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”

This version was updated on February 16, 2023 using advice from Lochlann, who now uses a he/they pronoun.

S. Lochlann Jain is a Canadian Professor of Anthropology based at Stanford in California, and a Professor of Social Medicine at King’s College, London.  In 2013 they published a nicely-titled book called “Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us” [Berkeley: University of California Press], based on their own experiences with cancer.  The book was well-received and won several awards. 

In 2017 Lochlann approached me for an interview: he was interested in writing a book about the Royal Society [RS] meeting in 2000 on the “Origins of HIV and the AIDS epidemic”.  He explained that he had read Brian Martin’s writings on the subject such as “The Politics of a Scientific Meeting”, but was interested in another aspect, namely “why it was so seemingly easy to dismiss the detailed well-conceived challenge you made to science/virology” at the London meeting.   That December Lochlann came to visit me at my home, and we spent 24 hours in quite extensive conversation.   He also interviewed certain other contributors to the meeting, notably Hilary Koprowski’s former deputy, the vaccinologist Stanley Plotkin, the co-organiser of the meeting, virologist Robin Weiss, and another virologist, Preston Marx.

Earlier this year Lochlann wrote an article on this subject which has recently been published on line in “Medical Anthropology Quarterly” [2020, June 12; DOI: 10,1111/maq.12587].  There is a link to the article at the end of this introduction.    

In my opinion, the article represents a very welcome contribution to the “Origins of AIDS” literature, offering a fresh perspective in its analysis, even if it sometimes includes sociological jargon that makes is less accessible to the non-specialist reader.  Like Brian Martin, Lochlann makes it clear that the OPV/AIDS hypothesis (which proposes that an experimental oral polio vaccine, or OPV, that was given to large numbers of people in central Africa in the late 1950s might be linked to the origins of the AIDS pandemic) was not fairly treated at the RS meeting.  Let me identify some of the highlights.

Lochlann states that my book, The River, “offers one of the very few expositions of the massive global infrastructure of post-WW2 vaccinology” and that the closing down of the debate after the RS meeting curtailed critical analysis and “precluded discussion, fact-finding and update of the key, and very much needed, contributions of Hooper’s research.  This elision has crucial scientific and policy implications.  Certainly it matters for the history of the HIV epidemic.”  [Page 2]

Moreover, he concludes that “closure on the OPV-HIV debate was achieved not based on the evidence (which was inconclusive) but because of the insistence of the scientists involved in the trials.” [Page 7]   He adds: “a closing of the ranks after the meeting resulted in a situation whereby a small group of scientists controlled how, when and what information was relayed to a  broader public, with supporters of the OPV theory blocked from publishing in the scientific press.”  [Page 15]

On page 9 he writes powerfully about Hilary Koprowski, the Polish-American virologist who organised the African OPV trials of 1957-1960, involving nearly a million Africans in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi.   He states that “the entire edifice of the conference depended on the believability and characterisation of Koprowski as a disinterested bystander, genuinely wanting to engage in a debate over whether or not he caused an HIV pandemic that has killed tens of millions of people through his poorly run trial (with no control group and no plan for follow-up) on medically underserved colonial people”.  

In a footnote on page 18, Lochlann mentions that during his interview with Robin Weiss in 2017, he said “I would not have trusted Koprowski more than I could throw him”.   An interesting comment, given that it was made four years after Koprowski’s death in 2013.  But while Koprowski was still alive, Weiss had presided over an effective exoneration of his African vaccine trials.

Lochlann also points out the ambiguities of the concluding paper by Weiss, stating that it “offers a problematic summation, one that neither provides the evidence nor the logic to adequately conclude the debate, despite its presentation as such.”  [Page 8]. 

I couldn’t agree more.  Ever since the close of the meeting I have, to the chagrin of Professor Weiss, pointed out the inherent bias in his closing speech, most clearly typified by his repeated claim that batches of the same OPVs used in Africa had been tested and found to be free of HIV, SIV and chimpanzee DNA. (They weren’t: what were tested, crucially, were samples from the same vaccine pools, which – unlike batches – are not necessarily homogeneous, or “made of the same material”.   Since then, further research has revealed that the vaccines used in Africa were largely locally prepared in Africa, and have never been tested for HIV or SIV.  At the time of the RS meeting I merely protested that the test results were not disproofs, though I believe that at that stage I failed to highlight the crucial difference between pools and batches.  What irks me is that, as a virologist, Professor Weiss was well aware of the difference, yet he continued to maintain that the tests had been of the same vaccine batches, and therefore represented a rejection of the OPV hypothesis.)

In a footnote [Page 18], Lochlann reports that Weiss emailed him to state that “In 2001 I jumped off the fence on the polio vaccine hypothesis in favour of ‘disproved’…But I am open to persuasion that my conclusion was premature.”   But I am far from convinced by Weiss’s latest claims of open-mindedness.  I personally became convinced that he was not a neutral arbiter of the debate a year later, after the 2001 Lincei meeting on the “Origin of HIV and Emerging Persistent Viruses”, where again I delivered a paper.    The ubiquitous professor somehow managed to arrange that once again he was to deliver the concluding speech at the Lincei meeting in Rome, and this time he was even less fair or balanced than he had been in London.  At one point in his speech I walked out in protest, and he and I had an angry confrontation at the back of the hall at the end.  But what really persuaded me that Weiss was not operating in good faith on this subject was that a few weeks later I discovered that remarks he had made to a journalist deliberately misrepresented what I had claimed at the meeting.    

Certainly Weiss is eager that his role in the debate should be considered fair-minded, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.  As Lochlann points out in the same note on page 18, he started by describing The River as a “towering achievement” and then jumped off the fence to declare (without supporting evidence) that the OPV theory had been disproved, and that “some beautiful facts have destroyed an ugly theory”.   [R. Weiss, “Polio Vaccines Exonerated”; Nature; 2001; 410; 1035-1036.]

Within a few weeks of the RS meeting in September 2000 I published on line (initially on Brian Martin’s “Suppression of Dissent” site) a response to the press statements and copies of the speeches that had been issued by Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin at that meeting.  [See: “Inaccuracies and Errors in Press Statements…” on this site].   In 2004 I wrote a full and detailed response to the many false claims that the vaccine-makers Koprowski, Plotkin and Osterrieth had made in their papers, as published in the proceedings of the meeting; [see Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B.; 2001; 356; 781-977; again, their papers are available on this site].   But I decided not to publish it.  Some years later I spent a week alone on Lundy Island and further updated my response, but to date I have still not published it.  This is largely because Plotkin (the only member of that trio who is still alive) has invested a lot of time and money in covering his tracks, and I don’t want to assist his cause by pointing out each of the errors that he and his colleagues have made, which will in turn reveal how much I know.  But one day, when the time is right, my full response to their papers will be published, and it will reveal a great deal about the lies that have been told by some of those who were directly involved in the Congo vaccine trials.

As Lochlann observes on Page 10-11, “In the aftermath of the [RS] conference, scholars have reinforced the idea of the debate’s closure” as the arguments of people like Plotkin and Weiss have been parroted by other writers, such as the French-Canadian microbiologist Jacques Pepin (author of “The Origins of AIDS” [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011]) or, even more lamentably, by science historian Howard Markel in his inept review of Pepin’s book, titled “It’s the Science, Stupid”.  In Pepin’s book which, as Lochlann puts it, “has emerged as the model for the explanation of AIDS”, Pepin devotes three pages to The River, which are virtually reprinted from the erroneous claims made by Koprowski, Plotkin and Osterrieth at the RS meeting.  At the end of this section, Pepin concludes that “The [OPV] theory can be firmly rejected.” [Pepin, 50-53]  Pepin neither attempted to contact me to hear if I had any counter-arguments, nor did he reply to my messages to him after his book was published. 

At present, the three earliest confirmed samples of HIV-1, the pandemic strain, in the world all come from Leopoldville/Kinshasa and date from 1959, 1960 and 1966; Koprowski started his vaccine trials in that city in 1958.  However, Jacques Pepin reported that he had discovered some examples of AIDS that preceded the 1950s OPV  trials.   The cases he cited involved a fatal disease called Cachexie du Mayombe which affected immigrant workers who were helping to  build the Congo-Ocean railway in the 1930s in what is now the Republic of Congo (or Congo-Brazzaville); [Pepin, pages 33-39]  This idea was frequently quoted in reviews of the book by science writers who really should have known better.   Despite Pepin’s assertions that “severe malnutrition was…unlikely”, and that “the concentration of cases among patients who had worked in a well-defined area suggests a transmissible agent”, the answer lay in the original 1930s articles by the French doctor who had reported the condition, Leon Pales. He made it clear that the cases of Cachexie and associated TB had actually been caused by acute malnutrition. A group of immigrant workers who were used to a well-balanced diet had been shipped down to the railway and fed a diet that consisted of little more than cassava roots, which are notoriously lacking in nutritional quality.  The workers, and some of the women from the railway camps, had been dying of starvation. 

Interestingly, in the relevant footnote [Chapter 3, note 13] Pepin only quotes the first 9 pages of the relevant article by Pales.  There were actually 10 further pages to the article, and it is these that reveal the true cause of this cluster of deaths.  Was this sloppiness by Pepin, or the deliberate turning of a blind eye?   In my opinion, this is a classic example of intellectual dishonesty, and of how even serious researchers sometimes twist the truth in order to support their pet theories.  Whatever, this oversight allowed Dr Pepin to report that he had found early cases of AIDS which seemed to disprove the OPV theory.  Various journalists lapped up the story, and journals that I wrote to pointing out Pepin’s errors failed to publish my letters. 

But enough of my acerbic observations.  I invite you to make up your own minds.  Below is a link to Lochlann Jain’s important new article:

Ed Hooper.

August 21st 2020. Updated on February 16, 2023.