AIDS’ Jersey Roots Explored

Virus evolved from Clinton prison polio vaccine, author contends

Star-Ledger Staff

[Article about Edward Hooper’s book The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS]

Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), 26 December 1999

Patient No. 6 baffled James Oleske.

The pediatrician couldn’t understand the little girl’s mysterious symptoms, such as sepsis, and a rare pneumonia he had never seen before. For some unknown reason, the child’s immune system was failing to protect her from these strange infections.

“We tried to save her,” Oleske recalled from his Newark office at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “I was working as best I could.”

Still, the child died in 1979 at the age of 5. But Oleske saved a blood sample. Years later, as tests became available, he learned the child had died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Today, the case of Patient No. 6 is at the center of a provocative and much-disputed theory about the origins of AIDS.

British author David Hooper, in a 1,000-page book that’s being ferociously debated, argues that AIDS may have been started by a type of oral polio vaccine, called CHAT, that was given to people in Africa – and to babies born at a New Jersey women’s prison. The early vaccine was given to people in the late 1950s.

Hooper says the mother of Patient No. 6 may have been one of the babies given the CHAT vaccine at Clinton Farms, now the Edna Mahan Women’s Correctional Facility in Clinton Township. The prison was the only place in the United States where the CHAT vaccine was administered, he said.

The case of patient No. 6 is important because if the child was infected by the mother at birth – which is likely because her symptoms started at the age of 6 months – her infection took place in 1973 or 1974. That makes her among the first documented cases of AIDS in America.

Hooper theorizes that the AIDS epidemic in America did not come from Africa, but instead originated from the CHAT vaccine given to babies at Clinton Farms. He argues that different types of HIV originated from different batches of the CHAT polio vaccine.

That’s why, he says, the type of HIV that predominates in America and Europe is different from the one found mostly in Africa, where the vaccine was given to millions of people in the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi between 1957 and 1960.

“Why, in the middle of New Jersey in 1973, do we see this virus?” asked Hooper. “The fact is that this was the one place in the United States where this vaccine was put to test.”

Many scientists believe HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, evolved from a simian virus found in chimpanzees, probably when African hunters butchered the primates and became infected by the blood. The virus then evolved into human HIV. Instead, Hooper argues, the CHAT polio vaccine brought the virus from chimpanzees to humans.

Polio vaccines back then were grown in the kidney cells of monkeys, though Hooper believes CHAT was grown in the kidney cells of chimpanzees – not monkeys – and became contaminated with a progenitor of human HIV. Scientists beware There is some precedent: In the late 1950s and early 1960s a simian virus that was not dangerous was transmitted, inadvertently, to millions of people through the polio vaccines.

A soft-spoken, burly man who gets high marks for his prodigious research, even by critics, Hooper – a former BBC correspondent – says his theory serves as a cautionary tale as scientists begin experiments in the area of xenotransplantation, or animal-to-human transplants.

Many scientists, though, are openly hostile to it, saying there simply is no proof that polio vaccines caused the AIDS epidemic. They argue that Hooper is instilling needless fear about vaccines in countries where polio still is a threat, and that his speculation fuels conspiracy theories that AIDS was deliberately manufactured by Westerners to kill Africans.

“I don’t see how any good can come of this,” said John Moore of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. “Hooper just speculates that this may be the case. You can say anything you want and then make the facts fit.” Time and place Hooper insists his theory has merit, and he’s asking Oleske to release information about Patient No. 6 so “we might learn more about where and when the initial introduction of HIV into North America actually occurred,” he writes in his book, “The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS” (Little, Brown, $35).

The first documented cases of AIDS correlate in both time and place with the testing of CHAT, an oral polio vaccine created by the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia under the direction of Hilary Koprowski, one of the leading polio vaccine researchers of the day. Many of the earliest documented cases of AIDS in Africa occurred in the towns where the vaccine was tested, or within 175 miles of those towns.

If hunters have been killing and eating chimpanzees for thousands of years, Hooper asked, why has HIV taken hold only in recent decades? In addition, he notes that patient No. 6 was first seen by doctors in New Jersey not far from Clinton Farms.

Oleske’s paper on early AIDS, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, described the child’s mother as an IV drug user who was promiscuous. The mother also had idiopathic thrombocytopenia, a blood-clotting deficiency that’s a marker for AIDS.

Hooper writes that Oleske told him that he met the mother of Patient No. 6 again in 1991 or 1992. Hooper’s theory is that people infected with HIV from the polio vaccine developed a mild form of the disease that turned deadly only when passed on to others.

That, he said, explains why the mother still would be alive as an adult if she was infected with HIV-contaminated polio vaccine as a child. Hooper, however, acknowledges he has no proof that either the child or the mother is connected to Clinton Farms.

Oleske, a specialist in pediatrics and immunology, is one of the heroes of the AIDS war, particularly of the early days when he fought to save children from a disease few understood and many did not even know existed. He now runs the pediatric AIDS clinic at UMDNJ in Newark.

Recently, he reviewed his files on the case, which he described in a medical journal. He called the girl Patient No. 6 and has released no information about her, except age and specifics of her disease. But Oleske said he knows of no evidence linking the girl or her mother to the polio vaccine or to Clinton Farms.

Oleske calls Hooper’s speculation an elaborate and well-documented hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless. He said he examined a list of names of Clinton babies given to him by Hooper and none of the last names matched the name of the mother of Patient No. 6.

Though skeptical about the theory, Oleske has written to UMDNJ legal advisers to determine how to proceed, and said he would consider turning over some information about the case to objective scientists who would protect the confidentiality of the patients.

“I think it would be important to know if a tragedy like this happened,” Oleske said. “It could be something we could learn from. But right now the evidence does not support Hooper’s theory.” Finding fault The Wistar Institute has agreed to allow the remaining samples of the CHAT vaccine believed used in the Congo 40 years ago to be tested by two impartial sources, said Clayton Buck, professor and chief administrative officer at Wistar.

“(Hooper) has raised a legitimate question. These tests ought to be done,” said Buck, who said results should be available in the spring, but that he expects the tests will be negative.

“There are flaws in this theory,” Buck said. First, he said, the scientists from Wistar deny ever using kidney cells from chimpanzees. But Hooper claims he has evidence chimpanzees might have been used but not documented by vaccine makers. He said chimpanzees were killed in a place called Camp Lindi, in the heart of the Congo, and that the kidneys were shipped to Philadelphia and Belgium. The CHAT vaccine was made in both places.

Buck also said tests to contaminate a vaccine with simian virus failed. “HIV won’t infect kidney cells,” said Buck.

Hooper argues kidney cells could have contained remnants of blood or tissue, which could have contained the virus. Buck, however, says all such materials are washed away in the making of the vaccine. Furthermore, he said, genetic dating suggests HIV has existed in humans long before the polio vaccine trials of the 1950s.

Hooper said even if the samples of old polio vaccine turn up negative for any HIV-related virus, his theory will not be entirely shot down, since he does not believe that every single vial of vaccine was contaminated. And if the mother of Patient No. 6 was not a Clinton baby, she might have shared needles, or had sex, with someone who was a Clinton baby.

All these variables lead Oleske and other scientists to wonder if the polio/AIDS hypothesis can ever be proved, or disproved, or whether this view will linger like a Kennedy conspiracy theory.

Tom Folks, director of the retrovirology laboratory for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said a 1974 or 1973 case of AIDS in New Jersey does not indicate a link to polio.

“The virus was probably here then,” he said. He said the HIV virus may have been in a less deadly form in its early days, becoming “hotter” as it traveled from human to human. Folks speculates that for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, simian viruses have been transmitted to humans.

But these were “dead-end viruses” that did not necessarily harm their human host, and could not be transmitted from human to human. Folks suspects some co-factor in recent times allowed the simian virus to adapt to humans and then evolve.

Koprowski, meanwhile, calls the theory a hoax.

“(Hooper) builds a theory on preconceptions and writes a big book,” said Koprowski, now a professor of microbiology and immunology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He insists, despite Hooper’s circumstantial evidence, that chimpanzees never were used to create the vaccine.

“This book is pure invention,” he said.

He said the Wistar vaccine was used to protect the babies at Clinton Farms, where the prison director feared a polio outbreak. He said the vaccine was not an experiment on the babies born there – as Hooper alleges – and that he vaccinated himself before anyone else. CHAT was not given to people after 1960, as the Salk and Sabin vaccines came into use around the world.

In his book, Hooper chides Oleske for not returning follow-up phone calls after their initial interview. He wanted more information about Patient No. 6. Oleske said he does not want to stand in the way of science, and he’s willing to entertain questions about Hooper’s theory – to a point.

“But do I have an obligation to track this case down? There are ethical considerations,” he said. “And . . . I have children to take care of.”

PHOTO CAPTION: 1. British author Edward Hooper says New Jersey was the one place in the United States where this vaccine was put to the test. CREDIT: 1. PHOTO BY JOHN O’BOYLE

CORRECTION: A story on this Sunday misidentified the author of “The River,” a book about the origin of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. He is Edward Hopper.