Of Chimps and Men

Letter to the editor about The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS

Science, 14 January 2000, Volume 287, p. 233

Stanley A. Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski say in their letter (Science’s Compass, 24 Dec., p. 2450) that in my book, The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS (Little, Brown, 1999), I suggest that they “covertly used chimpanzee cells to produce the live oral polio vaccine (OPV) that was used in the first mass campaign with OPV in the former Belgian Congo.”

Although I do suggest in the book that chimpanzee cells were used to prepare certain batches of the OPV (CHAT) that was fed to more than a million Africans in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi between 1957 and 1960, at no point do I specify which researcher, or which laboratory, prepared batches of CHAT in such cells.

What I do make clear is that a minor proportion (about one-fourth) of those 1 million OPV doses was produced at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the remaining doses were produced in Belgium, at the Rega Institute in Leuven and at the RIT laboratory in Rixensart. I also point out that, although there is at present no published information about the primate substrate that was used to produce CHAT at those three institutions, there is documentary and anecdotal evidence that kidneys from Congolese chimps, destined for tissue culture purposes, were present in Philadelphia and Belgium during this period.

Furthermore, at least 250,000 doses of CHAT vaccine were redistributed into smaller containers at the medical laboratory of Stanleyville (now Kisangani, Congo), where chimpanzee kidneys were being handled. Contamination could therefore also have occurred there, either by chance or because chimpanzee kidney tissue cultures were used to boost the titre, or amplify the available stocks, of CHAT vaccine (1).

Plotkin and Koprowski mention in their letter that they are collecting data about the cells they used to make their OPVs, and that these data are to be published in a scientific journal. The release of such information should contribute to resolving the question of whether the AIDS pandemic is a tragic example of an iatrogenic disease–a disease caused by medical intervention.

Edward Hooper
Somerset, England


1. E. Hooper, The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS (Little, Brown, New York, 1999), pp. 718-722, 788-792.