W D Hamilton’s letter of 23 February 1994 to the magazine Science concerning his submission on the origin of AIDS and polio vaccines
UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY
SOUTH PARKS ROAD
OXFORD, OX1 3PS
Telephone: Oxford (0865) 271234
Personal Telephone: (0865)
Fax (0865) 310447
Dr. Daniel E. Koshland, Jr.
1333 H Street NW
23 February 1994
Dear Dr. Koshland,
Christine Gilbert has written telling me that Science has decided not to publish a letter that I submitted concerning the Koprowski vs. Rolling Stone case over AIDS origin and Science’s coverage of this case and its underlying issue. Her letter says that she had discussed it with you, therefore presumably the decision not to publish was partly yours. I write to you therefore to protest certain points and to ask you to reconsider.
As you know the issue in the background here has very wide ramifications and implications for human safety as well as for the conduct of science in general. The contention is the possibility that the AIDS pandemic originated from contaminated vaccines in the early polio campaign in Africa in the late ’50s. You may remember that in my submitting letter I gave two reasons why Science should very seriously consider publishing my text or something close to it. These were that I discussed “(a) threat to the scientific approach to knowledge [referring Koprowski’s resort to a lawsuit aimed to intimidate authors and publishers away from any hypothesis that might reflect adversely on his work], and (b) a hypothesis of potentially enormous importance.” The second issue implies of course that if AIDS did indeed originate in the way suggested, a very thorough reconsideration of all ways in which medical procedures can conceivably facilitate zoonosic transfer of diseases in the future is essential. Bad as it is the AIDS epidemic could be just a dire warning. No issue currently facing humanity (other than possibly the reverse danger, overpopulation) can be more serious than the possibility of starting a disease as deadly as AIDS but with, say, the infectiousness of ‘flu; and yet an event like this is just what we are inviting if procedures like whole organ transplants from animals into humans continue without assessment of the zoonosis risks involved.
Even the prospect of nuclear war cannot match the destructive potential of such an event. Thus I think you as editor of Science have a grave responsibility to humanity to see that these issues are as fairly discussed as is possible. This is certainly not happening in the way Science is handling this issue so far. I gave numerous examples of inaccuracies and bias in the letter from Koprowski that you did publish and which you thenceforth treated as closing the case scientifically. I tried hard to do so in a way that would cause Science a minimum of editorial embarrassment. For example I kept these points in an appendix that was not destined for publication — including the matter of the appalling proofing of the letter by Koprowski and/or your staff, seeming to reflect an uncritical haste to publish anything that might seem to squash the whole issue. The matter of the poor proofing of the K letter was mentioned in an apologetic spirit in the letter I received from Christine Gilbert; on the other hand her letter addressed none of the 12 inaccuracies that I had pointed out in Koprowski’s letter you did publish. It all makes me wonder how you can dare to have Science leaving its huge readership with the impression that a hypothesis of such importance has been squashed when you have no better backing than the Wistar Institute’s extremely flimsy and biased review (not in any case reported in Science in any detail) plus such an utterly careless letter from Koprowski.
The hypothesis is certainly not going to go away. In a year or so, irrespective of what may have come out in the way of more direct evidence by then, circumstantial evidence that I know is accumulating about the Central African polio campaign and about the validities and locations of the earliest AIDS cases is going to be published. This I think will be enough to make the hypothesis at last be taken very seriously indeed. I think that various journals are eventually going to look bad for the way they have handled evidence and submissions concerning the theory. If it publishes nothing more than the sort of thing it has run so far, Science is going to be one such journal. Formerly hostile Nature already shows signs of a change, as with their publication of a short piece by Brian Martin (Nature 363, 202, 20 May 1993) making my point (a) as applying to this case. There also seem to be signs that the idea is beginning to be taken seriously in Lancet, formerly also very hostile. My first step if I get a second refusal from you will be to adapt my piece so that it reinforces and adds to Martin’s note and then to see if Nature will publish it.
Christine Gilbert seeks to imply that a letter like mine would much better be published in a journal like J. Virology. I agree that some particularly appropriate readers could be brought face to face with the issue in such a journal. However I disagree entirely that such a journal is appropriate for the points I tried to make. Firstly it is virtually certain that J. Virol. will not publish anything resembling my letter. Various texts much more carefully argued and supported on this issue than my letter have been refused by medical journals usually with no critique whatever supplied. Most often submissions are simply ignored. The medical profession and especially its public health research sides are so set against this hypothesis even being considered that any tool from compete silence to magisterial innuendo (e.g. your Koprowski letter) will be used to squelch it at referee stage.
Secondly publication in such a journal would not be appropriate even if the journal would accept it when a major point I want to communicate is (a) as above — that there is occurring a breakdown of the normal standards and criteria of science, including this new use of lawsuits to oppress dissenters from orthodox and profession-serving opinions.
Lastly I comment that Christine Gilbert’s reference to me as “superbly qualified to comment” must be just a placatory hyperbole on her part. I would think it obvious that I am not well qualified to comment on this issue at all. I mentioned my recent scientific honours in my first letter just to emphasise that I am not a crank since people who try to publish on this hypothesis are always being treated as if they were cranks (see Koprowski’s letter plus my critique of it in my first letter; see also Science’s various editorial comments). I am just scientist with common sense plus what might be called old fashioned standards plus a feeling that intelligent lay people should be encouraged to participate in scientific debates, not shut out. Among the standards I support is one that says that every idea has to be assessed on its rational merits and quite independently of vested interests, power structures, reputations and the like. There are innumerable medically oriented scientists who are far better qualified to comment than I am but, firstly, they are part of a clique that sees, consciously or unconsciously, a short term advantage in dismissing the hypothesis in question because it threatens the underlying prestige of their discipline, and secondly if they do speak out on the basis of common sense and what they find they are likely to be actually oppressed by their hierarchy. This of course has happened in the case of Dr. Eddy and the discovery of simian virus SV40 originating from the polio vaccinations, and I could cite others.
Here in my own department I am finding people far better qualified to investigate or to support than I am who say to me things like: “Well, I can see the theory may have a case, but I’m afraid I can’t touch any of that: our grant comes from the Medical Research Council . . . ” or “Labs that could test what you want in Britain are all in the same boat, they all get money from the MRC or drugs companies. I don’t think you are going to find any of them wanting to be testing an old vaccine with a risk of turning up something. You just have to accept this is what the AIDS field is like . . . ”
Surely you must realise that the development of this sort of situation in science is terrible — literally terrible for all mankind. Thinking only of the narrow escape in the SV40 case, leave alone of the possibly worse and determinedly underinvestigated case of AIDS, anyone should see that the situation ought to be terrifying us. Those scientists who are best placed to do so ought help to combat it.
Professor W.D. Hamilton.