Professor John P. Moore replies to "Plotkin's chums (1)"

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The following e-mail was received from Dr John P. Moore on November 24th, 2004. Entitled "Your recent diatribe", it is a response to my essay entitled "Plotkin's Chums (1)".

It reads as follows:

Dear Mr Hooper,  

I have been forwarded your recent posting:
"Plotkin's chums (1): Eminent scientists sign their names to falsehoods, in a bid
to protect Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski".

I'm not going to spend much time on a matter I regard as of little importance,
but I will make a few points:

1) I'm mortified by having signed my name to a letter that contains errors of
punctuation and grammar and I concede that, on this issue at least, you are
in the right. I'll take the appropriate measures to ensure there is no repetition,
such as enrolling in a remedial English class.

2) While I may be guilty of the above mistakes, I am most certainly not politically
naive. I assumed that a letter of this nature would be leaked to you, and frankly I
couldn't care less that it has been. It was not intended to be a secret, at least
not from my perspective.

3) It is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior to assent
to the contents of a letter drafted by someone else; there is nothing "conspiratorial"
about such an action.

4) It is entirely possible to enter into a controversy situation
as a neutral and to become polarized in one's views by the balance of evidence. When I
reviewed your book for Nature, I read it with an open mind and wrote my review
accordingly. You may not like my opinion about your book (if you re-read my review
you will see that it was both flattering and not), but you should not assume that
it was written by or for other scientists. Since then, I have become convinced that
you are wrong and that, worse, you are misleading the public.

5) I did not sign the aforementioned letter to "protect Stanley Plotkin and Hilary
Koprowski". These gentlemen are eminently capable of looking after themselves, and
they certainly don't need my protection. Instead, I signed the letter because I
consider you to be a menace to public health. The public is easily confused on
scientific issues, and it is the responsibility of professional scientists to minimize
that confusion. A film as biased as the one in dispute here stands to persuade members
of the public that your claims have merit, when I don't believe they do. Although a
letter to a film festival is unlikely to be decisive, o r any influential, it is
something that I felt should be done.

John Moore
John P. Moore, Ph.D. Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
1300 York Avenue, W-805 New York, NY 10021
phone: 212-746-4462 fax 212-746-8340

There are several interesting aspects to John P. Moore's letter. Many of them were brought out by a friend of mine, a scientist at the University of London, to whom I forwarded Moore's response, requesting his thoughts on it. His response, entitled "Moore - ad hominem, ad nauseam", read as follows:

"Regarding Moore's email, I can't say I find it surprising. Most notably of course he 
fails to address any of the falsehoods that you pointed out in the original letter to
which he was signatory. He totally ignores every single one. As to the abuse, I guess
you're getting rather used to all that, but "a menace to public health" is rather
damning and so very far from the truth! As is "misleading the public". Even if the
OPV/AIDS theory is wrong (and I don't think it is) the way you have approached this
is examplary and has opened everyone's eyes to what has been and is still going on
in the medical and scientific arenas. It's odd that he attaches "little importance"
to the subject, yet is willing to write to a film festival regarding it. His sarcasm
about the bad spelling/punctuation is mis-placed. You were only ever pointing out
that this was a common factor between the different letters, rather than taking the
individual writers to task on this (trivial) issue. As to there being "nothing
conspiratorial" about the letters, I would be inclined to disagree. Surely by
coming together to achieve the same (misleading) end, they must by definition be
"conspiring". His reasons for signing do not sound very truthful. If he really wanted
to "minimize that confusion" he could do it in a much more straightforward and honest
fashion. It does clearly show what you're up against! Nothing else to do but keep up
the fight.
Best wishes...."

In addition to these very welcome comments, I would like to add the following thoughts of my own.

Despite welcoming the more civil tone of this letter (a marked contrast to the blind rage of John Moore's two previous e-mails to me), I find that I disagree with almost every aspect of his letter, from the false modesty of his point (1) to the unpleasant and inappropriate accusations ("a menace to public health") that he is unable to resist inserting towards the end.

One subject, however,on which I do agree with Moore is that there is nothing innately wrong in signing one's name to the contents of a letter drafted by someone else. That said, there clearly is something wrong with doing this if the letter in question contains distortions and untruths, which, as I have made clear in the essay, this one does. Furthermore, Moore knows that it does. His protestations of innocence are therefore evasive and disingenuous.

I do not believe that Moore had an open mind when he wrote the Nature review. What I know is that one of the scientists with whom Moore spoke about The River during his drafting of his Nature review felt that even at that stage he was gunning for the book. I think that this innate bias is revealed in the published review, a bias that is even more frankly revealed in statements he made soon after this, for instance in the review which he posted anonymously on [see below].

Moore's claims that he attaches "little importance" to the subject echo the claims he made in letters to newspapers in the year 2000, shortly before the Royal Society meeting, in which he slammed The River, belittled the origins debate, and loudly asserted that he was not going to appear at the meeting because he had better things to do with his time. (He neglected to mention that he had not even been invited as a full speaker.) In the end, when he discovered that all the major scientists in the field were going, Moore did after all attend the meeting and, while there, apparently provided support and sustenance to the Plotkin camp. Furthermore, during the months preceding and following the meeting he made repeated attempts, both public and private, to influence others against the OPV hypothesis. These are not the actions of a man who attaches "little importance" to the subject. They are the actions of a frank propagandist for Plotkin, and of a man who's a bit of a hypocrite, too.

The central plank of Moore's e-mail seems to be his attempt to argue that he has acted, and is acting, in this matter in good faith. I would question that. It may be, of course, that Moore genuinely believes that he must be right simply because he is a "professional scientist", and I am not. However, I don't think he is that naive. A man who is intelligent (as Moore undoubtedly is) and wise would most certainly take the trouble to educate himself in his subject before making public pronouncements about it. Yet, though he is very well-educated in the field of AIDS vaccines, John Moore is manifestly not well-educated in the origins-of-AIDS debate.

The scientific "evidence" against the OPV theory on which he relies is creaky at best, and at worst non-existent. (He is undoubtedly aware of at least some of the flaws and shortcomings in that evidence, but he ignores anything that doesn't fit with his position.) The testimonial evidence that he has already seen in the "Origins of AIDS" film is overwhelmingly against Koprowski and Plotkin - and there is a great deal more of it besides. His only counter-argument is to attempt, rather weakly, to discredit that testimony.

For whatever reason, John Moore is fighting on the wrong side in this debate.

With his assertion that "I am most certainly not politically naive", I believe that Moore goes some way towards admitting that he acts knowingly in this debate - and that his manipulation and distortion of facts are part of a conscious attempt to achieve certain political ends. What are those ends? I think Moore's position is that the OPV theory must be opposed, come what may, because if widely accepted it would innately harm people's faith in vaccines in general. Thus Moore is able to rationalise that his actions are "for the greater good", meaning that (whatever new evidence is presented to support the OPV theory) he will continue to oppose it by fair means or foul.

One of the repeated tactics used by Plotkin and Koprowski (a tactic which is then parroted by acolytes such as Moore), has been to claim that there is evidence that The River has deterred people, in recent times, from taking polio vaccines. I have investigated every example of their so-called evidence on this subject. Certain of the so-called supporting articles are incorrectly referenced (a ploy that is a favourite of Dr Koprowski who, when he doesn't have a reference to support a certain argument, seems to have no scruples about fabricating one. I now have several examples of his doing this.) But not one of these referenced articles actually states what Plotkin and Koprowski claim. In reality, there is not a single piece of evidence to link rejection of modern polio vaccines in places like Kenya and Nigeria to the OPV theory - a theory which raises questions about the safety only of one particular vaccine, an experimental polio vaccine given to a million Africans in the 1950s. As I have repeated at every opportunity for the last five years: as far as is known, modern polio vaccines are safe. What Plotkin, Koprowski, Moore and the others are engaged in is a smear campaign.

A clue to what Professor John P. Moore is really after can be found in his Amazon review of The River, copied below. In it, he writes that: "Great damage could easily be caused to ongoing efforts to make AIDS vaccines for use in Africa if a climate of mistrust with western medicine is created by this book." Moore apparently likes to think of himself as a bit of an iconoclast, a plain-speaking free-thinker, but this reveals him rather as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, determined to protect the hegemony at all costs. He fails properly to address the question of whether the OPV theory has merit. His bottom line is a much simpler one: that theories which might encourage the general public to question the wisdom and integrity of scientists and vaccine-makers are not things to be welcomed. What, it seems, is vital from his perspective is that the apple-cart not be upset, and that Joe and Joanna Public should not be encouraged to question the safety of the next vaccine on the horizon.

John Moore spends most (but sadly not all) of his time working on AIDS vaccines, and his research in that field is valuable and welcome. (That said, it should be borne in mind that not only persons vulnerable to HIV would benefit from a successful AIDS vaccine, but also the doctors and pharmaceutical companies who develop it.) However, Moore's interventions in the OPV debate are very different, and they only encourage the perception that all too many modern-day scientists lack a basic sense of integrity.

My main objection to John Moore is that he likes to present himself as an educated neutral in this debate. He is not. He is ignorant of (or is it just ignoring?) most of the salient information in this debate, be it historical or scientific. In reality, he is something quite different. He is a belligerent propagandist for those who planned and carried out the tests and trials in central Africa in the 1950s, most notably Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin.

In summary, John Moore's latest e-mail to me fails to address any of the charges of inaccuracy and misrepresentation that I have made against him. Stripped of its spin, his response is merely an attempt to justify the dubious and partisan role that he has played in this debate over the last five years.

Ed Hooper. December 17th, 2004.

An review of "The River" by "a reader".

39 of 65 people found the following review helpful:

Don't believe the central idea in this book, November 15, 1999

Reviewer: A reader

"I write as a professional AIDS researcher and retrovirologist. While "The River" is a wonderful read on the earliest stages of the AIDS epidemic that continues to devestate Africa, I urge readers not to believe the central idea that the author promulgates. HIV did not enter the human population from contaminated polio vaccines, and to argue that it did is irresponsible, based on the scientific evidence available. Great damage could easily be caused to ongoing efforts to make AIDS vaccines for use in Africa if a climate of mistrust with western medicine is created by this book. One should never confuse speculation with real, hard facts, but while "The River" is long on the former, it is very, very short of the latter. The chain of events proposed by the author is improbable, to say the least; only one link has to break before the edifice falls, and none of the links is strong. The author would have us believe that chimp kidneys were used to prepare poliovirus vaccines, but he can't prove his point, only theorize. He argues that the kidneys were contaminated with chimp viruses that were precursors of HIV. But where's the evidence? And kidney cultures are very, very poor (at best) ways to grow HIV and its simian cousins. The timing of the cross-over of HIV from animals into humans is also wrong; this occurred decades prior to the poliovaccine experiments of the late 1950's, as will become clear in scientific publications early next year. And there was no "cover-up" in the scientific community. This makes no sense; what would have been the motivation in the late 1950's and early 1960's for polio vaccine researchers to disguise what they did? Nobody knew about HIV then. So, read this book by all means; if it awakens your conscience to the appalling situation that Africa faces over the AIDS epidemic then it will have done some good. But please don't believe that the epidemic was started by polio vaccination campaigns. That part of the book is on a par with "scientific investigations" of the Loch Ness Monster or the existence of human faces on Mars in terms of its overall credibility within the community of professional AIDS researchers."

[Hooper's response to the foregoing review.]

This review was posted by "a reader" on the web-site just two months after the Nature review was published. The reviewer chose to remain anonymous, though he rather gave the game away by announcing that he was "a professional AIDS researcher and retrovirologist", and by using exactly the same devices and phrases which Moore has employed in his other published comments about the book.

I believe that much of this review is innately prejudiced. It claims categorically that various aspects of the book are "wrong", when in fact what it means is that the reviewer surmises that they are wrong. It raises four specific scientific objections to the theory - and in each instance, amusingly, it is Moore's argument, not mine, which is now revealed as flawed. A good illustration of this is the sentence in which Moore claims that "kidney cultures are very, very poor (at best) ways to grow HIV and its simian cousins", an assertion that was completely refuted by research published just one year later, which found that HIV replicates very nicely in kidney epithelial cells. (Moore himself reviewed that research in an accompanying editorial, and concluded that it didn't really matter with respect to the OPV theory, because - as he claimed, again wrongly - chimp kidneys had not been used to make the Congo vaccine anyway. By adopting circular arguments such as these, Moore avoids ever having to confront his own errors and false assumptions.)

It is my belief that John Moore's Nature review of The River was balanced and fair in certain places, but that its underlying drift was clearly biased. His Amazon review, however, was a blatant attempt to prejudice others, including potential readers, against the book: an attempt that was based on false and misleading evidence. I believe that despite his claims to the contrary, John Moore has been innately opposed to The River, and to the OPV/AIDS theory, from the off.

EH December 17th, 2004.