Our Map to the Madness

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Nathan Lee, The New York Sun, April 30, 2004

© 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC

... On a more somber note, a disturbing and provocative inquiry into "The Origins of AIDS" (May 2 at 6:30 p.m., May 4 at 3:30 p.m., May 5 at 3 p.m.) deserves to be seen far beyond its Tribeca screenings. Directed by Peter Chappell and Catherine Peix and largely drawn from Edward Hooper's controversial 1999 book "The River," the documentary masterfully illustrates his thesis and expands on it with startling new reporting.

The first AIDS cases closely followed distribution patterns of an experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV) administered to a million Central Africans in the late 1950s. Many in the medical community believe that the chimpanzee SIV virus jumped to the human population to become HIV; Mr. Hooper speculates that the ethically dubious OPV program may have been responsible.

"The River" details persuasive evidence that chimpanzee kidney cultures were used in the formula, rather than those of the more usual macaque or rhesus monkeys, who do not carry SIV - a fact categorically denied by the medical establishment, who were quick to refute Mr. Hooper's theory at a Royal Society of London symposium in 2000. "The Origin of AIDS" returns to the former Belgian Congo, interviewing nurses and assistants who testify to the large-scale capture, housing, and killing of chimpanzees in a compound near the facility that administered OPV.

The fact now looks irrefutable: An enormous population of chimpanzees were being used for something here. But until an original sample of the vaccination is discovered and tested, the theory will remain just that. "The Origin of AIDS" ought to be making headlines; this extraordinary documentary is about why it never will.