“Where Did AIDS Come From?”, A New Essay by Lochlann Jain

An excellent book chapter entitled “Where Did AIDS Come From?” has just been published by Lochlann Jain, the Canadian Professor of Anthropology at Stanford, and visiting Professor of Social Medicine at King’s College, London. (Nowadays Lochlann uses a he/they pronoun.)

This follows his publication of an article titled “The WetNet: What the Oral Polio Vaccine Hypothesis Exposes about Global Interspecies Fluid Bonds”: in Medical Anthropology Quarterly in 2020, to which I posted a link and an introduction on this site on August 26, 2020. (“An introduction to Lochlann Jain’s article about the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, and its treatment at the Royal Society meeting on the ‘Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic’.”)

Lochlann’s chapter appears in a recently published book called “Conspiracy/Theory”, introduced and edited by Joseph Masco and Lisa Wedeen; [Durham: Duke University Press, 2024].

From the start Lochlann makes it very clear that the OPV/AIDS theory is not a conspiracy theory, but rather a carefully argued and plausible hypothesis about how AIDS came into being which, unaccountably, has been widely dismissed in both the scientific literature and the mainstream press. The OPV/AIDS theory argues that the pandemic was sparked by a campaign of oral polio vaccination in the Belgian territories of central Africa (the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi) in the late 1950s, using an experimental vaccine that had been prepared in the cells and sera of the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, which is host to the viral ancestor of the pandemic AIDS virus, HIV-1. The OPV in question was a live, attenuated vaccine and was thus not denatured in any way; it was given to nearly a million Africans, but not to “Europeans”. Moreover, the places where the vaccine trials occurred are the same places where HIV-1 and AIDS first emerged a few years later.

In this chapter Lochlann argues that much of the rejection of OPV/AIDS was caused by the partisan coverage that the theory encountered at the Royal Society meeting on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic”, held in September 2000. He points out that those who were involved in preparing and administering the vaccines have few if any documents to support their claims, meaning that their arguments are based on their own accounts of what they did and did not do (many of which contradict each other), and on protestations of innocence. Unaccountably the principal organiser of the meeting, Robin Weiss, accepted all the arguments of the vaccinators (describing them as “elegant ” and so forth), and simply dismissed the evidence that I presented at the meeting. 17 years later, when interviewed again by Lochlann, Weiss acknowledged that his conclusions at and after the meeting might have been “premature”. In his present essay, Lochlann twice observes that the highly influential Weiss was not operating in good faith back in 2000.

I think that this essay is an excellent addition to the origins-of-AIDS literature. This is partly because it is very fair to my own work, but also because it makes a number of important and forthright observations, some of them new ones. One of the benefits of Lochlann’s analysis of the OPV theory is that he is coming at the controversy from a completely different background from most. His initial interest arose through his own researches in around 2014. He then followed up by listening to audio tapes of the RS meeting and interviewing some of the major players in the debate: Robin Weiss, Stanley Plotkin (who helped administer some of the vaccines in Africa) and myself. His analysis is therefore different in tone to that of others such as Brian Martin, the social scientist based at the University of Wollongong in Australia, who delivered a paper at the meeting. Brian has since written several articles about the origins debate, such as “The Politics of a Scientific Meeting”, and “Peer review and the origin of AIDS: a case study in rejected ideas”; see his own “Suppression of dissent” web-site for further details. But both he and Lochlann argue strongly that the origins-of-AIDS debate at the Royal Society was not staged on an even playing-field.

I commend this new publication by Lochlann Jain. Links to the chapter and the front matter of the book can be found below.

Ed Hooper, March 1 2024