Comments on the Lincei Conference

An important conference, albeit one that was virtually ignored by all but the Italian media.

This conference on “Origin of HIV and Emerging Persistent Viruses”, held at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome (the oldest scientific institute in the world) in September 2001, was considerably more balanced than the Royal Society meeting a year earlier. The original idea for the conference had come from Bill Hamilton, but since he was no longer alive, I was invited to speak in his stead. His partner of the last six years, the Italian science writer Luisa Bozzi, gave a powerful address on “Truth and Science: Bill Hamilton’s Legacy.” And there was a significant paper by the young Danish geneticist Mikkel Schierup, who highlighted the limitations of phylogenetic analysis for the dating of HIV-1. He reported that there were strong indications that recombination had occurred early in the history of HIV-1, meaning that phylogenetic dating (which is able to measure only mutation, not recombination between viruses) was quite simply an inappropriate tool to use to date the virus. On the other side, Paul Sharp gave his customary speech in support of phylogenetic dating, and a West Central African origin for HIV-1 (though he never submitted this paper for publication in the final proceedings).

As at the Royal Society, the concluding speech was delivered by Robin Weiss, and once again it was inherently biased, in that he blithely dismissed, or ignored, the new material that I had reported. I was so disgusted by this performance that I found myself getting up and walking out.

After the meeting ended, Weiss and I “had words”, as they say. I asked him to tell me which were the “beautiful facts” that had “destroyed an ugly theory”, as he had declared in his commentary on OPV/AIDS in Nature in April 2001. He told me that he had adapted a phrase that is sometimes bandied about in lab meetings: “some ugly facts have destroyed a beautiful theory”. But he was unable to answer my question, or to come up with one single “fact” to disprove the OPV theory. Since then, Professor Weiss has never made any attempt to retract this false (and much-publicised) claim.

I had dramatic new information about the local preparation of CHAT vaccine in the Belgian Congo itself (something the vaccinators had always denied), and I decided that this needed to be placed in the public domain. So, having gained permission from the Lincei academy, I decided to enlarge my speech into a major 80,000 word paper about the origins of AIDS debate, analysing its historical, scientific and political aspects. This appeared in the proceedings of the conference, published in Atti dei Convegni Lincei (Volume 187) in 2003. However, Robin Weiss’s closing paper made no attempt to engage with the new material I had presented.

Professor Koprowski has apparently since written indignant letters to the Lincei academy, demanding a right to reply to my paper – which has apparently been granted. A paper by Koprowski, Plotkin and Osterrieth has apparently been submitted. I too have been granted the right to reply, in due course, to their response.