Was Bad Science The Source Of Aids In Africa?

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Africa-at-Large; Was Bad Science The Source Of Aids In Africa? (Commentary)

Sam Mwale, The East African (Nairobi), September 28, 2000

© 2000 AllAfrica, Inc

Nairobi - For most of this year, South African President Thabo Mbeki has rubbed the global HIV/Aids establishment the wrong way by questioning whether Aids is caused by the HIV virus. He got his answer at the global conference on Aids in Durban in June. The scientific and medical establishment has closed ranks on the cause of Aids: it is HIV, period.

However, the president's line of inquiry may help Africa get to the bottom of how HIV came to infect humans, and Africans in particular. A recent book by Edward Hooper - a British journalist who is also a former official of the UN - entitled The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV/Aids, links the spread of HIV to the manner in which an oral polio vaccine (OPV) was produced and introduced to African populations in Central and West Africa.

One of the questions raised in the book is similar to the key concerns raised by President Mbeki - what was the source of Aids in Africa? Apparently, there is scientific consensus that the HIV virus is descended from the monkey virus SIV (simian immunodeficieny virus). The key question is - how did SIV mutate into the various HIV types now infecting humans, and when and how did it jump from monkeys to humans? Did the transformation occur as a result of natural causes, or was it effected or hastened by the oral polio vaccination campaigns of the late 1950s?

During the Durban conference, a lot of energy was spent denouncing efforts to find and understand the origins of Aids. Conventional wisdom seems to be that all efforts should focus on developing and implementing effective preventive and, when technology will allow, curative measures. While the latter position is sensible given the grim consequences of the pandemic, it does not diminish the moral and legal responsibility of that same establishment to get to the bottom of the mystery of the source and origin of HIV.

It seems credible, given recently published evidence, that oral polio vaccines (OPV) used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in the late 1950s could have been developed from SIV infected monkey (possibly chimp) tissue.

But while there is growing evidence that oral polio vaccines used in Africa may have transmitted and helped launch the HIV infection, the same did not occur in Europe and America. It seems there is a putative case of bad and covertly racist science in the whole oral polio vaccine, SIV to HIV, HIV to Aids story. The bad science could be the result of hurried vaccine making, ignorance of the dangers involved in using virus-infected animal tissue, and the compelling need to overcome a serious and debilitating disease - polio. As for the racial element, The River cites evidence to the effect that different safety and vaccination standards may have been applied to local whites and blacks in the trials - with coercion taking the place of education for the latter - even in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, the epicentres of HIV-1 and HIV-2 pandemics respectively.

As the prevention and curative establishment grapples with the pandemic, its response to Africa's crisis is different from that for the rest of the globe. The global pharmaceutical establishment continues to put on the market drugs that may help control Aids in the west, but which for obvious reasons, such as their prohibitive cost, will not reach the most affected populations in Africa. Vaccines are being proposed as the solution for Africa, despite the possibility that HIV was introduced to Africa in the first place through contaminated vaccines.

Should Kenyans and Ugandans really trust the vaccines being developed and tested among their populations? Why is the vaccine route not being touted as a solution to the HIV-Aids problem in the West? Is it because the HIV virus itself is so rapidly changeable, that there is the distinct possibility the very vaccine being developed, may itself, if it is a "live" vaccine and hence susceptible to mutation, become the source of yet another type of HIV?

If it turns out that the real cause of the current pandemic was bad science, albeit in pursuit of noble goals, should not Africa's leaders - political, scientific, medical, and civil society (including the media) - pursue the matter relentlessly using all legal and forensic resources available? They must form appropriate bodies to institute civil action suits against the individuals, firms, institutions and governments responsible.

The ensuing SIV-HIV reparations (like the anti-tobacco suits in the US) could be used for co-financing ongoing and new anti-HIV and anti- Aids preventive and therapeutic initiatives, a continental HIV-Aids research and control centre, and educational and other social support for Aids orphans and surviving spouses.

Enormous pressure will be brought to bear by the West to dissuade Africans from doing any such thing. Do our political and scientific leaders have what it takes to vanquish the scourge? Will history judge as them as valiant defenders of their own people? Or will they be so cowed by the West that they will end up among the cast of knaves and villains when the history of Africa's Aids pandemic is written?

*Sam Mwale is a public policy analyst based in Nairobi. Email: i mwale@africaonline.co.ke