Eight years ago Tom Curtis reported that AIDS could have been spread by an experimental polio vaccine grown on monkey kidneys. Scientists sniffed. Journalists scoffed. A polio hero sued. The story died. Now, a new book says the theory wasn’t so stupid after all.
by Brad Tyer, Houston Press, 20-26 January 2000
Tom Curtis — neither a bitter nor an overtly sweet man himself — must have indulged a bittersweet chuckle, sitting in his Galveston office that Tuesday morning, November 30, 1999, reading his New York Times. There on page one of the Science section, reporter Lawrence D. Altman, M.D., had devoted more than 2,000 words to a thoughtful, and respectful, review of The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, a 1,000-plus-page book in which British researcher Edward Hooper builds a provocative, if circumstantial, case for the theory that the worldwide AIDS pandemic originated in massive experimental polio vaccine inoculations carried out in central Africa in the late 1950s.
Curtis would have been familiar with the controversial theory. He was the first to write about it for a broad audience, in a lengthy article titled “The Origin of AIDS,” in Rolling Stone, in February 1992, wherein Curtis took pains to make clear that the theory was just that: a theory, with detractors, whom he quoted at length, and advocates, who suggested further study.
For his trouble, Curtis was largely ridiculed by the scientific press, dismissed by the mainstream press, mocked by some fellow reporters, sued for libel by an eminent scientist and subsequently dropped by his editors like a very hot rock. As a print journalist, Curtis essentially disappeared.
Without referring to Curtis by name, the Times‘s Altman wrote that the 1992 Rolling Stone article had seemed “far-fetched.” But clearly impressed by the extensive endnotes and exhaustive library research evident in Hooper’s book, Altman labeled The River “remarkable” and urged the scientific community to act on Hooper’s recommendations, which include a collection of experiments designed to test the hypothesis.
Never mind that Curtis’s article and Hooper’s book posit essentially the same theory (and call for essentially the same tests, which have yet to be performed). And never mind that it was Curtis’s article, according to Hooper himself, that defined the direction of Hooper’s research for the better part of a decade.
The mostly reasoned reception to Hooper’s book, pro and con, is all the vindication that Curtis is likely to want. The germane issue is not Tom Curtis or Tom Curtis’s career, after all, he’ll say. At issue is a theory, and the freedom — scientific, constitutional — to participate in public discussion of that theory, be it right, wrong or undetermined. Hooper’s book is breaking through some of the barriers that blocked Curtis seven years ago, and that can be only a good thing, he figures. The theory, at last — and at least — is being discussed.
And the numbers are adding up: positive reviews in major magazines, calls for further investigation in scientific journals, editorials urging study published in the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. For Edward Hooper, there is sweet safety in those numbers, in this growing consensus that his story — and the question it contains — is a valid one.
Not like back in 1992, when Tom Curtis and his story found themselves standing bitterly close to all alone.
Tom Curtis today has whitish hair and a whitish moustache and a measured manner of speaking that suggests he’s thinking out several sentences for every word that he actually, carefully, speaks.
“There are reporters who basically join the multitude and love to cover those stories that everyone else is covering,” Curtis says. “I’ve tended to sort of go it alone on stories, and try and follow stories that others are not developing.”
The preference is long practiced. As a freshman at Galveston’s Ball High School, Curtis worked part-time as a copy boy at The Galveston Daily News, and by the time he was a sophomore he was self-publishing a mimeographed collection of observations called “Controversy.” As a senior he wrote for the official Ball High School paper and read the works of early muckrakers Lincoln Steffers and Ida Tarbell.
Curtis left Texas to matriculate at Antioch, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. On the campus green stood a statue of Antioch’s first president, Horace Mann. The inscription, as Curtis remembers it: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some great victory for humanity.”
At Antioch he joined the Young Democrats, edited the college newspaper and saw his very first work-study byline for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on November 22, 1963, buried by the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
When Curtis qualified for a Dow Jones scholarship, which required a written report of his journalistic experience at the hosting newspaper, he blasted the Plain Dealer for being out of touch with its community. Later, when Curtis moved to New York City and applied for a job with the Dow Jones-owned Wall Street Journal, the report was unearthed in his file, and impressed Journal editors hired him to a six-month internship.
After graduating with a degree in political science, Curtis shadowed then-ascendant yippie Abbie Hoffman for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News and earned a fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center think tank. When the fellowship ended during the first Nixon administration, with newspapers nationwide freezing hiring in the plummeting economy, Curtis found his way back to Texas and the Houston Chronicle, which, like the rest of the city it covered, bucked national trends on the strength of a booming oil business.
Curtis spent two and a half years as a general assignments reporter at the Chronicle and says he there learned the lesson, while covering Preston Smith’s 1970 gubernatorial election, that there are investigative stories too close to home for a major metropolitan daily to report.
In 1972, while Curtis covered the Houston Independent School District beat for the Chronicle, he was interviewed by Mike Levy for the job of editor on the magazine Levy hoped to soon begin publishing. Of Levy’s prospects at the time, Curtis says, “I underestimated him considerably.” As it turned out, Levy just walked down the hall and hired HISD’s public relations man, Bill Broyles, as Texas Monthly‘s first editor.
Curtis moved on to the Fort Worth Press, where he envisioned himself in the footsteps of Blood and Money author Tommy Thompson, and worked his way up from the police beat to assistant city editor before moving back to Houston and taking a job as news director at radio station KPFT, freelancing articles to The New York Times to make ends meet during months when KPFT, as he remembers, couldn’t always come up with his $50-per-week salary. When The Washington Post courted Curtis with the promise of bylines (New York Times stringers got none), he opened that paper’s Houston bureau.
In 1977 Curtis sold versions of “The New Gang In Town,” about murderous abuses within the Houston Police Department, to Texas Monthly and The Washington Post. The national media followed Curtis’s road map with a slew of stories that cemented Houston’s longtime reputation as a hotbed of overzealous policing. Then-HPD chief Harry Caldwell called Curtis a “yellow journalist” on television, the HPD newsletter Badge & Gun denounced him, and Curtis started thinking he was hearing strange clicking noises on his phone line, though he never was sure.
In 1978 Curtis got the opportunity to help launch Houston City magazine. At Houston City Curtis became an editor, and a prickly inspiration, to a number of younger journalists who would go on to prominence. Houston’s Mimi Swartz, whose professional trajectory has moved from Houston City to Texas Monthly to the New Yorker to Talk magazine, says Curtis made a journalist of her.
“He taught me how to ask all the right questions. Just about being tough and being persistent and not accepting the view as presented by powerful people. I mean, he made me rewrite stories six times, and I’m afraid they needed it. He was willing to make an investment in young talent, which very few people are.”
When Houston City was sold two years later, new ownership encouraged Curtis to explore other opportunities, so he turned freelance again, selling “The Throwdown,” about Houston cops planting a gun on Randy Webster, to Texas Monthly. That article was optioned and later became a CBS made-for-TV movie, The Killing of Randy Webster, starring Hal Holbrook and Sean Penn. Curtis says he got “twenty or twenty-five thousand” dollars for the story, which he split with the Webster family, using the rest to make a down payment, with his wife, writer Sandy Sheehy, on a house in Houston’s Eastwood subdivision.
By the time The Killing of Randy Webster aired in early 1981, Houston City had been sold again, this time to a Dallas company, and Curtis was hired as editor a second time.
“I got a chance to get back on the horse that threw me,” he remembers. That chance lasted about a year and a half, before Curtis and Houston City parted company once again, Curtis says, over questions of investigative freedom.
In 1982 Curtis got hired on as Houston bureau chief for the late Dallas Times-Herald, where he spent five years. Curtis remembers his reporting on convicted murderer Clarence Brandley — reporting that led to Brandley’s release from prison — as a personal highlight of this period.
In 1987, the same year that Houston City died its final death, Curtis left the Times-Herald to join Texas Monthly as a senior editor, which despite the title is a writing position. The money and the relative security were nice, and the Monthly was a prestigious address.
For most journalists, including those few blessed with both luck and talent, the preceding résumé would constitute a distinguished career. For Tom Curtis, for better or for worse, it was just background.
Three years later, in 1990, Tom Curtis was in the midst of researching what would turn out to be his last story for Texas Monthly.
“Ultimately,” he recalls, “I was ready to be doing something else. And I think they were probably ready for me to be doing something else, too.”
But even before Curtis left the Monthly, he had begun experiencing one of those rare periods of flow that sometimes envelop creative people, when far-flung pieces of complicated puzzles converge, announcing their meanings in clear tones, and time seems to stand still in a continuous present of focus and commitment. When everything, basically, just seems to come together.
“It’s more fun than anything I can think of, to do a good story. It’s almost,” Curtis says now, “like you’re on a surfboard.”
At a perhaps fateful moment, however, Curtis was more precisely on an airplane. He was flying to Arizona to research the background of an obscure and deceased Texas inventor by the name of James Martin, who, Curtis had discovered, was the patent-holder of a simple biological process that held promise, Curtis wrote in his finished story, as “a wondrous elixir that may undo much of the damage man has done to his planet.”
It was a very Tom Curtis sort of story: hidden, mysterious, well beneath the radar of the national press corps, not a little bit hard to believe, and gravid with implication.
On the plane Curtis found himself sitting next to a man wearing a Rice University graduation ring, and Curtis, whose Texas Monthly editors were Rice men, struck up a conversation. The man turned out to be a scientist, and he validated, in theory, some of the biological foundations of the subject for a skeptical and “science-averse” Curtis.
As the flight wore on and the conversation ranged to other topics, the stranger referred Curtis to a California AIDS activist by the name of Blaine Elswood, who was said to have knowledge of an effective and unreported AIDS treatment.
Curtis later contacted Elswood in San Francisco, where he was working as an administrative assistant — “basically just a secretary,” Elswood says now — at the University of California/San Francisco Medical School, and helping set up guerrilla AIDS self-treatment clinics on the side.
Elswood told Curtis about his AIDS treatment story, but Curtis, still at Texas Monthly, couldn’t find a regional hook for that tale. The two stayed in touch, though, and in the fall of 1991 Elswood tipped Curtis to another possible story that he had uncovered in his library research.
“I was living in Houston at the time,” Curtis recalls, “and I had a mail slot in the door, and there was sort of a loud crash through the mail slot, and a heavy envelope fell out, and what was in the envelope was a series of journal articles with this note pinned on top that said, ‘Tom, this is a bombshell story just waiting for an investigative reporter.’ ”
If, up to that point, Curtis had been surfing the crest of a creative flow, the envelope from Elswood set in motion the first eddies of an equally forceful undertow.
The oral polio vaccine, or OPV, theory of AIDS origin is unproved, perhaps unprovable, only one of multiple competing theories, and contrary to the partisan nit-picking and obfuscation its existence has inspired, actually very simple. Its basic premise is this: One or several batches of an early, experimental polio vaccine, which is grown on minced monkey kidney, may have been infected with a then-unknown simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, that survived the vaccine manufacturing process and entered the human population through the inoculation of close to a million Africans in what was the Belgian Congo region between 1957 and 1960, evolving as it crossed the species barrier into human immunodeficiency syndrome, or HIV, which may have infected a large enough percentage of vaccinees to seed the epidemic.
In favor of the theory’s legitimacy are a number of known facts and suggestive coincidences.
One: Scientists have long agreed that HIV is a relative of some of the multiple retroviruses known to be present — for the most part harmlessly — in nonhuman primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees. The so-called missing link — the SIV identical to HIV that some scientists suspect is out there — has yet to be identified, but in February 1999 a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported isolating an SIV in a chimpanzee subspecies native to West Africa that can be closely linked to three major strains of HIV.
Two: The precedent for cross-species transmission of simian viruses to human hosts is long established. Monkey B, a herpes virus expressing only minor symptoms in its monkey hosts, leads to paralysis and often death in humans unfortunate enough to be bitten by a carrier.
Three: The precedent for cross-species transmission of simian viruses to human hosts via polio vaccine is equally well established. The injected vaccine of Dr. Jonas Salk and the sugar-cube vaccine of Dr. Albert Sabin were delivered to an estimated tens of millions of Americans between 1954 and 1963 before it was discovered that a monkey virus named SV-40 had piggybacked its way into the human population in the vaccine. SV-40 has been shown to cause cancer in hamsters, but relatively few studies have been done on the virus’s effect on human health. Now that scientists are aware of the existence of SV-40, of course, it is tested for and screened out in the manufacturing process.
Four: As Curtis demonstrated in his article and Hooper expands upon in The River, there exists a remarkable coincidence of both time and place between the estimated origin of the first recorded AIDS outbreaks and the administration of an experimental polio vaccine created by a Dr. Hilary Koprowski, a contemporary and rival of Sabin’s and Salk’s.
Attached to this basic theory are side issues and blind alleys and tangential evidence and disputed details and clashing interpretations till Tuesday, but these have thus far been unequal to the task of proving the hypothesis as fact, or disproving it as possibility.
Detractors dismiss the OPV-AIDS theory as a whole bunch of maybes. They generally hew to the more widely accepted, but equally unprovable, theory that HIV had for thousands of years jumped the species barrier, now and then, on a small scale, occasionally being transmitted in isolated incidents when maybe a hunter nicked himself while skinning a monkey for food — the Cut Hunter theory — but reached epidemic levels only in modern times, when increased travel, urbanization and sexual freedom sparked its spread.
Advocates of the OPV theory mock what they call the trucker-meets- prostitute theory and question to what extent newfound sexual freedoms were sweeping the rural African countryside in the late 1950s.
The OPV theory, they say, though admittedly unproved, seems to fit the epidemiology, and, well, what if?
It’s that implied “what if” that made so many scientists initially so defensive. A Harvard pathology professor told Curtis that “it’s over, it’s done with, it’s very, very, very unlikely it happened that way.” Curtis quoted a doctor with the World Health Organization’s AIDS program as saying that “the origin of the AIDS virus is of no importance to science today. Any speculation on how it arose is of no importance.”
Science magazine dismissively lumped Curtis’s article with previous “wild speculations, many of them heavy with the odor of conspiracy,” about the origin of AIDS, going out of its way to color Rolling Stone as a mere “rock-and-roll magazine” and quoting one of Curtis’s sources as being unhappy at having been used to serve Curtis’s conclusion.
Lost in the smear was the fact that Curtis’s article had concluded nothing about the theory other than that it could, conceivably, have happened that way — a conclusion explicitly, if hesitantly, endorsed in quotes from America’s preeminent AIDS researcher at the time, Dr. Robert Gallo.
A panel of scientists convened by Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, employer of Dr. Hilary Koprowski and onetime manufacturer of the vaccine in question, proclaimed the theory’s likelihood exceedingly small, and at the same time recommended, in seeming contradiction to its own sense of probability, that polio vaccines should henceforth be grown on human cell lines instead of on monkey kidney, because of the risk of transmitting unknown monkey viruses to humans.
The theory’s implications — however small its likelihood — were huge. If the OPV-AIDS theory were proved, or even widely accepted, it could seriously dent the public’s confidence in medical science’s widely assumed infallibility. That same public might begin to question, or even, perhaps tragically, to refuse polio vaccinations under a mistaken impression of risk, and this just as medical science is on the verge of eradicating polio from the planet, like smallpox before it, the second major viral threat to be erased in the 20th century.
What of the geopolitical ramifications, if a naturalized American doctor born in Poland were found to have squirted the AIDS virus, however unwittingly, into the mouths of close to a million Africans, many of them children, with nothing but the permission of a Belgian colonial government and his own place in the race to eradicate polio justifying his actions?
What of the question of legal and moral responsibility toward the infected?
And what of the reputation of Dr. Hilary Koprowski himself, described in Curtis’s 1992 article as a “charming, deep-voiced man of seventy-five,” alive today and employed as a professor of microbiology and immunology at Thomas Jefferson University? Koprowski is one of the pioneers and heroes of science’s victory over polio, undoubtedly one of medicine’s most shining moments. By quirks of bureaucracy, luck and fate, doctors Sabin and especially Salk had become household names for their roles in developing the polio vaccine, while Hilary Koprowski was mostly forgotten outside of scientific circles.
He quite reasonably did not want his name revived and remembered as the man who gave the world AIDS.
He didn’t want that so very much that Koprowski, a scientist who had helped eradicate polio, sued Tom Curtis, a journalist who had written about an unproved theory, for libel.
It just so happens that Tom Curtis’s older brother, Michael Kent Curtis, had become, after an early career as a civil rights lawyer, a professor of constitutional law and free speech issues at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Professor Curtis ended up publishing a paper about his brother’s case, titled “Monkey Trials: Science, Defamation, and the Suppression of Dissent,” in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal.
Boiled down, the paper’s 85 pages convey the elder Curtis’s opinion, recently restated, that “the idea of suing people for propounding a scientific hypothesis — saying, ‘This might have happened and it warrants further investigation’ — it’s a very disturbing idea, because it has the potential to chill discussion and learning. I’m not an expert in this field, I’m not a biologist, but my horseback opinion, for what it’s worth, is nobody knows exactly where AIDS came from, and nobody knows with certainty whether something like what is propounded in this theory might be right or not. But at a minimum, you ought to be able to talk about these things. When you’re dealing with things like theories in the natural sciences or theories about how society works, there ought to be very broad protection for such discussion.”
The elder Curtis’s hunch was never tested, because Koprowski’s suit, which also named Rolling Stone as a defendant, was settled out of court for a reported $1 and a “clarification” published in Rolling Stone that bowed and scraped before Koprowski’s reputation, reiterated that the article had reported a hypothesis, not a finding, and retracted not a single thing from the text of Curtis’s article.
The damage, however, was done.
Curtis had been drafting a follow-up article on the topic for Rolling Stone; after the settlement, his editor Robert Love paid him a kill fee for work he had done so far on the story that would never see print. Love, now Rolling Stone’s managing editor, penned an editor’s note in Rolling Stone‘s latest issue (January 20, 2000) about Edward Hooper’s new book, mentioning Curtis and his story briefly, Koprowski’s lawsuit more briefly still, the kill fee not at all, and calling for further scientific, and not legal, action. Love failed to return multiple phone calls for this story.
From March through October 1992, Curtis freelanced a series on developments in the story to The Houston Post. Chris Lavin, then an assistant city editor who worked with Curtis on the series, recalls the stories being complicated and difficult to edit, and the presence of dissent among reporters in the newsroom over the story’s value. Lavin herself thought the series was a Pulitzer contender, though not all of her colleagues agreed.
“I just chalked that up to newsroom bickering,” Lavin says now.
On October 23, 1992, Curtis’s reporting on the Wistar Institute’s recommendations ran deep inside the paper, on page A-16. And with that, oddly, the series ended.
Curtis says he can’t remember any specific communications that his story would not be followed up, just “a great chill in the atmosphere. I got the message.”
The Post, Lavin says, hung Curtis out to dry.
Koprowski’s suit, Curtis says, cost Rolling Stone half a million dollars in legal fees, plus the $1 settlement. Curtis resists attempts to paint him as a victim, but the suit clearly didn’t do his career much good either.
“It took approximately a year out of my life when I was running back and forth to New York to assist the lawyers and get deposed. I continued to freelance, but I really was not able to follow up on this story. I really would like to have followed up on it, I would like to have done a book, and I guess I was saddened to realize the uncomfortable lesson that if you are not rich, and somebody is rich, and you are a freelance writer who wants to pursue something, it is so very easy to shut you up. Because who’s going to step into this breach and want to get sued and have to spend a bunch of money on lawyers, even if in the end it turns out that the writer is right?”
The question is rhetorical, but it’s got an answer still: Until Edward Hooper’s book, eight years later, Tom Curtis’s OPV-AIDS story was a breach into which no one was willing to step.
Edward Hooper, of Somerset, England, remembers reading about Tom Curtis’s “The Origin of AIDS” article in a publication called AIDS Newsletter, to which Hooper subscribed and sometimes contributed. Hooper called the newsletter’s editors and asked them to send him a copy of Curtis’s article. Hooper, a onetime BBC correspondent, had already published a short book of reportage called Slim about the African AIDS crisis, and was two years into sporadic research toward what would become The River.
Hooper read the article and found himself first impressed then, increasingly, excited. Curtis had pointed out rough correlations between those areas of the African map where the earliest cases of AIDS emerged and Koprowski’s polio vaccine had been tested. Hooper says he recognized from his own research that “the correlations were in fact far tighter” than even Curtis seemed to know.
Curtis had speculated that Koprowski’s vaccine-growing medium might have been African green monkey kidney, but Hooper knew that chimpanzees were a more likely carrier of the relevant SIV, and Curtis’s passing mention of a large camp of chimpanzees kept by Koprowski for research piqued his interest.
Hooper went for a drive down the southern coast of Great Britain — he remembers it being a clear summer day — and mulled Curtis’s hypothesis. When he got home, he read the story again and finished it even more impressed than before.
“Really,” says Hooper, “that’s where I began, at that moment, that day, a new line of research. I began by trying to contact some of the people mentioned in his article, and indeed Tom himself.”
The two briefly discussed collaborating on a book about the origin of AIDS, but logistics, and likely ego, got in the way. Curtis’s own origin-of-AIDS book proposal to an American publisher stalled, Curtis says, when the publisher wouldn’t agree to represent him, legally, as Rolling Stone had, in the event of another Koprowski suit. The way Curtis remembers it, the publisher told Curtis he’d have to represent not only himself in the case of a legal challenge, but the publisher as well.
Curtis did the math and decided not to court financial ruin.
In the meantime, Sex, Lies, and Videotape director Steven Soderbergh had optioned the movie rights to the Rolling Stone story, and Universal Studios retained Curtis for a year to write the screenplay, but like most optioned properties, the project died on the vine, and the screenplay was never made into a film.
“I certainly lost my momentum on that story,” Curtis says now. “And maybe,” he admits, “on some others.”
Hooper, meanwhile, slowly gained momentum, spending holidays traveling to Africa, Europe and the United States, as Curtis had not been able to afford to do, spending years in medical libraries, where Curtis had spent months.
Hooper’s book refines Curtis’s theory with seven years of advances in AIDS research, adds to it hundreds of interviews with key and peripheral characters, and presents it behind a foreword by the respected Dr. William Hamilton, Royal Society professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford, who eight years before had written to Curtis praising his story as a “model of science writing” and offering to testify on his behalf in the suit against Koprowski.
Even so buttressed, Hooper says, he received two threatening letters from Koprowski’s lawyers in 1995. “And I do know that since the book appeared in Little, Brown’s catalog, that the publishers and Time Life Inc. were approached by lawyers representing Koprowski on at least two occasions.”
The theory, and its messengers, remain subject to violent disdain in some quarters, but by and large Hooper’s book has gained a fairer hearing than Curtis’s article. Perhaps that’s because of the greater depth of Hooper’s research. Perhaps it’s because Curtis’s article, appearing in a “rock-and-roll magazine,” was an easy target for scientists’ ridicule, and for Koprowski’s suit.
Or perhaps the theory seems more conceivable now that it has been around a while with little or no scientific effort expended to disprove it. The Wistar Institute, since Tom Curtis first posed the question almost eight years ago, has never taken the initiative to test the vaccine stocks supposedly in its possession to try to determine what sort of primate kidney was used to make the vaccine in question, or even to see if the vaccine might contain any monkey viruses. Koprowski has claimed that all official records of the Congo vaccine trials — records that might help disprove the theory — were lost “in a move.”
Now, though, in the wake of Hooper’s book, the Koprowski camp claims to have recovered certain exculpatory documents regarding the Congo trials, excerpts of which it plans to release at some point as yet unspecified in the future. Likewise, it has agreed to make certain of its early vaccine samples available to certain independent researchers for the purpose of performing certain tests, though the particulars have not been announced.
But at this point in the saga, it seems almost not to matter what might be “discovered” in the future. The OPV-AIDS theory may well prove unprovable, but even if it is provable, it will likely never be the object of consensus. As Curtis’s article proved, the mainstream scientific community is indisposed to allow the mere discussion of dissident theories, much less their adoption, especially if those theories implicate powerful men in potentially unflattering circumstance.
And as the suspicious passions of dissident theorists such as Blaine Elswood — who first introduced Tom Curtis to the OPV-AIDS theory — make clear, the scientific community’s secretive and defensive response to challenge has earned the dissidents’ lasting distrust.
Edward Hooper says he believes that the proper tests will be conducted and that scientists will gather to consider the issue in an atmosphere of fairness and discovery, that if the theory is provable, it will be proved, and that if it is disprovable, it will be disproved. Hooper is personally, at present, “97 percent persuaded” that the OPV-AIDS theory does in fact describe the mechanism by which HIV first entered the human population on a large scale.
Elswood, now teaching English at Snow College in Colorado, is at least equally certain, but less trusting.
“Do I believe the Wistar is suddenly — after eight years of controversy and whispering and everything else — suddenly going to cough up bona fide samples to have them impartially tested? No, of course not. There’s an old saying in science: You don’t publish your mistakes.”
Much of the scientific establishment continues to regard the theory as at best an intriguing long shot.
Curtis, for his part, thinks that “Did it happen?” is less important a question than the growing consensus that it could have. The implications for the expanding medical field of xenotransplantation are daunting. Pigs, for instance, are being genetically engineered to provide replacement hearts for humans. A California man recently, and unsuccessfully, received a bone marrow transplant from a baboon. What sort of viruses, unrecognizable because they’re unknown, might be lurking, harmlessly, in a natural host, waiting to wreak havoc when introduced to the human species?
In dealing with such questions, Curtis suspects, the science may be too important to leave to scientists alone. In questions pertaining to public health, the public should be made aware.
In 1994 Curtis and Sheehy moved to Galveston, partly to help care for Curtis’s ailing mother. Effectively boxed out of the OPV-AIDS story, Curtis continued freelancing. He wrote a piece about the FDA approval process for Self and covered the Cheerleader Mom story for Redbook and The Washington Post. He wrote and read commentaries for National Public Radio’s Marketplace program and worked on a few documentary film scripts for PBS.
In 1997 Curtis took the job with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston that he holds today: editor of the UTMB Quarterly, a position that calls for him to “translate science into English” in relating the school’s achievements to a lay readership. It’s an interesting job, he says, a “useful sojourn,” with access to topflight scientists and a medical library. Curtis recently penned a brief article describing UTMB research into the HIV-destroying properties of human saliva, a detail of some importance within the OPV-AIDS theory.
The job also serves the more prosaic function of putting food on the table.
“They’re hard to do,” he says of the sort of time-consuming stories that were once Tom Curtis’s specialty. “Nobody who’s much of a businessman would do them.”
He has discovered, he likes to say, that “you can have two freelance writers and a mortgage in the same house, but not if one of them is writing a book.”
Sheehy, most recently, has been the one writing the book, and since it’s scheduled for publication in August, there are hints that Curtis may soon throw his journalistic hat back in the ring.
He has a “pile” of ideas for future magazine and/or book projects, including a possible revisitation of the still unreported AIDS treatment idea that initially brought him into Blaine Elswood’s orbit, though he plays the details close to the vest. If his “Origin of AIDS” story has taught him anything, and it has, it’s that some ideas are literally, not just metaphorically, dangerous.
And “it’s true that once burned, twice shy,” he says. “There are not all that many outlets out there willing to take on an edgy story. It’s a hard thing to do, so you’ve got to be very strategic about it. Sometimes you can’t tell a story until the public is ready to hear it, until the outlets are ready to hear it.”
The reception to Hooper’s book seems to indicate that now, eight years after Tom Curtis wrote his story, the public may finally be ready to hear about it. For Curtis, there’s a certain vindication in that fact.
“It’s not easy to be denounced. On the other hand, you’ve got to be fairly confident going in that you’re right. I’m very glad that Edward Hooper wrote his book. He treats me very kindly, and I appreciate that. But I especially appreciate the fact that he demonstrated that you cannot permanently keep an important idea down.”
Hooper, for his part, thinks “Tom deserves enormous credit for two things, apart from the original article. One is for keeping the issue on the boil in the American press for the remainder of 1992. And the second was in getting such a remarkable result — it was largely his article that was responsible — from the Wistar Institute panel when they made the conclusion that we should rethink the ways that monkey kidney tissue culture was used in human medical preparations.”
Curtis downplays his contribution as “a small blip” on the national radar.
“I really feel,” he says, “in some sense, that I failed.”
After all, he says, regardless of the Wistar recommendation, polio vaccines are still manufactured using monkey kidney, just as they always were (though all recognized SIVs, to be sure, have been screened out for decades).
And while Edward Hooper may have introduced the OPV-AIDS theory to a broader audience and increased respectability, the debate his book engenders is still largely mired in the question of whether or not Dr. Hilary Koprowski’s experimental vaccinations inadvertently sparked the epidemic. And in its specifics, Curtis thinks, the truth or falsity of that proposition, as he pointed out in his original article, is almost beside the point.
The point — the proposition that Curtis has yet to see disproved — is that accidental contamination of vaccines can and have introduced unknown nonhuman viruses into large human populations. And the moral of that story is that without a free and open discussion of how that happens, it could happen again.
E-mail Brad Tyer at email@example.com.