The annexing of the Stanleyville samples: potential “fossil evidence” of ancient HIV-1 falls into the wrong hands
In July 2003 and February 2004, I posted essays on the Web which featured warnings that scientists associated with the Catholic University of Leuven (known as KUL in Belgium), and with Hilary Koprowski’s aide-de-camp, Stanley Plotkin, had been attempting to annexe 1950s biopsy and autopsy samples found in the basement of the old Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville (LMS), in what is now Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On May 1st, 2004 I posted a further essay on this site which confirmed the worst. This article ended with a section entitled: “Concern about possible faking of an ancient HIV-1 sample”, which confirmed that a team led by Stanley Plotkin had indeed managed to obtain some of the Stanleyville samples.
I recently received a package of documents from an anonymous source which revealed further worrying details about how these doctors went about obtaining these samples.
What the new documents reveal
At this stage, I am not prepared to reveal all the significant details that emerge from these papers.
However, some of this information does need to be placed promptly in the public domain.
- The papers include details about a meeting that took place in Jan Desmyter’s office at the Virology Department of KUL in April 2001, soon after the agronomist, Professor Hugo Gevaerts, returned from a 3-week visit to Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Professor Gevaerts, who was born in Stanleyville, visits Kisangani annually, and is the major conduit for Belgian government assistance to such institutions as the University of Kisangani. He is therefore an extremely influential man in that city.
- The meeting featured Desmyter, Gevaerts, Dirk Teuwen and Dudu Akaibe, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Kisangani. (Desmyter and Teuwen are two of the three members of Stanley Plotkin’s defence team against the OPV theory, while Gevaerts and Akaibe are their main collaborators in the DRC. One of the documents describes Akaibe as follows: “Second to Gevaerts, he is our best man in Kisangani.”)
- In addition, Simon Wain-Hobson was invited to attend the meeting, but was unable to do so. Instead, Desmyter raised the possibility that Wain-Hobson might be able to link in to the meeting by phone; we do not know if this actually happened. What is clear from the documents, however, is that Wain-Hobson had been fully briefed about the Stanleyville samples, and was collaborating with the Plotkin/Desmyter team, presumably through having offered to test the samples for the presence of HIV (and perhaps other viruses too). This collaboration is not entirely surprising, for it is increasingly apparent that Wain-Hobson (one of the co-organisers of the Royal Society meeting in September 2000) has been “close” with the Plotkin group for some time. The only significant question is when that process began, but there are several strands of evidence which suggest that it started even before the Royal Society meeting.
- The key paper in the report is marked as being confidential to Desmyter, Gevaerts, Teuwen, Wain-Hobson, and Plotkin. This reveals that those present at the meeting were effectively reporting directly to Stanley Plotkin.
- The papers reveal that ongoing attempts to obtain the Stanleyville samples were to be funded by Aventis Pasteur, as was the participation of Dudu Akaibe in the project. Aventis Pasteur is the name for the Pasteur Institute’s vaccine-related business, which was previously known as Pasteur Merieux Connaught Vaccines, and Dirk Teuwen is an Aventis employee who was apparently put on paid sabbatical by that company, in order to assist Stanley Plotkin oppose the OPV theory. Professor Plotkin was Medical and Scientific Director of Pasteur Merieux Connaught Vaccines until that organisation was merged with Aventis in 2001. At that stage, it seems, he stepped down from the directorship to assume the more honorary title of “medical and scientific advisor”.
- In the years since 2001, Plotkin has continued to describe himself as a member of Aventis Pasteur when he attends conferences on such issues as the bioterrorist threat. Intriguingly, however, in matters to do with the origins of AIDS (such as the Royal Society proceedings, published in July 2001), he tends to describe himself only as a member of the Wistar Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. The timing of Plotkin’s ceasing to be director of the company is interesting, in that it seems to tie in rather well with his decision to focus on attempts to disprove and/or discredit the OPV/AIDS hypothesis. To date, such attempts have been based on distortion, misinformation and untruth. Put in crude terms, by distancing himself from Aventis Pasteur, Plotkin may feel that he has freed himself up to “fight dirty”. What these latest documents reveal, however, is important – that Aventis Pasteur is actively helping to fund the battle to “disprove” the OPV hypothesis by any means, fair or foul.
- The papers make clear just what a remarkable discovery the Dean of Medicine of the University of Kisangani, Dr Kayembe, had made in the basement of the old Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville [LMS] building. According to the documents, these archival materials featured (a) glass slides of human biopsies numbered from 1 to 30,000, and covering the years from 1939 to 1960; it is unclear how many are still extant; (b) a chest three metres long and two metres high, containing paraffin blocks taken at biopsy (and presumably autopsy); apparently labels featuring year and biopsy number were “partially preserved”; (c) three large registers from 1955 and 1956, cross-referencing all biopsy samples taken in Stanleyville during that period. Apparently no other registers could be found.
- The papers state that, “with full permission”, Hugo Gevaerts selected 200 of the slides and an unknown number of the paraffin blocks to take with him from Kisangani to Belgium, and that only later did the Rector of the University, Professor Mango Adibi, backtrack, and order Gevaerts “to empty his bag” and leave the archival materials behind in Kisangani. The document ascribes this sudden change of heart to my unexpected arrival in Kisangani, accompanied by two journalists; (this was in fact the MFP film crew).
- Yet the version of events that I heard (supported by two different witnesses) was significantly different. This was that, a day or two before my arrival, the Rector of the University accompanied Gevaerts to the office of the Dean of the Medical Faculty, Dr Kayembe, who was “up-country” for a few days, and ordered that a locked cupboard containing some of the samples should be opened, so that Gevaerts could take what he wanted. Gevaerts took blocks and slides, and recorded what he had taken. When Kayembe returned, he objected strongly to the seizing, without his permission, of the material that he himself had located in the basement. The Rector convened a meeting of deans of science and medicine, and senior professors, at which Kayembe continued to object, and so the Rector concluded that on this occasion Gevaerts should take nothing with him: the materials would be returned to Kayembe, and placed under lock and key once more. At the same time, however, a wave of anti-Hooper, anti-River feeling had been whipped up at the meeting (apparently by the professors of the Faculty of Science, perhaps with the Rector’s acquiescence), and so the Rector closed by making a clear undertaking that he would not in any way help or collaborate with me.
- Accompanied by the co-director of the film, Peter Chappell (who speaks fluent French), I had a meeting with the Rector and three of his senior professors (including two from the science faculty) a day or two after this. With varying degrees of finesse and rudeness, they made it clear that they would not help our researches in any way. As I recall, much of the reasoning was circuitous and even illogical: we got the clear impression that (for whatever reason) they were determined to block our research in any way possible. The Rector even refused permission for us to set foot inside the old Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville building (which is now part of University property). I was taken aback by this, not least because I had met and spoken cordially with one of these professors two years earlier, when I was with Bill Hamilton. The response now was: “Hamilton is dead. If you want us to collaborate with you, come back here in the company of a living scientist.”
- The documents go a long way towards explaining why we encountered such implacable opposition. They reveal that in “1999/2000”, there were two significant developments with regard to foreign aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and specifically to the University of Kisangani. First, a team of Belgian professors visited the DRC to allocate Belgian government money (AGCD funds) for African cooperation, and ended up giving three times more to the Faculty of Sciences in Kisangani than to any other project in the country; by contrast, the Faculty of Medicine in that city apparently got nothing. Second, the WHO decided to establish two WHO Public Health and Reference labs in the DRC, and (rather strangely) allocated part of the money to the Faculty of Sciences (not Medicine) in Kisangani. [The other recipient was the INRB, the Institut National de Recherches Biologiques, a lab started by the French in the 1990s in the capital, Kinshasa, which is staffed by French military doctors.]
- What this account neglects to mention is that Gevaerts was the leading figure in the team of Belgian professors that allocated the AGCD funds, and that the funds for the Science faculty were lavish, and included money for computers and bicycles. The Rector and some of the science deans were apparently among those who benefited personally. So although one of the documents claims that Gevaerts had nothing to do with our exclusion from the old LMS building, what is very clear is that these men knew which side their bread was buttered.
- The documents also reveal that at the April 2001 meeting in Leuven, a follow-up plan was devised to gain access to the archival materials that Gevaerts had selected, but had had to leave behind. Once Akaibe (now funded by Aventis Pasteur money) had returned to Kisangani, he would check whether the Dean of Medicine, Kayembe, still had the materials in question, and then he would fax this information back to Desmyter. Then Desmyter would arrange with the Dean of Medicine at the University of Leuven, Professor J. Janssens, to invite Kayembe to Leuven for two to three weeks of discussions with the Leuven deans, with Desmyter, and possibly with the Rector of KUL, about future cooperation. It would be made clear that the invitation depended on Kayembe bringing with him the specimens which Gevaerts had selected for testing. Desmyter goes on to say that Janssens would never approve this plan if it involved faculty money. However, Desmyter makes it clear that “the Aventis Pasteur dollars” should take care of this, apart from which he knows of certain other funds that are available. (This latter may possibly be a reference to private funds from Koprowski and/or Plotkin.)
- One additional comment about Hugo Gevaerts. In a phone interview with me in 2003, Gevaerts insisted that he had never had any of the blocks and slides in his possession. Similarly, Gevaerts told a researcher from MFP in 2001 that he was not directly involved with the attempt to obtain blocks and slides, but had only been trying to help out other scientists. These papers make it clear that he is, in fact, an active collaborator with the other scientists in the Plotkin/Desmyter group. Such contradictions confirm that Professor Gevaerts does not always tell the truth. I suspect that a further example of such behaviour may have been Gevaerts’s indignant denial on the phone to me that he had ever visited the site of Lindi camp – a denial that is contradicted by several other witnesses. These witnesses indicate that about a week before my own visit to Lindi in April 2001, Gevaerts and two African colleagues visited the site of the camp, in order to interview some of those who had taken part in the chimpanzee research. These and other sources say that a day or two after Gevaerts’s visit, one of his African colleagues returned, and spoke privately with the local village chief, after which a large sign which had been positioned on top of a sealed sewage outfall from Lindi camp was cut from its bolts and removed. The sign apparently featured a lot of words in a “foreign language” (which could be either French or English, more probably the former).
- Jan Desmyter is not unaware of the importance of these samples. In the key document, he describes the subject of the April 2001 meeting as follows: “Archives of ‘Origins of AIDS’ interest at the Laboratoire Medicale, Kisangani.” He knows that these archival materials represent unprecedented access to the “primary rock face” which, in this instance, means body tissues from the Belgian Congo from the mid-1950s, and not just from the Congo, but specifically from Stanleyville, the headquarters of the Koprowski vaccine trials. I believe Jan Desmyter is well aware that the rock layers may include important fossils, including fossil evidence of ancient HIV-1.
- One last point. In my discussions in Kisangani (Stanleyville) in 2001, the impression I was given was that all the biopsy samples dated from 1955 onwards. Now this documentary evidence seems to indicate that some of them date from as early as 1939. I have, therefore, to acknowledge the possibility that these documents might conceivably have been leaked to me deliberately, in order to validate the claim that they include materials from the thirties and forties. I believe this to be unlikely, but worthy of mention none the less.
Why Plotkin, Desmyter and Wain-Hobson should not have been involved with testing the Stanleyville samples
The archival Stanleyville samples represent a potential gold mine, but they should undoubtedly have been tested for the presence of HIV and other viruses by neutral scientists.
I now have evidence (which will be published in due course) that Hilary Koprowski was testing his polio vaccines in Stanleyville from (at the latest) 1955 onwards, not 1957 as previously assumed. 300 persons (at the least) received versions of Koprowski vaccines in Stanleyville before the formal start of the CHAT vaccine trials in February 1957.
Should any early isolates of HIV-1 be found among the samples pre-dating, or post-dating, the start of the Stanleyville OPV trials (which I believe to have been in 1955), this could throw significant light on the origins of the AIDS pandemic.
For instance, if an HIV-1 isolate dating from before 1955 was detected in the Stanleyville samples, this might indicate that HIV and AIDS existed before the OPV trials. However, in the current situation, extreme caution would be required, because of the possibility of one of these samples being “transposed” to an earlier period in time [see below].
However, if genuine isolates of HIV-1 were not detected in Stanleyville between 1939 and 1954, but were only detected from 1955 onwards, this would strongly suggest that the virus had been introduced by a new factor – such as the Koprowski vaccines.
Unfortunately, the very last people that should have been testing these samples are doctors Plotkin, Desmyter and Wain-Hobson, all of whom have been revealed (on this site, and elsewhere) as being active collaborators in the attempt to suppress the OPV/AIDS theory through fair means or foul. The fact that they have obtained these samples in a furtive and clandestine manner only raises further concerns about their intentions.
In the past, several of these scientists have grievously misrepresented the truth in their attempts to prove that the activities of Koprowski and Plotkin in Africa in the 1950s were not linked to the birth of AIDS.
I believe that these are men with strong vested interests in the origins-of-AIDS debate, and there is no way that they can be considered as independent or neutral investigators. Their method of obtaining and subsequent treatment of the Stanleyville samples can only be viewed within the context of an attempted cover-up.
Given this background, if one of them did discover an early HIV-1 among the Stanleyville samples that post-date the OPV trials, would we expect that individual to report the discovery? Or suppress it?
Indeed, there is an even more worrying scenario. Might not one of these scientists be tempted to insert an HIV-positive sample from Stanleyville from (say) 1957 into a series that pre-dated the OPV trials – for instance by presenting it as one of the Stanleyville samples from (say) 1941, or 1952? Or, indeed, a sample from Franceville, or Brazzaville, from the same time period?
A series containing such a mislabelled sample could then be tested (in good faith) by an entirely independent scientist, and used in an attempt to prove that AIDS predated the Koprowski vaccine trials.
Given that the stakes are so very high, and might involve not just the ruination of reputations but also billion-dollar law-suits, the latter possibility may be less far-fetched than it might at first seem.
What honest scientists would have done
Since it first became clear to me (in April 2001) that the Plotkin/Desmyter group was trying to obtain these samples, and since it also became clear that they had collaborators acting for them among the senior hierarchy at the University of Kisanagani, I have regarded it as almost inevitable that they would eventually succeed in obtaining at least some of the samples.
The fact that they have done so was confirmed to me a Belgian professor, Paul Gigase, earlier this year , and he made it clear that the Plotkin/Desmyter group had already had the samples for some time. It is not known whether they were obtained through Professor Kayembe or not, but certain evidence suggests to me that he may not have been involved, at least directly. During our conversation, Professor Gigase expressed surprise and concern that the Desmyter group had not yet announced anything about the samples; the manner in which he spoke suggested that he too was concerned about possible foul play.
My personal guess is that the Plotkin/Desmyter group has been in possession of these samples since 2002 at latest – in other words, for at least two years. During that time, they must have had substantial opportunity to test the samples for HIV.
If they had had an interest in conducting (and being seen to conduct) these tests in an independent and impartial fashion, then immediately after obtaining the samples (or even before), one of their number could have contacted either Brian Martin or myself, and invited us to nominate another scientist to test aliquots of the samples in tandem with Desmyter and/or Wain-Hobson. If this had happened, and if (in broad terms) both pro-OPV and anti-OPV scientists had been involved in the testing, then the testing process would then have stood a good chance of being widely viewed as “free and fair”.
Instead of this, these scientists obtained their samples in clandestine fashion, and since then have announced nothing. This means that the integrity of the samples, as items of historical record, may well have been compromised. Any amount of tampering or relabelling could have taken place, and we would be none the wiser.
Some questions that need to be asked about the bushmeat theory
Those scientists (like Plotkin, Desmyter and Wain-Hobson) who insist that the OPV theory must be wrong all subscribe to some version of the “bushmeat” or “cut hunter” theory, which proposes that pandemic AIDS began as a result of a single transfer of chimpanzee SIV to a human – perhaps a bushmeat-hunter or bushmeat-seller with cuts on his or her hands. However, this theory contains rather a large number of logical flaws.
Evidence derived from the genetic analysis of different HIV-1 strains indicates that recombination between different HIV-1 subtypes occurred early in the history of HIV-1. Bushmeat proponents suggest that this might have happened when people infected with different HIV-1 subtypes met and had sex in the early days of the epidemic, (perhaps in or around the 1950s). This strikes me as extremely far-fetched, for at the start of the epidemic, the chances of any two different subtypes of HIV-1 meeting in that way (let alone several, which is what this theory requires) would have been infinitesimally small.
And there is another hitch. From the perspective of the bushmeat theory (which assumes a single chimp-to-human transfer giving birth to pandemic HIV-1), how would such different subtypes have evolved from the index infectee in the first place, especially when (according to bushmeat theory logic) this must have happened in the space of perhaps 25 years, at most?
Add to these a third leap of faith required by bushmeat advocates – that the initial transfer occurred (as they claim) in Gabon, Cameroon or Congo Brazzaville, and yet the pandemic (as is now universally acknowledged) had its epicentre in the Belgian Congo/DRC – and it becomes apparent that the bushmeat theory is built on sand.
What the bushmeat advocates actually require for their theory to be viable are three extraordinary (and almost inexplicable) coincidences.
To my mind, the only credible explanation for the recombination of viruses at, or very near, the start of the AIDS pandemic would have been via a tissue culture derived from several different chimps, at least two of which were infected with different variants of SIV.
Apparently that’s all it would have required to engender the different subtypes of HIV-1, and the global epidemic witnessed today.
A final word of warning
Even if a genuine isolate of “early HIV-1”, or chimpanzee SIV, is ever found in human sera or tissues dating from before 1955, this would not in itself represent hard evidence that the “birth of AIDS” predated the OPV trials. This is because casual transfer of SIVs from chimps to humans probably has occurred on several occasions during the last couple of million years, but that prior to the twentieth century it apparently never resulted in a human epidemic. It is certainly theoretically possible that a person such as a hunter or a bushmeat-seller could become transiently infected with a chimpanzee SIV. What is important, however, is whether that person passed it on to others as a human-adapted virus: a virus that was both infectious and pathogenic (i.e. could cause AIDS).
An example of HIV-1, apparently dating from 1959, was discovered in 1985, but since then nobody has managed to locate an earlier sample. If a more ancient variant of HIV-1 is ever found, its genetic sequence must therefore be carefully compared to modern strains to see whether it could conceivably have been ancestral to the present-day pandemic. The alternative is that it might have been a chimpanzee SIV that transiently infected one individual – a virus that was planted, but failed to grow, in Homo sapiens. Whether or not it caused any disease, such a virus would have ceased its brief existence as a “human virus” when its human host died.
Trials of Koprowski vaccines were already taking place in Stanleyville in 1955.
It is a matter of public record (reported in a paper by Paul Osterrieth, head of virology at the LMS) that there were several fatal Klebsiella pneumoniae cases in Stanleyville in the second half of the 1950s; this outbreak can only have occurred after Osterrieth arrived in that city, in July 1956. There was also, according to Pierre Doupagne, a sudden dramatic rise in Candida albicans infections in Stanleyville in the late fifties. Both of these are among the small group of infections that are typical opportunistic infections of AIDS.
I personally believe that some of the samples obtained at the Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville from 1955 onwards (at least some of which are now in the possession of the Desmyter/Plotkin/Wain-Hobson group) may contain examples of the earliest HIV-1 infections in the world. The donors of such tissues would, I believe, have been infected with the immediate ancestral viruses, namely chimpanzee SIVs, probably in recombinant form.
Such recombinant chimp SIVs were afforded a short-term window of opportunity for transfer to Homo sapiens by a unique event that occurred in Stanleyville between 1955 and 1960. This unique event was the human testing of live polio vaccines that had been grown in chimp tissue cultures in the Stanleyville lab.
However, thanks to doctors Plotkin, Desmyter, Wain-Hobson, Teuwen, Gevaerts and Akaibe, it now seems possible that we will now never know for sure. For it may well be that these scientists are in the process of destroying, or compromising (or have already destroyed or compromised), the only true fossil evidence available.
A lot depends on how much of the material (if any) still remains in Kisangani. If there is still some there, then I believe some independent scientists should also try to procure some of this material, so that they too can conduct tests upon it.
If any scientist out there is genuinely interested in helping to test these samples, then I would be happy to provide background information. Any offers?
Edward Hooper. November 29th, 2004
(a) E. Hooper, “Dephlogistication“, completed on January 1st, 2003; published by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and posted on Brian Martin’s site in July 2003; see page 124 of the Web version of the essay; and (b) E. Hooper, “Could an ancient sample of HIV-1 be faked?” [posted on Brian Martin’s site in February 2004.]
 E. Hooper, “Why the Worobey/Hahn ‘refutation’ of OPV/AIDS theory is wrong, and a warning about dishonest tactics used by opponents of the theory”, posted on on May 1st, 2004. The final section, entitled “Concern about possible faking of an ancient HIV-1 sample”, is copied below.
 M.H. Schierup and R. Forsberg, “Recombination and Phylogenetic Analysis of HIV-1“, Atti dei Convegni Lincei; 2003; 187; 231-245. [Also available on this site.]
 See, for instance, Jon Cohen, “The Hunt for the Origin of AIDS”; Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; 88-104. See page 102 for the thoughts of Donald Burke, former head of the US military’s AIDS research programme.
Extract from reference , above.
Concern about possible faking of an ancient HIV-1 sample
Of particular concern is the recent confirmation that ancient autopsy samples (slides and paraffin blocks from the years 1955-1958) from the basement of the old medical laboratory in Stanleyville (where the OPV experiments were based), were obtained about a year ago by a team of senior Belgian and American scientists led by Dr Stanley Plotkin.
In the late fifties, Plotkin was principal assistant to Dr Hilary Koprowski on the development and testing of CHAT vaccine, including the experimental programme in the Belgian Congo/DRC.
More recently, his support team of scientists has been active in persuading some of those witnesses who had earlier given significant testimony to me to either retract or modify their statements. In several instances, I have evidence of inappropriate pressures being placed on witnesses by members of Plotkin’s team, including attempts to badger a witness into signing a pre-typed statement that was untrue in several respects.
It is known that the Plotkin group has put considerable time, effort and money into obtaining the 1950s Stanleyville samples. Indeed, on one occasion in 2001, an unsuccessful attempt was made by a Belgian collaborator to misappropriate several hundred of the slides.
The news that they have been successful is worrying, because in no respect can the Plotkin group be considered “independent testers” of these important biomedical materials.
The Plotkins have kept their acquisition of these samples a secret. I only came to learn that they had acquired them because I recently met a Belgian professor who had played some role in helping the Plotkins in their early research. He expressed surprise and some concern that they had reported nothing of their findings.
It is believed that some of these samples (from after the start of the OPV trials) may well contain genuine evidence of early HIV-1.
The concern here is not just that an early HIV-positive sample from this era might end up unreported.
It is that an HIV-positive sample from Stanleyville in 1957 might somehow end up misfiled with another group of samples from, say, Brazzaville in 1951, ie from before the time of the OPV trials.
If such a sample were subsequently to be tested in good faith by an independent researcher, then it might subsequently be proclaimed as yet another “disproof” (indeed, as “a final and incontrovertible disproof”) of the OPV/AIDS theory.
Edward Hooper. May 1st, 2004
Extract from reference , above:
“Donald Burke, formerly the head of the US military’s AIDS research programme….questions the validity of every model that has estimated the epidemic’s time of origin, because none has yet allowed for a process called recombination – essentially, the splicing of genes from two sources. A person may become infected with two distinct subtypes of HIV, and they may recombine and form a new strain. Burke believes that HIV may well have relied on recombination to create a strain that could readily spread from person to person. The urbanization of Africa and the imposition by colonialists of a common language, Burke argues, brought together groups – and HIV subtypes – that had previously had little contact with one another, providing opportunities for the development of recombinants and for the spread of viable strains. It is as if someone poured all the various viral strains into one container and then shook it, Burke says.”