First Referee’s Report

Review #1 of W D Hamilton’s submission to the magazine Science in 1994 on the origin of AIDS and polio vaccines

Author/Title: Hamilton, W.D.: LE 39303

I do not see the point of publishing this comment in Science, for several reasons.

First, and most importantly, this does not break new ground in a useful way. The scientific issues raised have been covered in prior correspondence and comment in science and elsewhere (for example, Science 256:1259, 1992; 257:1074, 1992; and 255:1905, 1992). The “Random Samples” piece alluded to seemed to me quite neutral in tone, hardly constituting “thorough dismissal” of the underlying hypothesis (however appropriate such dismissal might be).

Second, this reviewer is astonished by the author’s “astonishment” about Dr. Koprowski’s decision to sue the Rolling Stone. I do not know much about British jurisprudence (beyond that acquired from John Mortimer and Leo McKern), but a treasured (and widely exercised) American freedom is the right of anyone to sue anybody for anything. No matter how carefully researched and reasoned, the Curtis article was based on a speculative hypothesis. There is a large difference between publication of such hypotheses in the scientific literature and in the popular press. Such publications have often been sued, for example, for labeling celebrities as fathers of illegitimate children on the basis of similar kinds of reasoning. Is it not a more serious offense to label someone as the “father” of a whole epidemic and millions of deaths?

Third, as Professor Hamilton acknowledges, the polio vaccine hypothesis has serious flaws. What he fails to acknowledge is that there is a far better general theory (also a feasible one) for the origin of the epidemic. He misleads himself (as do many others) by assuming (in the second sentence of the last paragraph on the first page) that the origin of the epidemic can be traced to “unusual” events. Given the virtually identical spread of at least two different viruses (HIV-1 and -2) and the very long history of infection of monkeys in Africa, how “unusual” can the events have been to have occurred virtually simultaneously? As with other zoonotic infections, it is far more likely that humans have frequently been infected with HIV ancestors, and that, until recently, social conditions were unsuitable for efficient spread of the virus from individual to individual. The important variable them [sic] would be changing conditions in Africa following the end of World War II which promoted sufficiently efficiently spread to allow the epidemic to begin.

Given the close association between monkeys and humans in Africa with ample opportunity for transmission (through butchery, for example) it is inconceivable that frequent transmission of SIV into humans has not been occurring for a very long time. The small additional and improbable transmission by the vaccination efforts are highly unlikely to have contributed materially to the numbers of SIV-infected individuals. Sero and molecular epidemiological surveys of individuals at risk could readily test these ideas.

Finally, the issues of extract vaccine samples and the use of primary simian cultures for vaccine production also have been thoroughly discussed before and the present comments bring nothing new to the table. Although there has been a lot of agitation to have Wistar samples tested by PCR, it must be pointed out that a negative result of such tests would not be very informative, as proponents of the theory could reasonably argue that only an occasional culture would have been expected to be contaminated. More useful would be to do a large survey of samples from similar primary monkey kidney cultures whether used for vaccine production or not. This would provide a much more definitive test as to whether there was any possibility of such contamination and could be done by an interested laboratory with appropriate resources (perhaps even the author).