Dr Hilary Koprowski – The Man of Many Ideas

When I wrote The River in 1999, I was still to some extent uncertain about Dr Koprowski and his African research. He had been loath to discuss it with me in interview – and even at one stage between our two interviews in 1993 had threatened not to discuss that particular aspect of his work with me at all. [See The River, pages 407-409.]

But at that time I was still unable to decide whether the many errors and inconsistencies in Koprowski’s account of his polio work were the result of poor memory – or poor faith. I was aware that in those two interviews I had been exposed to a combination of Koprowski’s charm and chutzpah, but in the end I decided to refrain from making any final judgement in the book itself.

This was despite the fact that roughly half of the interviewees who had expressed an opinion about Koprowski had been extremely scathing about him. He was generally acknowledged to be an excellent experimental thinker – “a man of many ideas” – even if several observers accused him of sloppy scientific work. However, the most commonly expressed reservation related to his integrity – he was said to be manipulative and unprincipled, and several of his scientific peers stated that he was not to be trusted. Some of these detrimental opinions about him featured in The River, though I also included several expressions of praise from Koprowski’s supporters, and those who feel confident about the value of his work.

In recent years, however, there has no longer been any doubt in my mind.

Almost every statement that Koprowski has made about his African polio vaccine research in recent times has been provably untrue.

Among the many fallacious claims he has made are the following:

  1. That the Ruzizi Valley trial, involving 215,000 Africans, took place in response to a polio epidemic. (It didn’t. In reality, it was the first large-scale open trial of an oral polio vaccine, OPV, anywhere in the world, and there was very little in the way of active follow-up, to see if vaccinees developed immunity to polio. The main reason for the trial was to prove, logistically, that mass-administration of an OPV could be done.)
  2. That Koprowski’s first visit to the Congo, in 1955, occurred by accident, as a result of either (a) a mechanical breakdown of his plane, or (b) a strike by Sabena staff. (It didn’t. The visit was planned, and played an important role in the setting up of the Stanleyville/Lindi operation.)
  3. That the first person to visit Stanleyville to check out the facilities at the medical laboratory was his assistant, Tom Norton, who visited on his own for about one month in 1956. [Again untrue. Tom Norton visited Stanleyville (indeed, Africa) only the once, and that was when he accompanied Koprowski there in 1957. However, Koprowski claimed in interview with me that Norton visited Stanleyville “seven or eight times”.]
  4. That there is “no possibility” that someone else could have used chimpanzee cells to regrow the polio vaccine locally in the Congo without his knowledge. [This may or may not be true. However, in interview with me in 1993, Koprowski said the precise opposite. He was at pains to emphasise that his polio vaccine was a living vaccine, and that any competent virologist could therefore have grown up a fresh batch in a primate tissue culture of his or her own choosing. He even (wrongly) accused George Dick of having regrown his [Koprowski’s] polio vaccine in Belfast in 1956, in his attempt to explain why that vaccine had performed so poorly. Koprowski went on to say that production of his vaccines had been going on in Belgium, Switzerland and South Africa, and he implied that exactly the same thing could have happened in the Belgian Congo. Koprowski told me: “The vaccines: there were different preparers. The original vaccine, I think, was prepared by the Wistar Institute…Subsequent vaccines were prepared partially by Wistar, partially by RIT, a Belgian firm, which was supplied the seed-lots and was preparing vaccines. These vaccines were put in hands, I presume, of virus medical officers of [the Congo’s] provinces…”]

There are several more examples, but these will do for now.

The very kindest interpretation that can be placed on these repeated misrepresentations and untruths is that Koprowski is nowadays emotionally unable to contemplate the possibility that trials of one his vaccines in Africa may have sparked the worst public health disaster of all time. This interpretation would assume that he is now a man in complete denial.

What must be pointed out, however, is that in every instance the misleading account which Koprowski now broadcasts is one which seeks to minimise his own involvement in the process. There is method, therefore, in his misrepresentation.

What is also interesting is the changing sub-text. In 1956, in the same year that he thrice reported in the medical literature that he was growing his polio vaccines in a final substrate of chick embryo (when he was in fact using a substrate of primate kidney), Koprowski wrote that the substrate used to grow the polio vaccine “cannot be disregarded altogether”. He ended his paper as follows: “[I]n such an age, the scientist bears an even greater responsibility than ever. It is hoped that his voice will be listened to, and that his judgement will prevail.”

The following year, speaking in Geneva just before the start of the major polio trials in the Congo, he said that: “Strains available today for large-scale clinical trials are as good as they probably ever will be…With a proper perspective one should come to the conclusion that the price one has to pay today for the comfort of future generations is indeed negligible.”

In June 1960, when delivering the opening address to the Second International Conference on Live Poliovirus Vaccines, Koprowski gave some jokey advice to those who, like Albert Sabin, had questioned the safety of his vaccines. “Clean your finger before you point at my spots”, he warned. He continued: “If, indeed, somebody were to poke his nose into the live virus vaccine, he might find a non-polio virus in all the preparations currently available; but this should hardly deter anybody from accepting the product.”

But that same afternoon, the presence of SV-40 (a potentially tumorigenic virus) was confirmed in both live and killed polio vaccines by Sweet and Hilleman. By October 1960, by which stage he had clearly lost the polio vaccine race to Sabin, Koprowski had adopted a new tack. Now he was noisily proclaiming the potential risks of contaminating monkey viruses in the polio vaccine substrate. At the same time, he started vigorously promoting a “safe substrate” (the human diploid strain, WI-38, which one of his Wistar Institute staff, Leonard Hayflick, had developed). This, indeed, is the only aspect of Koprowski’s work which is highlighted by the otherwise excellent book about SV-40 by Debbie Bookchin and Jim Schumacher, “The Virus and the Vaccine” [New York: St Martin’s Press, 2004]. It is apparent from the Acknowledgements section that the authors relied quite heavily on Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski as sources for their work.

In recent times, history seems to have repeated itself, because since the debate about the safety of Koprowski’s African vaccines has intensified once again, Koprowski has suddenly turned his attention to developing plant-based vaccines for human use.

Again, his response to potential criticism is not to admit any potential flaws or shortcomings in his previous work, but instead to develop a sudden, overriding concern for vaccine safety.

This in itself is admirable, but it is a shame (to say the least) that this same concern for human safety was not the predominant factor throughout the period of his polio research in the 1950s.

Perhaps the most offensive untruth about Africa that Hilary Koprowski has kept repeating in recent years is his insistence that my work on the OPV/AIDS theory has directly led to people in Africa refusing to take polio vaccine. Stanley Plotkin has been more than ready to echo this claim, even accusing me of direct responsibility for polio deaths in Africa.

Since this claim is so crucial to their argument (and yet so unsupported by any evidence), I have decided to deal with it in a separate essay. [See: “More fabrications by doctors Koprowski and Plotkin: the repeated allegations that The River has damaged modern attempts to eradicate polio.”]

Edward Hooper. October 14th, 2004.