari with Bill Hamilton had not provided any evidence of SIV, but that urine samples gathered at the same time had given intriguing indications of SIV antibodies. Because of this, Worobey had returned to the Congo in 2003, and had obtained a single SIV sequence from a chimp faecal sample from the Parisi Forest. The SIV in question was apparently similar to pandemic HIV-1, but about 10% less similar to it than the SIV commonly found in Pan troglodytes troglodytes, the chimp sub-species originating from Gabon, Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville in west central Africa, a few hundred miles to the west of Kisangani/Stanleyville. The authors then claimed that the Lindi chimps (which by then I and others had identified as having been involved with the preparation of Koprowski’s OPVs) had originated only from “the vicinity of Stanleyville”. Without more ado they asserted that this one sequence of chimp SIV therefore constituted “direct evidence that these chimps were not the source of the human AIDS epidemic” – and went on to claim that they had “refuted” the OPV theory.

Their claim of having refuted OPV/AIDS was complete nonsense, but as usual Nature (where AIDS coverage is allegedly more or less controlled by Robin Weiss) did not publish my brief and pertinent letter of response.

Amusingly, this was the third or fourth time that claims alleging that the OPV theory had been disproved had been published in Nature and Science, all of them false.

There are several reasons why the claims made in Worobey et al’s “brief communication” of 2004 were incorrect, of which I shall itemise just three:

  1. The 400 or more chimps that were used in the polio vaccine research at the LMS and Lindi camp were not just gathered from around Stanleyville/Kisangani (as they claimed), but from right across a region spanning some 200,000 square miles of rain forest, which included areas such as Coquilhatville (now Mbandaka), where there is documentary evidence that Pan troglodytes troglodytes chimps were being collected and sold.

  2. It is true that most of the chimps the LMS scientists used came from the Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii subspecies of common chimpanzee and Pan paniscus (pygmy chimps or bonobos). However, there is documentary evidence that the LMS scientists also used Pan troglodytes troglodytes chimps in their research.

  3. There is also documentary evidence that chimps and bonobos at Lindi were frequently housed two to a cage, and that up to ten apes at a time used to be placed inside a large play-cage. Onward transmission of SIVs is known to occur when different species are caged together, so clearly there was potential for onward transmission of a Pan troglodytes troglodytes strain of SIV to either Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii or Pan paniscus.

Maria Luisa Bozzi was especially indignant and upset about the partisan conclusions that Worobey and his group had drawn in this Nature paper, which she considered a betrayal. She apparently sent Worobey a courteous note, in which she commended him for publishing something which related (albeit indirectly) to the work done on that final research trip with Bill. However, she also spoke with me twice on the phone during the days that followed, and here she was much more forthright. I still have the notes from one of these conversations. Dr Bozzi said she had always known that the young Canadian was ambitious, and that he had quite clearly been a supporter of the bushmeat theory from the very start, from even before the time of his safari with Bill Hamilton. (If she had always known this, it seems likely that Bill Hamilton would also have been aware of Worobey’s leanings in the debate.)

She also told me that Worobey had been telling people in Oxford (including Richard Dawkins) that Bill had “changed his mind” about the OPV theory during the January 2000 trip. The supposed evidence for this was contrived and flimsy in the extreme, and both Luisa and I concluded that Worobey might have been telling certain people what they wanted to hear.

By an unhappy coincidence, Luisa Bozzi died a few days later, after an unusually severe asthma attack. She was aged 64, almost exactly the same age that Bill had been at the time of his death.

The possibility of impropriety.

I am reliably informed from an anonymous source (with information that is largely confirmed by another source) that the one really old sample of HIV-1 that Worobey has managed to locate dates from 1960, and was allegedly provided by a patient from Leopoldville, Belgian Congo. It appears that he intends to make a molecular comparison between this HIV-1 sequence and that of the famous ZR59 sample of HIV-1 (obtained from a Leopoldville male, allegedly in 1959), and then argue that this “proves” that the HIV-1 epidemic must stretch back to before the time of the polio vaccine trials.

If so, then his analysis will once again be highly contentious. We know that virtually every Leopoldville child aged up to 5 years was vaccinated with Koprowski’s OPVs (the Type 1 polio vaccine, CHAT, and sometimes the Type 3 vaccine, Fox) in the months between August 1958 and April 1960. Older people, including adults, were also vaccinated with these strains of OPV in Leopoldville (Leo) during this period; (I have primary evidence of several such vaccinations). Besides this, a significant proportion of the adults vaccinated with Koprowski’s strains elsewhere in the Congo would be expected to have moved to the capital in the years around Independence, since (a) Leo experienced a huge population influx during those years, and (b) people tended anyway to head for Leo, where there were far better medical services, when they fell sick.

I believe it to be highly significant that (if Worobey’s alleged 1960 sample proves to be genuine) the two earliest samples of HIV-1 come from a place that was so extensively vaccinated with CHAT, and date from the years immediately after the start of the vaccinations.

Worobey’s 1960 sample apparently came from an adult, and many people (myself included, in the past) have concluded that the ZR59 sample must have come from an adult male. However, this is not necessarily so, for other sera coming from the same series of blood samples (also described in the original literature as having been provided by “adults”) have in fact turned out to have come from children as young as 3 years! Given the mass-vaccination of Leopoldville’s entire population of 0 to 5-year-olds between 1958 and 1960, this is potentially relevant.

In 2004, Worobey published his first major origins-of-AIDS article (the infamous “Contaminated polio vaccine theory refuted” communication in Nature) from his new lab at Arizona. Now in 2007 come the further inadequately-supported claims (especially those based on phylogenetic dating theory) in his latest article about the arrival of HIV in the Americas, and in his press interviews.

After publishing two major articles featuring exaggerated assertions about the age and origins of HIV-1, Worobey is now revealed to be a committed member of the bushmeat lobby. Furthermore, it is known from several different sources that he is closely linked to the Koprowski/Plotkin/Desmyter/Korber/Sharp/Hahn support group described below.

Worobey’s undeclared research.

What is most worrying, however, is the other work that Professor Worobey has been doing behind the scenes.

I am reliably informed that in the last year or two he has obtained the remainder of the ancient tissue samples (preserved sometimes in the form of paraffin wax blocks and microscopic slides, and sometimes in formalin, with or without another preservative known as buin) from the basement of what was formerly the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville (LMS), which served as the headquarters lab for the CHAT vaccinations in Africa in the late 1950s.

On the basis of the OPV theory, if there is one place in the world where one would expect to find samples of early HIV-1, it is Stanleyville.

But we now know that the people investigating this possibility also have a considerable vested interest in the results. In past publications, every one of them has shown significant bias towards the bushmeat theory, a theory that would fall apart if significant clusters of early strains of HIV-1 were found in Stanleyville in the late 1950s.

In April 2001, when I returned to Kisangani, this time accompanied by a film crew, I made a spirited attempt (with the help of the film-makers, who spoke far more fluent French than I) to ensure that at least a portion of the LMS basement samples would get tested at an independent laboratory. However, every submission we made to the then-Rector of the University of Kisangani (who was effectively custodian of the samples) was roundly rebuffed, and it soon became clear that shortly before our arrival the University of Leuven (represented by the then-head of virology, Professor Jan Desmyter), together with an arm of the Pasteur (where former Koprowski aide Stanley Plotkin occupied an executive position at the Aventis Pasteur pharmaceutical house) had both been in touch with the Rector to make formal requests to obtain access to the samples. It was also clear that the University of Kisangani, and in particular certain senior figures at the University, stood to profit significantly if they agreed to these requests.

Both Plotkin and Desmyter clearly had vested interests in these ancient samples: Plotkin because he had helped mastermind the development of CHAT vaccine and the planning of the African vaccination campaigns, and Desmyter because he had taken over the chair of virology at the University of Leuven, the same Belgian university that had collaborated with Koprowski and Plotkin in the African CHAT trials of the 1950s.

An attempt by a Belgian professor who was present in Kisangani at the time of our visit to illegally smuggle some of these samples out in his suitcase was foiled. It later turned out that this professor, who had been born in Kisangani and visited there annually dispensing Belgian government aid, was also directly collaborating with Plotkin and Desmyter.

This Plotkin/Desmyter collaboration began in late 1999 or early 2000. Together with Dirk Teuwen (an Aventis Pasteur employee who was put on secondment on full pay, and given to Plotkin to help him in his efforts to refute the OPV theory) and Abel Prinzie (a Belgian researcher who had worked on CHAT vaccine in the 1950s at the Rega Institute, a semi-independent commercial offshoot of the University of Leuven), they produced a vigorous defence of the CHAT trials, which they presented in the form of a postscript that was added retrospectively (and under conditions of great secrecy) to the published proceedings of the Royal Society meeting on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic”. [S. Plotkin et al., “Postscript relating to new allegations made by Edward Hooper at the Royal Society Discussion Meeting on 11 September, 2000”, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (London) B; 2001; 356; 825-829.]

I had a chance meeting in Antwerp in 2004 with Professor Paul Gigase, a Belgian doctor who had done research in the Belgian Congo and whom I had twice interviewed in the past. He told me that he also had played a role in Plotkin and Desmyter’s effort to obtain the LMS basement samples. Gigase said that in 2001 or 2002, at Desmyter’s request, he had flown to Kisangani with another Belgian professor, Francois Stepman (the head of VLIR, the Flemish aid organisation to the Congo) and acted as a sort of go-between. Among other things, he apparently persuaded the Kisangani professors to release at least some of the basement samples to the Desmyter/Plotkin group. The samples were apparently flown to Europe shortly afterwards, and Gigase told me that “a large number of blocks” were examined at the Pasteur, (presumably at the directions of Plotkin). Gigase clearly believed that Plotkin was bank-rolling the entire investigation (including the parts played by Desmyter and Teuwen) through Aventis Pasteur, and he expressed surprise that since the samples had arrived in Europe there had been no announcements about them, but only deafening silence. He indicated that he was beginning to regret the helpful role he had played.

Gigase also apparently interviewed one of my witnesses, an ex-worker from the LMS, on Desmyter’s behalf. However, Gigase apparently had not taken notes, and at different times he gave me differing accounts of what this man had allegedly said to him.

This is fascinating, because later, after “The Origins of AIDS” documentary was released, two Congolese professors from Kinshasa apparently flew to Kisangani to interview some of the other witnesses featured in that film. I have since discovered that during this process at least two of these witnesses were pressured – one of them through a financial inducement – to change their testimony on key issues. It is not known how successful this attempted cover-up may have been; all I can say is that one Stanleyville witness, at least, appears to have changed his testimony on one key issue after receiving a bribe. However, I have filmed evidence that this man spoke very differently when first interviewed.

But back to the LMS basement samples. In the last year or two, the remainder of these valuable ancient samples from the LMS have apparently been obtained by Michael Worobey, who has clearly taken over the work of testing them from Plotkin and Desmyter. Since Worobey is also dealing with ancient samples gathered from Leopoldville and elsewhere, one hopes that he is being scrupulously careful about the provenance and labelling of the samples.

What’s the worst that could happen?

There are now huge stakes involved in the outcome of the origins of AIDS debate. Under these circumstances, can one be absolutely confident that men like Plotkin, Desmyter and Worobey will issue accurate reports about the presence (or lack of presence) of HIV-1 in the ancient samples from the basement of the Stanleyville lab?

Alternatively, can one be absolutely confident that an HIV-infected slide or block originating from Stanleyville in 1958 will not end up being misreported as having come from, say, Leopoldville in 1955, or perhaps another place and time entirely (perhaps Ouesso in Congo Brazzaville in 1937, or some other place and year that ties in nicely with the bushmeat theory)?

The bottom line is that it only requires the participation of one unprincipled researcher (not necessarily one of the aforementioned persons) to effect a crucial change to the results.

In April 2001 the team that made “The Origins of AIDS” documentary and I did our best to make sure that at least some of the priceless LMS basement samples were distributed to different labs, and there independently tested. Because of the pressures and inducements from the Pasteur and the University of Leuven, we failed to persuade the Rector and his senior colleagues at the University of Kisangani to collaborate. I personally have continued these efforts since 2001, but apparently without success.

The fact that the LMS basement samples have, since 2001 at latest, been effectively under the control of scientists who have already shown that they are committed to one specific outcome (an outcome based on bushmeat theory) in the origins-of-AIDS debate means that there has been – at the very least – an opportunity for impropriety.

Because there is prima facie evidence that the origins of AIDS was a subject that was all but ignored by the medico-scientific community for nearly two decades, and that since 1999 a number of incorrect claims have been promulgated in the scientific literature, even the fact that there has been an opportunity for impropriety is of great concern.

What should have happened, of course, is that all the LMS samples should have been placed under the control of a neutral body (some might suggest a lab run by the WHO), and then aliquots from those samples should have been distributed to a variety of different labs to test. Instead, they have fallen under the control of Stanley Plotkin and his allies.

The fact that these samples were not placed under the control of a neutral and independent body means that there will always be the suspicion that the results may be skewed.

For instance, key early HIV-1 results from Stanleyville/Kisangani may have already been suppressed, and indeed, may never be published in the future.

Furthermore, there have clearly been potential opportunities for mislabelling of samples during the transportation and testing process.

This means that there will now be legitimate doubts about the authenticity of any other early HIV testing results that may be announced in the future.

Afterword.

For the record, I have received an anecdotal report from an unexpected source about the results of the HIV testing of some of these archival materials from the LMS basement, and I am currently trying to obtain confirmation of this information.

Ed Hooper. First version completed November 1st, 2007; this update version completed January 20th, 2008; minor changes made and posted on March 19th, 2008.

My sincere thanks to the four scientists from different disciplines and the one “armchair expert” who have read and made helpful comments on the text of this and the accompanying essay, “Michael Worobey’s wobbly research into the early history of HIV”. I have adopted many of their suggestions, but any mistakes that might exist are my responsibility alone. EH