Tracking AIDS' Origin

Printer-friendly version

Author blames polio vaccine tests for scourge

[Article about The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS] New York Daily News, Friday 29 October 1999

For more than a decade now, Edward Hooper, a former British reporter for the BBC in Africa, has been crisscrossing the world doggedly pursuing clues to the most frightening human mystery of our age - the cause of HIV/AIDS.

It is barely 20 years since AIDS was recognized by the medical community among gay men in New York and California, but the epidemic already has claimed 14 million lives around the world, more than 400,000 of them in this country. Another 33 million people worldwide were infected with HIV at the end of 1998, and the number keeps mushrooming.

Hooper was one of the first writers to document the devastation AIDS was causing in central and eastern Africa in the late 1980s when he wrote the book "Slim."

But in 1990, he began to ask himself the simple question: Why now? Why had this enormous calamity erupted at this particular time in human history, and where, exactly, had it started?

While hundreds of thousands of scientists worked to find a cure, and millions of doctors and nurses tried to treat people with AIDS, and while overwhelmed governments scurried to protect those populations still uninfected, Hooper applied himself to discovering how it all started.

He has meticulously compiled the results of that investigation in a book he has just published. The book is titled "The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS."

The enormous volume (more than 1,000 pages, with 200 pages of footnotes) is an amazing combination of comprehensive reporting, scientific investigation and engrossing storytelling.

Once you start it, you will find it impossible to put it down.

Hooper is convinced he has found the cause of AIDS, though he is the first to say his conclusions aren't yet scientifically proven.

"I'm 97% sure I have [the cause]," he said during an interview this week, yet he welcomes studies in the scientific community that could prove or disprove the theory.

His theory is not a new one among the many competing ideas about the origin of AIDS, but it remains controversial because it points to the disease being caused by human beings.

By now, most scientists agree that the most prevalent form of HIV is a direct descendant of SIV, a virus carried by African chimpanzees, though there has not been much agreement about how the virus jumped from chimps to humans.

Hooper concludes that the virus accidentally entered humans as a result of a massive and little-known experiment on a new oral polio vaccine.

Between 1957 and 1960, American and Belgian scientists vaccinated nearly 1 million Africans in the old Belgian colonies of that continent - the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Hooper believes the live polio vaccine, known as the CHAT vaccine, was contaminated by SIV from chimpanzees whose kidneys were used as tissue cultures in the manufacturing process.

Of course, the idea that 1 million Africans were used as guinea pigs for an experimental vaccine that was never licensed as effective against polio is terrifying on its own - especially because the Africans at the time had no native government to protect their interests.

But this type of experimentation on Third World people was almost standard practice at the time, and Hooper makes no judgments of those scientists.

What he does, however, is show that the vaccinations were conducted in precisely the towns and rural areas of central Africa where the earliest known cases of HIV/AIDS developed.

According to Hooper, "over 87% of all known samples of HIV-1 from Africa from 1980 or earlier come from towns where CHAT was fed. And 100% come from places within 100 miles of CHAT vaccination sites."

Included in that is the earliest blood sample that has tested positive for HIV, that of a man who died in 1959 in Leopoldville.

In reaching his conclusion, Hooper explored countless other leads. He traced every suspected early victim of AIDS on several continents and interviewed doctors, families and scientists involved in every case.

It is a mesmerizing story that raises an incredible question, one that the scientific community will have to answer. As Hooper points out, if his theory is true, it has ramifications beyond solving the AIDS puzzle. It is a warning to all those now rushing to engage in such experiments as genetic engineering, that if mankind rushes recklessly forward with all the good intentions of curing one illness, we could inadvertently be sowing seeds of far greater calamities.