Beatrice Hahn. A Portrait of Scientific Certainty

Beatrice Hahn. A Portrait of Scientific Certainty: Doctor Strangelove in a Silk Shirt.

Beatrice Hahn is a powerful woman, though she is also one who is possibly feared more than respected or liked. Her method of operating is reminiscent of that of her former boss, Robert Gallo, and indeed of Gallo’s mentor, Hilary Koprowski, before that. She is a control freak, and she demands that all who work for her, or in collaboration with her, toe the party line. This makes it easier to control the outgoing message, and indeed she is a past master (or mistress) of subtly adapting her position in order to “absorb” previous inconsistencies, and thus to glide over her own mistakes. By exerting this degree of control, she is able to make it appear (at least to newcomers to the field) that she and only she is fully in command of the facts.

If it suits Hahn to be treated as the fount of all knowledge on how AIDS began, it probably suits the medical establishment as well, many of whose members are scared stiff by the implications of the OPV theory. Indeed, the scientific establishment is set up in such a way to facilitate an intellectual coup of this sort. Peer review (at least as practised by the major journals) allows a situation in which only views that tie in with Hahn’s are broadcast, which is why Nature and Science have repeatedly published alleged “refutations” of the OPV theory, but have never dared publish an article that simply lays out the theory, so that people can decide for themselves where they stand.

It’s hard to know what summarises this policy better: intellectual cowardice, or intellectual totalitarianism. But predictably, my own latest submission to Science (a 300-word letter of response to the latest claims by Hahn’s team) was rejected without any reasons being offered, or the opportunity to respond.

Indeed, Big Science is increasingly run along capitalist lines, with the grant system making it eminently easy for dissident views to be crushed. It seems that such a system cannot easily cope with an independent researcher like myself, someone who cannot be pressured into silence. That’s why, after themselves being stunned into silence for several months after The River was published, members of that establishment [led by Weiss and Wain-Hobson, and including Plotkin, Hahn, Sharp, and Korber] spent months organising a two-day conference on AIDS origins at the Royal Society, which, though Weiss and Wain-Hobson insisted otherwise, was actually devoted to a carefully-orchestrated attempt to consign the OPV theory to the grave. As it happens, they narrowly failed to carry out their burial plans – but only because I was so disgusted by the way I’d been treated that I elected to carry on with my AIDS researches.

Within six months of the Royal Society meeting I had realised that batches of Koprowski’s OPVs had been locally-made in Stanleyville. It’s now six years later, and at this stage I am ready to state one simple thing. I sincerely believe that the evidence in favour of the OPV/AIDS theory is now overwhelming.

Back to Beatrice Hahn. It’s my belief that the Hahn group’s approach to Science is not dissimilar to the way a giant corporation does business, either crushing different or opposing ideas through superior financing or “weight of numbers”, or else absorbing them quickly and quietly within its own sphere of influence. The work of several scientists (for instance in determining that the SIVs of certain African primates other from chimps feature a vpu gene) has first been submitted to Hahn’s group for checking or refereeing, and then later absorbed, and eventually published under the Hahn imprimatur, with the new revelation lent her own personal bushmeat spin.

Nowadays the official (and surprisingly oft-repeated) party line is that it was Hahn who discovered that HIV-1 had evolved from the SIV of the common chimpanzee. Of course, this is nonsense. The similarities between the two viruses were first reported by Martine Peeters in 1989, and the first chimp SIV sequence was published by Simon Wain-Hobson in 1990. Hahn first published on this subject a decade later, in 1999, when she proposed that it was not just common chimps, but Pan troglodytes troglodytes chimps, which represented the ancestral host. (Though Hahn claims otherwise, this is still unproven.) Nowadays Peeters frequently appears as a Hahn co-author, even if she is one of the few members of that team to inspire confidence, in that she is one of its more thoughtful and less ego-driven members. Wain-Hobson has his own views on Hahn, and although he prefers not to antagonise her, he generally prefers to keep his distance.

All this, of course, helps explain why Beatrice Hahn so hated having to deal with a hypothesis of origin contrary to her own, especially when it was proposed vigorously, and by someone who, in her eyes at least, was a “non-scientist”. Even with the help and compliance of leading journals like Science (where AIDS news coverage seems to be determined mainly by their ubiquitous reporter and bushmeat believer, Jon Cohen) and Nature (the AIDS coverage of which is controlled by another bushmeat believer, Robin Weiss), she has been forced to announce on at least three separate occasions that she has “refuted”, or “laid to rest” the OPV theory of origin. Furthermore, she frequently loses her temper on this topic, and has been quoted as referring to the OPV theory as “bullshit”, and to The River as “that fucking book”. It’s nice to know that her way of dealing with opposing views is so considered and mature!

Later on, being the woman she is, she affects contrition, and says she is worried about how others will view her for her outspoken comments. It takes lackeys like John Moore to reassure her: she is still working on exactly the right lines; she is still loved. (My views on Moore are forthright, but justified: he hands out abuse in spades, so must be prepared to be judged in similar terms.)

Hahn has recently let it be known that she regrets how she treated me when I came to interview her in 1995, when she acted with her customary arrogance, and unwillingness to listen to anyone’s views but her own. [See “The River”, pp 647-652.] This rather hilarious affecting of contrition is both insincere, and very typical Beatrice Hahn. The reason I write this with some confidence is that the last time I tried to contact her in a collegiate spirit, in 2003, was to ask some questions of her, questions which she barely answered. In the course of the e-mail, I floated the possibility that chimp SIVs might have recombined in tissue culture to produce the ancestral strains of HIV-1, and she responded as follows: “You are obviously entitled to having [sic] an opinion and to express that opinion in any way you want, but don’t kid yourself (or others) that you have the necessary scientific background and expertise to make a judgement call in this matter.” Since on such issues I regularly consult a number of scientists whom I consider to have judgement as good as, if not better than, Dr Hahn, I did find this comment to be revealing of how she responds to alternative viewpoints.

(Later, in 2005, I twice contacted one of Hahn’s assistants, Brandon Keele, offering him a little collaborative input about the DRC, and once again asking him about the results of their lab’s SIV testing in chimps in the DRC. He did not even bother to reply. This was not only bad manners, but also worrying. Hahn’s group – and other groups – have been testing DRC chimps for SIV for years now, and yet have reported nothing of their results, other than Michael Worobey’s single sequence of chimp SIV from the Parisi Forest, near Stanleyville, which he and Hahn cynically and misleadingly announced as a “refutation” of the OPV theory. This lack of public announcement only encourages the perception that the reporting of chimp SIVs in Africa may be selective.)

But Hahn’s recently reported “contrition” is also shallow, for it suggests that she believes that I have opposed her for the last ten years out of pique. The real reason, as anyone who follows this website will know, is because I believe that she is rather often a complacent and less-than-rigorous scientist.

Indeed, I think her certainties (most of which involve areas which are anything but certain) are potentially very dangerous.

I am not alone in believing that Professor Beatrice Hahn may be the stuff of nightmares: Bad Science tidily presented,T.(BDoctor Strangelove in a silk shirt.

Here are some of the areas in the origins of AIDS debate where Hahn insists she is right, but where I (on the basis of what I have learnt during the sixteen years that I have spent pursuing this subject) have the temerity to believe that she is profoundly wrong.

These are Beatrice Hahn’s three alleged “disproofs” of the OPV theory.

“Disproof” #1
Hahn and her collaborators have frequently claimed that the chimps used in the polio experiments in Stanleyville/Kisangani were of “the wrong subspecies”, and that this effectively refutes the OPV hypothesis. (Their latest claim that “the source” of pandemic HIV-1 lies in south-eastern Cameroon is only an extension of the same argument.)

But the documentary proof that there was at least one Pan troglodytes troglodytes [Ptt] among the chimpanzee experimentees at the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville destroys this argument at a stroke.

In fact, there is new evidence suggesting that Ptt chimps may have been at Lindi camp from the beginning. I am still finding out further details about this, and, if appropriate, will publish more when the time is ripe.

“Disproof” #2
Together with collaborators of hers such as Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski (the men from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia who developed CHAT oral polio vaccine, and helped supervise the African trials of that vaccine) Hahn has frequently claimed that representative samples of CHAT vaccine have been independently tested – and found completely free of HIV, SIV and chimpanzee DNA.

Those findings were correct. But unfortunately for Hahn and Plotkin, they did not constitute a disproof of the OPV theory. By mid-2002 I had obtained multiply-confirmed evidence (based on personal testimonies and archival documents) that batches of CHAT vaccine had been prepared locally in Stanleyville, grown in tissue cultures based on chimpanzee kidney cells (and, it seems almost certain, chimpanzee sera).[6]

However, the phials of CHAT vaccine that Stanley Plotkin arranged to have tested all originated from the Wistar, not from the LMS. In short, they tested the wrong batches of vaccine. Of course, as I now realise, Plotkin and Koprowski must have been fully aware of this at the time that they were arranging the testing. But I wasn’t.

Does any of the CHAT vaccine prepared at the LMS still exist? I believe that samples may still exist, and that if they do, they would probably be stored in certain freezers in the USA and Belgium. Will any of these samples ever be released for independent testing? On this one, your guess is as good as mine – though I have a pretty strong hunch that they will not be.

“Disproof” #3
In 2000, Sharp and Hahn (and other collaborators, such as Bette Korber) began claiming that “phylogenetic dating” proved that the AIDS virus had first emerged in about 1931, plus or minus roughly ten years – in other words, more than a decade before the OPV trials in Africa.

Again, it was balderdash. Phylogenetic trees are very useful, and can be expected to be roughly as accurate as human family trees (provided one accepts that the latter occasionally feature some mistakes). But attempting to date HIV-1 by phylogenetic analysis is completely different.

Estimating the rate of mutation of an organism works pretty well for most organisms, or indeed for DNA-based viruses like smallpox. But it does not work for the SIVs and HIVs, which belong to a particular group of RNA-based viruses called retroviruses. In fact, the immunodeficiency viruses are the most recombinogenic organisms (ie the life-forms most prone to recombination) known to medical science. Recombination is ten times more significant than mutation in the evolution of HIV and SIV. And yet phylogenetic dating (which is predicated on a constant “molecular clock”, beating like a metronome) assumes oonly mutation.

The molecular clock approach is inherently incapable of making any allowance for recombination. All the geneticists can do is try to exclude from their analysis any viruses that look as if they might be recombinants. But if those recombinants were formed early in the evolution of HIV-1 (as I believe the key ones were in this instance), then the geneticists are simply unable to identify, or exclude them.

Korber and others have further argued that when they enter the earliest (“1959”) sample of HIV-1 on their graphs, its date is accurately predicted. Once again, however, they are wrong. Multiple evidence, to be revealed in due course, indicates that the famous “1959 sample” of HIV-1 from Leopoldville was actually not obtained in 1959 at all, but at some point between 1960 and 1963. If one takes the latest option (1963) as the true date of this earliest sample (as indeed one must do, failing the appearance of further accurate information), this sequence now falls outside Korber’s 95% confidence intervals, which range from 1934 to 1962. In other words, the date of the first HIV-1 sample is no longer correctly predicted by her method.

In short, the geneticists have not only used the wrong model in their attempts to date HIV-1. They have also used inappropriate measuring apparatus, and have simply crossed their fingers and hoped (or pretended) that it works.

It’s as if Hahn and her friends were using a thermometer or a rain-gauge to try to estimate the speed of one of those huge river-ferries of the 1950s, working its way up the Congo river. I find it rather enjoyable to look over their shoulders and watch as they try to pull off this scientific sleight-of-hand.

But hang on. What’s that? Over there in the shade, behind the wheel-house? Yes, in that cage, isn’t there something moving, something dark? Isn’t it an animal, covered in fur?

EH 26/07/06