Three Warnings About Potential Future Malpractice by Members of "the Bushmeat Group"
I trust that my response to Beatrice Hahn’s latest article “The Hollywooding of Science” has not only restored some balance in the “origins of AIDS” debate, but that it has highlighted the flimsy nature of some of the claims that are routinely made by key advocates of the bushmeat hypothesis.
Some of the more common of these flawed claims are that Lindi camp used the “wrong subspecies” of chimpanzee, and that phylogenetic dating analysis “proves” that pandemic HIV-1 existed in the 1930s, long before the polio vaccine trials. Of course, the most common claim of all by the Hahns is that they have “laid to rest” the OPV hypothesis. But not one of these claims stand up to scrutiny.
I now have evidence that the CHAT vaccinators, notably Stanley Plotkin (but also the now-elderly Hilary Koprowski), and their support group (which includes PR advisor and would-be bull-dog John Moore, Belgian and Dutch doctors Jan Desmyter, Abel Prinzie and Dirk Teuwen, and Congolese doctors such as Dudu Akaibe) have been actively collaborating with Beatrice Hahn and her group for a substantial period of time. Other supposedly neutral scientists, such as Simon Wain-Hobson, Robin Weiss, Bette Korber, Michael Worobey, Steve Wolinsky and Robert Gallo have also been working closely with the Plotkin and Hahn groups, and giving them active support. I have some revealing evidence about the extent of past contacts between these scientists, which I prefer not to divulge at present.
During 2004 and 2005, nine of the above (Plotkin, Moore, Hahn, Korber, Weiss, Wain-Hobson, Korber, Wolinsky and Gallo) wrote a series of identical letters to TV producers and film festival directors, claiming that the OPV theory had been “disproved”, and urging them not to show “The Origins of AIDS” documentary film. The arguments they gave to support this claim were the same extremely flimsy and distorted arguments that I have repeatedly exposed on this website.
The fact that these scientists are all prepared to promote identically misleading messages not only raises questions about their collective judgement. It also raises questions about their collective integrity – and about who is funding them. To date, we know only that some of the money has come from Plotkin’s former employers (for whom he still works as a consultant), the vaccine house Aventis Pasteur. Other sums have apparently come from “private” sources, whatever that might mean.
[There may be a reason for the involvement by Aventis Pasteur over and above the fact that Plotkin used to be their managing director. The Pasteur Institute also made experimental polio vaccines that were administered in Africa (west Africa and west central Africa) during the 1950s, and I believe that these vaccines, which were also prepared in the cells of African primates, may have been implicated in the emergence of HIV-2, and of the minor variants, or groups, of HIV-1.]
Various of the pieces of evidence on this web-site (together with other items of evidence that I am holding in reserve) suggest that beneath the posturings of the Hahns and Plotkins and their supporters, there lies a veritable can of worms.
Or, to put it more simply, it now seems incontrovertible that an active and well-coordinated cover-up is being staged about how the AIDS pandemic began.
I therefore think it is necessary for me to forecast, ahead of time, some of the ways in which bushmeat followers might conceivably attempt to use dishonest tactics in the future, in their ongoing efforts to influence the origins-of-AIDS debate.
In the “Origins” section of the PBS web-site accompanying the new documentary series, “The Age of AIDS”, Beatrice Hahn states that in order to “truly disprove” the OPV theory, researchers would have to find HIV-infected human tissue samples that predate the polio vaccine trials. And, she adds, it’s possible that they never will.
I believe that I’m beginning to tune in to some of the thought processes of Beatrice Hahn, and I suspect that, just like Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin, she is not in the habit of making apparently casual statements like this (especially ones that seem almost resigned to the possibility of having to accept a draw, a tie, in the origins debate) unless she has some ulterior motives.
I suspect that she is already in the process of setting up her next scientific “revelation”, her next sensational press release.
It is known that she and her collaborators have been looking keenly for archival samples of HIV-1 for several years now. (At this juncture, it is worth adding that the so-called “1959 sample” of HIV-1 was first located and found to contain HIV antibodies back in 1985, and that no other sample of pandemic HIV-1 from the fifties, or even the sixties, has been discovered in the 21 years since then.)
However, the word on the grapevine is that one of Hahn’s collaborators, Michael Worobey (who in 2004 inaccurately announced in Nature that he and Hahn had “refuted” the OPV theory with a single chimp SIV sequence from the DRC), was recently trying to get sequence confirmation on an alleged sample of HIV-1 from Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo, from the year 1960.
Now of course 1960 is not of immediate use to bushmeat advocates, in that it post-dates the OPV trials, and therefore cannot disprove the OPV hypothesis.
However, I recently revisited Belgium, where I spoke with one of the leading opponents of the OPV theory. Though asked three times, this quite eminent scientist was unable to provide a single viable scientific argument to explain why he is so vigorously opposed to the OPV theory. Finally he said to me that he knew I wouldn’t agree, but that he feared that the OPV theory might deter people from being vaccinated against polio, and that it might therefore delay the global eradication of that disease.
I don’t know whether he was genuinely concerned about this, for there are strong reasons for doubting that the OPV theory has had any impact – negative or positive – on the polio eradication programme. [See: “As far as is known, modern polio vaccines are safe.”]
But I do know this. This is not a disproof of the OPV hypothesis.
But then this man said something else. He implied that colleagues of his had obtained an HIV-1 sample from around 1960, a sample which “might have some impact on the debate”. He was clearly referring to the Worobey sample.
I suspect that the plan is to present any HIV-1 sequence that might be obtained from 1960 as evidence of “further viral diversification” having occurred by that year, and thus attempt to push back the time of the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) of HIV-1, which the Hahns currently place in 1931.
However, since such analysis would be based on the same discredited approach of “phylogenetic dating”, it would be as meaningless as the previous dating work. (Phylogenetic dating is based on the premise that the HIVs evolve through mutation, which takes place at a constant rate, one that is measured by a “molecular clock”. Yet it is now widely accepted that 90% of HIV’s evolution occurs through recombination, not mutation. Recombination cannot be measured by a molecular clock, and so the geneticists are using an inappropriate model in their attempts to date the origin of the HIVs.)
The OPV hypothesis predicts that several different precursor strains of pandemic HIV-1 (based on chimpanzee SIVs and recombinant forms of chimp SIVs) would have been introduced to Leopoldville in different OPV batches administered between 1958 and 1960 – and introduced in other places (from where vaccinees could have “emigrated” to Leopoldville) from, at latest, 1957 onwards.
The scientist with whom I spoke in Belgium has for several years been actively collaborating with the team of doctors led by Stanley Plotkin – men who, since 1999 and the publication of The River, have been attempting to refute the OPV hypothesis by fair means or foul. And since the fair means have failed, most recent attempts have been of the foul variety.
In 2001, using money from the pharmaceutical giant Aventis Pasteur, and on behalf of Stanley Plotkin, this man organised the removal of ancient biomedical samples (including slides and paraffin blocks) dating from the 1950s from the basement of the old Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville (LMS) building in what is now Kisangani, samples that were then smuggled out of the DRC to Belgium.
Although they have had these samples for the last five years, he and his fellow-scientists have neither announced their existence, nor anything in the way of test results. This is doubly suspicious when one considers that if they had tested the samples and found no trace of HIV-1, it might well have been in their interests to write a letter to Nature or Science, to make a formal announcement of that fact.
My worry now is that a genuine sample of HIV-1 from the years of OPV development in Stanleyville (the headquarters of the African OPV trials) might become mis-labelled, and might reappear in the guise of a sample from, say, a set of slides from Brazzaville or Leopoldville dating from 1950, or a box of paraffin blocks from Ouesso dating from 1938. The only important detail, from the perspective of the bushmeat supporters, would be that this would allow them to claim that they had found “a genuine sample” of HIV-1 from before the years of the OPV trials in Africa.
The scientists who carried out the actual tests would doubtless be free of any wrongdoing; they would simply report accurately on what they had found.
All it would require to pervert the research, however, would be a single dishonest scientist, one who was vigorously – or perhaps I should write “virulently” – opposed to the OPV theory, and who therefore decided that “for the greater good of Science” it was permissible to tamper with the provenance of the ancient sample in question.
Under normal circumstances, this would be a far-fetched proposition. However, under the present circumstances, where there is evidence that several of the protagonists in this debate have been (to borrow Robin Weiss’s immortal phrase) “lying through [their] teeth”, I believe that it is not.
There is a second important point, also. Even if Hahn’s group were to find a genuine virus that looked something like an ancient sample of HIV-1 (a virus of which the sequence fell somewhere in between chimp SIV and pandemic HIV-1) in the body of an African from the 1940s or 1930s or even earlier, this in itself would not "truly disprove the OPV theory", as Hahn would like us to believe.
It would all depend on what type of virus was located. For several years I have made clear my belief that viruses such as chimp SIVs may occasionally infect humans, but that they are likely to be dead-end infections which are not transmissible from human to human, just as most of the HIV-2 groups (such as those apart from Groups A and B)appear to be. (For most of the HIV-2 groups apart from A and B, only one example has been found, and that example does not grow in human cells. These therefore appear to be sooty mangabey SIVs that have passed to humans, but have not prospered or spread, and that have not caused outbreaks of human disease.)
So even the finding of what appeared to be “an ancient HIV-1”, or “a chimp SIV-like virus” in a human sample from, say, 1950 (or indeed, 1920 or 1820), would not mean that the OPV theory had been disproved. For one thing, it would be entirely possible that such a virus was not a true ancestor of the current pandemic HIV-1 strains.
Of course, if the virus in question was simply a dead-end chimpanzee SIV found in the blood of a bushmeat hunter, and was not the direct ancestor of today's HIV-1 pandemic strains, then treating it as if it were the index virus would effectively create a false phylogenetic tree.
Lastly, the most worrying possibility of all. I am reliably informed that it is now technically possible for scientists to genetically engineer a modified strain of HIV-1. It serves no purpose for me to discuss how this could be done, save to say that the task would apparently be much easier if one started with a sample of a genuine older strain of HIV-1, and began one’s tinkering from there.
Again the implications are, I believe, obvious.
I am not actively suggesting that any member of the bushmeat school would sink to any of the dishonest practices outlined above. But I do wish to raise a flag about the possibility that such things could be done.
I have polled a few scientists whom I know and trust about these issues, and although opinions vary on some of the specific details, the general feeling is that the field of phylogenetic analysis of the HIVs has now become so distorted and murky that persons who lack integrity might be willing to propose all sorts of spurious arguments. Of course, the more superficially intelligent you can make your arguments sound, the more readers are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, and trust your findings. But that does not necessarily mean that such findings are correct.
I therefore request that neutral observers from inside and outside the world of Science should keep open and appropriately sceptical minds, especially if it happens that a scientist should suddenly announce that he or she has discovered “a genuine sample of HIV-1 from before the OPV trials”.
Given how high the stakes have become, I believe it would be well worth making a scrupulous investigation of the provenance of any such sample before leaping to any premature conclusions.
Ed Hooper. 27/07/06; updated 13/08/06.