London conference launches new theory on origin of AIDS: was it a 1950s American experiment that had disastrous consequences?

The origin of the HIV virus which causes AIDS continues to be a Holy Grail for the scientific community. Yesterday at the Royal Society in London, scientists from around the world debated the latest revelations.

The facts HIV (Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus) is similar to SIV (Simian Immuno-Deficiency Virus) which affects monkeys. An epidemic of “Green Monkey Disease” in Western Africa in the 1970s seems to have been a precursor to the AIDS epidemic of today and this disease, caused by SIV, has the same effect on green monkeys as AIDS has on humans. To be HIV positive does not mean that the patient is terminally ill with AIDS, which may never develop. It simply means that the body is producing antibodies and that HIV has entered the system. Untreated, HIV gradually destroys the body’s immunity system and when the body has no defences, the patient begins to feel the effects of the disease. This disease is AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome). Without an immune system, any virus or bacteria which the patient is exposed to can be fatal. A normal person is being constantly bombarded by viruses and bacteria, which a healthy immune system destroys. These days, the effects of AIDS and its development from HIV can be controlled by drugs, with the disease passing from a critical to a chronic situation...for those countries with the economic power to support the cost of treatment.

The theories: what caused the pandemic? The classical theory, until now generally accepted by the scientific community, is that AIDS was passed from monkeys to humans when a group of African hunters ate a chimpanzee infected with SIV. Certainly, in Gabon, three years ago, a group of hunters was infected with the deadly Ebola virus after finding a dead chimpanzee and eating it. By the beginning of the 1980s, the virus was already a pandemic, due to easier means of travel, according to this theory. It seems this band of hunters were great travellers. British journalist makes scandalous revelation Another theory is now forwarded by a British investigative journalist, Edward Hooper, [hъ-per] who in his book “The River”, published in 1999, launched an accusation which was received with extreme hostility by the scientific community. Hooper states that chimpanzee kidney cells were used to cultivate the poliomyelitis virus for use in a massive inoculation programme for 1 million people in Rwanda and Burundi (formerly Belgian Congo) between 1957 and 1960. This method of creating the vaccine was developed by Dr. Hilary Koprowsky, of the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, USA together with two Belgian laboratories. If the chimpanzees used in this experiment were infected with SIV, there would be a strong possibility that the environment for the virus to pass to humans was created. Chimpanzees are Man’s closest cousins in the animal world. Hooper’s theory is based on geographical coincidence – of 28 AIDS cases studied in 1980, 23 of them lived within a radius of 280 km. of where the inoculation programme took place 20 years before. This evidence led the Wistar Institute to allow testing of samples of the vaccine, frozen in ice for nearly half a century, by independent laboratories (Pasteur Institute, Paris and Max Planck Institute, Germany). It was in London yesterday that the results of these tests were revealed. Claudio Basilico, the microbiologist coordinating these tests, stated: “The tests did not reveal the presence of SIV or HIV in the samples, nor of chimpanzee genetic material.” Mr. Basilico is an American, who works at New York University. Hooper, however, claims that any viruses or genetic material would have been destroyed by decades of freezing. He also produced witnesses who contradict Koprowsky’s claim that he never used chimpanzee kidneys. If these witnesses are telling the truth, what would have caused the American to distort it? Other theories There are other theories. One is expressed by South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, who claims that AIDS does not develop from HIV. This statement is not accepted by the medical profession but the political impact of the message is important, given that South Africa faces a serious epidemic of AIDS. In the sub-Sahara region, some countries have 40% of their populations with AIDS or HIV. It could even be a natural mutation of SIV as the virus found a way to pass to humans, in a similar way in which influenza passed from chickens in the Avian Flu epidemic in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. Whichever theory is correct, it must be remembered that the latest UN statistics presented by UNAID state that there are 34.3 million people currently infected with the disease. The tragedy is that although medical science now has effective treatment, the countries where these people live are too poor to have access to it. Timothy BANKROFT-HINCHEY Correspondent of PRAVDA.Ru Lissabon-London 2000-12-31