The allegation that The River has damaged modern attempts to eradicate polio: more fabrications by doctors Koprowski and Plotkin.
I think it is time to put something important on the record in the public domain, and to do so in forthright fashion.
I have spent some time investigating the claims by doctors Koprowski and Plotkin that The River had damaged modern polio vaccination campaigns – which claims, when I first heard them, caused me some real concern.
I have not found one shred of evidence to support these claims. Furthermore, the supporting references are fabricated. Not one of these references actually does what Koprowski and Plotkin claim – and links The River to people refusing to take polio vaccine in modern times.
This is crucially important, because this aspect of Koprowski and Plotkin’s attack on The River and the OPV/AIDS theory is the only one where their attacks focus on alleged damage done to the general population, rather than alleged damage done to them personally. This, then, represents their attempt to take the higher moral ground. And yet (as I demonstrate below) it is based on falsehoods.
The story begins at the Royal Society conference on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic”, in September 2000. At this conference, Hilary Koprowski gave a speech that directly linked “The River” to claims allegedly made by “the Catholic church in Kenya” that modern polio vaccine is contaminated with HIV.
This is what he said: “According to the World Health Organization, it is in India and Africa where vaccination with oral polio vaccine must be completed in order to declare the world polio-free. But then enter THE RIVER with its tale that vaccination against polio may bring the deadly gift of another disease such as AIDS. And what is the response in Africa? The news has spread in Africa, and the Catholic church in Kenya, over the objection of medical authorities, advised mothers not to take their children for polio vaccination as it was contaminated with HIV.” He referenced this allegation to an untitled article in The Nation (a Kenyan daily newspaper) of November 26th, 1999.
Copies of this speech were released to the Royal Society audience, together with a Koprowski press release which emphasised the same point. In its second paragraph, it read: “[T]oday, instead of celebrating scientific and medical milestone [sic], we have been left with the task of controlling damage done by The River, as a result of which people are questioning the vaccination of children.”
I phoned a Kenyan journalist, who was kind enough to check The Nation of November 26th, 1999, together with the “Polio” clippings file. She informed me that no such article had been published in The Nation on that day.
This helpful journalist also searched through the “polio” clippings file, and then faxed me copies of articles which reported rumours about the safety of polio vaccines. It became apparent that such rumours had been rife in Kenya for several years. Although some of the rumours revolved around claims of contamination with “AIDS” or “HIV”, most of them related to alleged contamination with “family planning drugs”, presumably intended (in the minds of the rumour-mongers) to render Kenyan males sterile.
She sent me eight reports about alleged polio vaccine contamination, dating from 1996 to 1999. Three of these reports had identified “family planning drugs” and two reports “HIV” as the alleged contaminant, but all of these latter reports had appeared in 1996 and 1997, long before the publication of The River in August, 1999. Since I had never submitted any article about OPV/AIDS theory for publication before August 1999, it was hard to see how my work could be linked to concerns about the safety of modern polio vaccines, as expressed by sections of the Kenyan Catholic church.
I explained these inconsistencies in a response to Koprowski’s articles which was posted on Brian Martin’s web-page on “Polio Vaccines and the Origins of AIDS” a month after the Royal Society meeting, on October 15th, 2000. I also made sure that whenever I did radio interviews for stations which might broadcast to Africa or elsewhere in the developing world, I assured listeners that “as far as is known, modern polio vaccines are safe”, and emphasised that anyone who was advised that they or their children needed polio vaccination should go ahead and get vaccinated.
Later, I wrote letters with the same message to The Nation, and to the South African magazine, You (which was then serialising The River). In all these interventions, I stressed that I was not questioning the safety of modern polio vaccines, but rather the safety of one particular experimental polio vaccine prepared back in the 1950s.
Koprowski, however, continued to broadcast (both in interviews and in articles) his false allegations that The River was spoiling the campaign to eradicate polio. For instance, in the published version of the Royal Society paper which appeared in July 2001 [H. Koprowski, “Hypotheses and facts”; Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (London) B; 2001; 356; 831-833], he again linked The River to the rumours in Kenya, and this time sourced his claim to a specific article in The Nation of November 26th, 1999, entitled: “Catholic stand on disease criticised”.
In July 2004 I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Kenya, and so, with the help of two Kenyan journalists, I checked the back issues of all the Kenyan newspapers for November 26th, 1999. We confirmed that the article as referenced by Koprowski does not exist – either in The Nation, in the two other newspapers published by National Newspapers: The East African and Taifa Leo, or in Kenya’s other newspaper, The Standard.
Later, at my request, senior reporter Dennis Onyango spent several hours checking through every issue of the Nation from August 23rd, 1999 (publication date of The River) to December 31st, 1999. He eventually found an article in The Nation with the title: “Catholic stand on disease criticised”, which was dated November 27th, 1999. However, this article did not match Koprowski’s description of it in certain crucial respects – which may explain why Koprowski had consistently failed to provide an accurate and complete reference for the article.
This article, published on the day after AIDS had been declared a national disaster by President Moi, focused on criticisms of Catholic clergy by Kenyan members of parliament, who said that they were hindering the fight against HIV and AIDS by preaching against the use of condoms.
The end of the article dealt with a secondary issue: the reports “that some Catholic clergy in Central and some parts of Eastern Province had advised worshippers not [to] take their children for polio vaccination as it was contaminated by HIV.” The article went on: “The allegations were termed as baseless and nonsensical by the Minister of Medical Services, Dr Amukoa Anangwe, who asked why there should be a conspiracy to provide polio kits containing HIV to people of Central and some parts of Eastern provinces.”
At no point in the article was any linkage made between the rumours of vaccine contamination on the one side, and either The River or OPV/AIDS theory on the other.
Indeed, Dennis Onyango, who has been a leading journalist for both The Nation and The Standard since the start of the nineties, assures me that such rumours have nothing to do with my work. He says that he wrote the first Kenyan article about the OPV/AIDS theory in 2000, and assures me that before then, people in Kenya had not even heard of The River.
During my visit to Kenya, I also checked through the “Polio” clippings file at The Nation, which goes back to the 1970s, and reveals that there has been discontent and apathy about polio vaccination since that decade.
A broader survey of the history of vaccination campaigns in Africa reveals that African populations have been sporadically rejecting vaccinations given by Europeans since they were first introduced – in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, in several parts of the Belgian Congo (notably parts of Bas-Congo), local people refused to accept the Koprowski vaccines in 1959 and 1960, or else refused to have blood drawn at the time of these vaccinations. The most common rumour then was that such procedures resulted in the “unsexing” of children.
Since Independence in or around 1960, there have been many further instances in different African countries of vaccines being rejected. Newspaper reports reveal that the main causes of popular concern related to fears of contamination with “cancer” and family planning drugs. By the mid-1980s “AIDS” or “HIV” begin to appear as additional alleged vaccine contaminants.
Given this background, it is clear that the rumours that affected some Kenyan communities in the late nineties were part of a continuum of concern about vaccine safety, and were not related either to the OPV/AIDS theory, or to The River.
However, doctors Koprowski and Plotkin have continued to make their sweeping and unsupported accusations in the years since 2000. In 2003, when polio vaccines were rejected in Nigeria, they again claimed that these events were related to my book – and once again, the allegations were unfounded. As has been pointed out in various articles, polio vaccines have only been rejected in the northern, largely Islamic, part of Nigeria, and the rejection relates to ancient religio-political conflicts, exacerbated by the aftermath of 9/11.
This, however, matters little to Stanley Plotkin, who is (among other things) a member of the editorial board of a journal called Vaccine. In a recent editorial he wrote for that journal, he made the sweeping claim that “Hooper’s ideas…have hindered eradication of polio by OPV in Africa”. As evidence, he cited a New York Times article; [Anon: “World briefing/ Africa: Nigeria: 3 States Halt Polio Drive”; New York Times; October 28, 2003, page A6].
In reality, this article states that three northern Nigerian states had refused polio vaccine “because they suspect that the vaccine spreads AIDS and causes cancer and infertility”. However, the article made no mention of any link either to The River, or to OPV/AIDS theory. Once again, therefore, there is no evidence to support the claims by Koprowski and Plotkin that my work, and/or my book, has caused polio cases (and, by implication, deaths from polio) in Africa.
Dr Plotkin’s aggressive position is reflected even more clearly in his e-mails. For instance, after viewing an early version of “The Origin of AIDS” for the first time in December 2003, Plotkin sent a furious e-mail (copied to others) to one of the directors, Peter Chappell. He particularly objected to the ending of the film (which suggested that pharmaceutical companies were concerned not only with safety, but also with profits), and he informed Chappell: “From henceforth, any cases of polio occurring in Africa because of fears that the vaccine is contaminated are on your head, and on Hooper’s. For shame!”
I find it particularly disturbing that, in their determination to try to score points, doctors Koprowski and Plotkin repeatedly claim that recent African refusals to take polio vaccine are linked to my book, and repeatedly allege that there are newspaper articles which support these conclusions.
As I have demonstrated, all these claims are fabrications. The consistent use of such fabrications by Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin reflects their repeated use of falsehood, fabrication and misrepresentation in other parts of the “origins of AIDS” debate.
What is most astonishing about this is that these gentlemen do not seem to realise that by repeatedly fabricating and falsifying evidence they do huge damage both to their credibility, and to their honour.
There was also one apparently independent confirmation that “The River” had damaged the polio vaccination drive in Kenya, and this came from Jon Cohen, who is the resident AIDS reporter for Science magazine. In an article of his (“The Hunt for the Origin of AIDS”) which was published in the October 2000 edition of Atlantic Monthly, Cohen wrote as follows:
Omu Anzala, an AIDS-vaccine researcher at the University of Nairobi, says that ripples from The River have “caused many problems” in Kenya. “When people read The River and they are not very scientific, the arguments are pretty convincing”, he says. Claiming that the vaccine contains HIV, some Kenyan clergymen have recently discouraged their countrymen from taking part in the current campaign to eradicate polio (which uses a thoroughly tested, contaminant-free OPV). “In the last six or seven months we’ve been trying to vaccinate as many people as we can”, Anzala says. “But certain segments of society have been saying, “Who knows whether the vaccine isn’t contaminated?”
This was an interesting paragraph. Although Cohen’s commentary implied that Anzala had linked the book to Kenyan rejection of the vaccine, the quoted passages by Anzala did not in themselves support that conclusion.
In July 2004 I caught up with Professor Anzala at his office in the University of Nairobi, and read him the passage in Jon Cohen’s article. His response was interesting. He repeatedly denied having made these statements, or, indeed, ever having spoken with any journalist about my book. He recalled speaking with Jon Cohen, but said that their discussion had been about AIDS vaccines. He said he had read The River twice and found it a fascinating book, one that had “raised issues that are still being discussed”. When I asked whether he felt that the book had caused any problems for Kenya’s polio eradication drive, Anzala replied: “The problems we have had with polio vaccination have been political problems, and have had nothing to do with The River.”
Jon Cohen has a long history of writing about the OPV/AIDS theory, and down the years his reporting of it has been disturbingly partisan. His first report dealt with Tom Curtis’s article in Rolling Stone, and was condescendingly titled: “Debate on AIDS origin: Rolling Stone weighs in”. He was dismissive of Curtis’s article, and quoted Hilary Koprowski as having told him, Cohen, that “macaques from the Philippines and India” had been used to make the vaccine used in the Congo. Later, in a follow-up letter also published in Science, Cohen claimed that with regard to the source of the kidneys for Koprowski’s vaccine, “I based what I wrote both on what he told me and what he published at the time.”
Many years later, in the months preceding the Royal Society meeting, I heard on the grapevine that Cohen was preparing a long article about the origins debate. Going against the advice of several others, who advised me that Cohen would try to denigrate the hypothesis come what may, I phoned Cohen and invited him to ask me anything he wanted about my work. He said that he had intended to contact me anyway, and so, during the next three or four weeks, we spent several hours on the phone and exchanged several e-mails.
Towards the end of this lengthy exchange, much of which had taken place on my phone time, I asked Cohen if I could put a few questions to him about his responses to the Tom Curtis article, and he agreed. Among these questions, I asked him what his sources were for his statement in Science that he had based what he had written about the kidneys used for making Koprowski’s vaccines “both on what [Koprowski] told me and what he published at the time.”
Cohen responded to my question by e-mail, as follows: “I was referring to page 1153 of ‘Live Poliomyelitis Virus Vaccines’, JAMA, 178(12), December 23, 1961. ‘The material used for growing polioviruses in tissue culture consists of living cells obtained from the freshly harvested kidneys from monkeys brought to the U.S. either from India or the Philippines.'”
The interesting thing about this Koprowski article is that it was published in December 1961, more than a year after Koprowski’s vaccines had been rejected in the US in favour of Sabin’s. Despite this, and the fact that he had by then written thirty-odd articles about polio vaccines, this was the first published statement that Koprowski had ever made about the specific primate species used for growing polioviruses. It was, I felt, something that Koprowski had published after the event, rather than “at the time”.
Furthermore (and more crucially), Koprowski’s statement about using Asian monkeys as a substrate appeared in a section of the article called “The Host Cell”, which uses the passive voice throughout, and which described general techniques then in use in different labs. What was most striking was that in this article, where he had an ideal opportunity to reveal which species he himself had been using, Koprowski failed to do so. He wrote not about the primate species that he himself had used, but instead about the species that are commonly used. (The passive voice, I have since learnt, is one that Koprowski often likes to adopt, especially – it seems – when he wishes to avoid becoming too specific in his statements.)
In his e-mail, Cohen acknowledged that the heading “The Host Cell” was general, that “the passive voice used throughout confuses things”. However, Cohen added that he didn’t agree with me that the context “makes it clear” that Koprowski is referring to techniques generally used, rather than ones he himself had used. He then repeated: “I think the context is confusing”.
Yet by writing this, Cohen admits the flaw in his own argument. In his letter to Science, he had claimed that this particular section of Koprowski’s article had supported Koprowski’s claims that he had used macaque kidneys to make his polio vaccines, and yet he now admitted that Koprowski’s writing in this instance was “confusing”. The Koprowski article had not really been “written at the time” (as Cohen had claimed), and it had not supported Koprowski’s claims of the 1990s that he had only used macaque kidneys as a polio vaccine substrate. Within the context of American journalism which is, at least nominally, religious about its sourcing, Jon Cohen had therefore misled the reader.
Cohen had ended that e-mail to me as follows: “I will admit this: I find re-analyzing Curtis’s article, my response to it, and your responses to my responses tedious and beside the point of exploring your thinking about the origin of the AIDS epidemic.”
That tetchy final statement was revealing, not least because this particular exchange had not been agreed to on the basis of his exploring my responses, but rather of my exploring his. I suspected that the other reason for his tetchiness was that he had been caught out in an error (though he still wasn’t admitting it).
In the end, Cohen’s report of the Royal Society origins meeting in Science was fair and balanced. But his Atlantic Monthly article is a very different kettle of fish. It is a deeply biased article, one that consistently praises the scientists opposing OPV/AIDS, while fairly relentlessly disparaging me.
To take but one example from Cohen’s text: “Hooper has devoted the past decade to researching his book; he portrays himself as an indefatigable investigator who will go to enormous lengths to confront mainstream researchers with their inconsistencies, illogical conclusions, and outright errors. (The River takes me to task as well, for a 1992 Science article in which I critically examined a Rolling Stone story by Tom Curtis about the polio-vaccine theory.) Hooper’s persona in the book is often professorial – “we shall see”, “let us” and “one wonders” – and even condescending, and many researchers who have spoken with him find him obstinate, overzealous, belligerent or worse.”
By the time I had read Cohen’s Atlantic article, I had concluded that here was a man I no longer trusted. I felt he was a very clever man, certainly, but one with a prior agenda, and one who, despite his apparently meticulous attention to detail, occasionally bent the rules (as in the example detailed above). Professor Odzala’s recent denials that he was accurately quoted by Cohen only serve to increase my doubts about him.
In any case, between 2000 and the present, I have heard other revealing stories about Jon Cohen. After our lengthy exchange by phone and e-mail, Cohen and I finally met up at the beginning of the Royal Society meeting, when he strode up to me, full of charm and apparent friendliness. By that stage, of course, his assassination job in the Atlantic was already completed – and down at the printers – so at the very least his approach to me was disingenuous. But in the weeks that followed, I heard from others who had spoken to Cohen, or who had heard him in conversation, at the meeting. Apparently he had been rather outspoken about his opposition to me and to the OPV/AIDS theory. One particular source of indignation, apparently, was his assertion that when I had interviewed Koprowski, Plotkin and others, I had not made it clear to them that I was especially interested in the origin of AIDS, and its possible links to CHAT vaccine.
But once again, Cohen’s stance was partisan. I have made my interest in the AIDS/polio controversy quite clear to most of my interviewees, including doctors Koprowski and Plotkin. However, I was under no obligation to do this. Does Jon Cohen really believe that at the start of every interview I should have said “I am currently 90% persuaded that CHAT vaccine as fed in Africa is linked to the start of the AIDS pandemic”? Does Cohen himself, I wonder, give such a statement of intent at the beginning of all his interviews – including those that deal with controversial topics?
The other interesting story I heard about Cohen came from a professor based in the US, who had had some dealings with Hilary Koprowski in the nineties. The two men had apparently been talking about the Tom Curtis article in Rolling Stone, and Koprowski had been expressing his disgust. “Well at least you seem to have a supporter in Jon Cohen”, said the professor, who had read the exchanges in Science. Koprowski apparently looked at him for some seconds, and then very deliberately mimed putting something into his top pocket. What did that mean?, I asked the professor. “Koprowski was indicating that he had Cohen in his pocket”, he explained.
Be that as it may (and I personally retain some doubts about whether Koprowski’s alleged implication is true), I do believe that Jon Cohen’s interventions in the “origins of AIDS” debate have been fairly consistently biased towards Hilary Koprowski’s position.
There is one major caveat to the last statement, which relates to when Cohen highlighted the shortcomings of phylogenetic dating as a method to predict the birth-date of HIV. I have been writing about the inherent flaws in the phylogenetic dating of HIV-1 for some years now, because the claim that the origins of HIV-1 can be accurately calculated (to the 1930s or 1940s) is a central tenet of committed OPV/AIDS opponents such as Hilary Koprowski, Stanley Plotkin, Beatrice Hahn and Robin Weiss.
It was, however, with some surprise that I came across Jon Cohen’s Science report of the 2002 International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, in the middle of which he wrote the following about the impact of recombination on phylogenetic dating:
“By isolating individual HIV-infected cells, Meyerhans and co-workers found evidence of at least two different variants – and as many as eight – a staggering 75% of the time. ‘It’s a really interesting and beautiful study,’ said Walker. The finding, published in this week’s issue of Nature, might help solve a long-standing puzzle: why multidrug resistance variants surface so quickly. It also raises serious questions about phylogeny trees that attempt to date the origin of HIV, all of which intentionally discard suspected recombinants to make the data interpretable.” [Science 2002; 297, 312-313]