Over the last three and a half years, doctors Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin have made a series of false allegations about my book The River. Among these is the claim that the book has caused the collapse of polio vaccination programmes in Africa and elsewhere, and that I am therefore personally responsible for many deaths, and for the failure to eradicate poliomyelitis from the planet.
I have looked carefully into these allegations, and have found absolutely no evidence to support them. If Koprowski and Plotkin have such evidence (which I strongly suspect they do not), then I hereby call on them to present it publicly.
Not only are their claims false, but they indicate, once again, just how desperate and unprincipled these two doctors have become. Anything goes – smears, fabrication, misrepresentation, pressurising others to lie on their behalf – provided it serves the overall purpose of attempting to discredit the careful work that I have put together over the last dozen years about the iatrogenic origins of AIDS – and in particular about the African version of CHAT, their experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV), which was given to a million African “volunteers” in the late 1950s.
What doctors Koprowski and Plotkin still haven’t twigged is that the more they misrepresent the truth in their attempts to prove the innocuity of the African version of CHAT vaccine, the more damage they do to their credibility, and the deeper they dig themselves into a hole.
This particular aspect of the story began in September 2000, when Hilary Koprowski gave his speech to the Royal Society meeting on “The Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic”. In this speech, he claimed that there had been a specific response to The River in Africa. “This news has spread in Africa”, he stated, “and the Catholic Church in Kenya, despite the objection of medical authorities, advised mothers not to take their children for polio vaccination as it was contaminated with HIV [sic]. So one of the greatest efforts by numerous institutions throughout the world to completely eradicate a deadly disease may now be compromised because of The River.”
As evidence of this, he cited an article entitled “Catholic stand on disease criticised”, published by The Daily Nation (a Kenyan newspaper) on 26th November, 1999. A Kenyan journalist who kindly checked that day’s issue of the newspaper could find no trace of such an article.
However, a small relevant article was published in The Daily Nation exactly one month earlier (October 26, 1999), which stated only that polio vaccine posters had been removed from church walls. No reason for this was given.
A review of the relevant clippings file of the Daily Nation newspaper for 1996-2000, carried out by the same Kenyan journalist, revealed that the contaminated polio vaccine controversy was not new. Altogether, six articles about problems with the campaign were published between August 1996 and September 1998: three of these referred to rumours that the vaccine was laced with contraceptives or family planning drugs, and just one, from September 1997, mentioned, in addition, “rumours linking it [polio vaccine] with HIV infection”. The River came out in September 1999, and not one of these articles linked the book, or the OPV/AIDS theory, to these negative rumours about modern polio vaccines. Not for the first time, Dr Koprowski’s claims do not check out.
An article by Jon Cohen [“The Hunt for the Origin of AIDS”, Atlantic Monthly, October 2000] features a section in which Cohen speaks with a Kenyan AIDS vaccine researcher, Omu Anzala, who apparently “says that ripples from The River have ‘caused many problems’ in Kenya”. Cohen explains that Kenyan clergymen have claimed that modern polio vaccine contains HIV, and have discouraged their countrymen from being vaccinated. However, no evidence is offered, either by Cohen or Anzala, to support any connection between these claims and The River. Furthermore, Cohen’s article makes no reference to the fact that such problems had been going on for many years before publication of my book.
I doubt that more than a few dozen people in Kenya have ever heard about the OPV theory, let alone The River. It is unlikely that any of those who are familiar with the theory is in any way involved with the anti-polio vaccine campaigns. But even if they are, then it can only be because they have misunderstood the message of the book. I do not question the safety of modern polio vaccines. I only question the safety of one experimental polio vaccine that was prepared in Africa in the 1950s.
In any case, rumours in Africa about contaminated vaccines are far from new. They have been circulating in that continent since the early years of the twentieth century.
It would perhaps not be surprising if such rumours spread in days when most of the vaccinees were black, and most of the vaccinators white. But in fairness to the vaccinees, it should be pointed out that in the past, at least, such fears have not always been unjustified. For instance, a hepatitis contaminant in a Second World War yellow fever vaccine eventually caused the infection of over 300,000 people, and the IPV and OPV (inactivated and oral polio vaccine) given to tens of millions of people up to 1960 was contaminated with SV-40, a virus that has since been linked to certain cancers. Furthermore, the work of Preston Marx and Ernest Drucker has served to highlight how many infections (in Africa especially) have been passed mechanically, arm-to-arm, by inadequately sterilised needles wielded (inter alia) by vaccinators.
Some of these early rumours impacted on the CHAT campaigns in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. One of Stanley Plotkin’s early attempts at vaccination, at Kikwit in May 1959, had to be abandoned. Plotkin says this was because local parents feared that the process of drawing pre-vaccination blood was unsexing their children. [River, page 551] Similar rumours continued to circulate, and the CHAT vaccinations early in 1960 in Bas-Congo, a province some 300 kilometres from Kikwit, eventually had to be curtailed because of concerns about the vaccine itself. Knowing what we do now about the version of CHAT given in the Congo, some might conclude that the African sceptics had better instincts than their would-be vaccinators.
Such rumours have continued since the wind of change blew, and African countries achieved independence. The most popular alleged contaminants have been contraceptives (or drugs to limit African fertility), “cancer” and (since the 1980s) “AIDS” (meaning HIV), roughly in that order.
And the rumours do not apply only to polio vaccines. For instance, reports on BBC World Service on March 13th, 2001, described the failure of a measles vaccination programme in north-west Nigeria, because local people feared that the vaccines were contaminated with HIV, caused sterility, and were part of a western campaign to wipe out Africans through a genetically engineered virus.
The most recent stories also apply to Nigeria, where (in February 2004) two states in the northern part of the country placed a ban on polio vaccination, because of fears that the campaign was “part of a U.S. conspiracy to render Muslims infertile or give them AIDS”. [“Polio vaccination drive begins in Africa”, by Glenn McKenzie, Associated Press, February 23rd, 2004.] The article makes it clear that the fears are rooted in religio-political conflicts stemming from 9/11, rather than relating in any way to the OPV theory.
So these rumours of contaminated vaccines have been circulating in African countries for many years – and certainly long before the first breaking of the OPV/AIDS story (variously by Louis Pascal, Tom Curtis and Blaine Elswood in 1991-2), and the publishing of The River (in 1999).
This, however, does not deter such persons as Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin, who are apparently more interested in trying to score political points than in portraying the truth in this debate. In recent months, stung by “Dephologistication” (my riposte to the Royal Society whitewash on OPV/AIDS), and now by the MFP/Galafilm documentary, The Origins of AIDS, they have reverted to their smear campaign tactics of the year 2000.
There are reliable reports that both men, in recent weeks, have been claiming that any new cases of polio that occur in Africa, and the failure of the polio eradication programme, will be the personal fault of myself, the documentary film-makers – or both. Koprowski, never famed for his under-statement, has apparently been speaking in terms of “crimes against humanity”.
Such irresponsible, childish and unsubstantiated statements are exactly what one would expect from the man who gave us CHAT vaccine made in chimpanzee cells (Koprowski), and the man who has been pushing the American anthrax vaccine for the last four and a half decades, despite continuing concerns about its safety (Plotkin).
Because it suits their interests, these scientists, and others like them, tend to characterise anyone who opposes any vaccine as “an anti-vaccine activist”. I most certainly am not that. What I have tried to highlight are concerns about the safety of one specific vaccine – the version of CHAT vaccine fed in Africa in the 1950s.
But it is relevant to note that both this vaccine, and the US military vaccine against anthrax, were being simultaneously evaluated at the Wistar Institute from the time that Koprowski officially assumed the directorship, in May 1957. Stanley Plotkin was directly involved with evaluating both vaccines.
The anthrax vaccine had been developed and produced by the US army Chemical Corps, based at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It was given a clean bill of health by Stanley Plotkin and his Wistar colleague, Philip Brachman, after a vaccine trial in a New Hampshire mill in 1957, in which four non-vaccinees died. The mill handled goat and sheep hair from Asia, preparing these materials for inclusion in men’s garments. But by a horrible coincidence, the only epidemic outbreak of inhalation anthrax in the US in the twentieth century occurred among the test population, just three months after the vaccination. [River, pages 555-559] Due to the work of an assiduous investigative reporter, Hank Albarelli, it has since come to light that the affair was hushed up at the time. For instance, the families of the four victims were not told that their men had died of anthrax. Some observers have since suggested that the mill-workers were deliberately exposed to aerosolised anthrax, in order to assess the efficacy of the military vaccine.
I shall reserve judgement on that one. But I will add this. A few months after the vaccine trial, Plotkin and Brachman attended a meeting at Fort Detrick, then America’s leading bioweapons facility, at which the fifty or so assembled scientists (mostly from the military) discussed the efficacy and safety of the anthrax vaccine. There was a report of the New Hampshire vaccination, and during the discussions that followed, it emerged that a soldier from Detrick had also died following anthrax vaccine trials there. Immediately after this, the assembled scientists moved on to discussions of “N”, the military code for weaponised anthrax. Among the details revealed was that the strain of anthrax which had infected the mill was very similar to “N”.
Dr Plotkin was still present for the second part of the discussion, and continued to participate actively in the military part of the meeting. At the very least, this raises questions about potential conflicts of interest.
45 years on, Plotkin is still a strong advocate of the anthrax vaccine, which is closely based on the military version of the 50s. He has been a regular attendee at meetings of vaccine regulatory authorities, and argues for the safety and efficacy of the product. Worryingly, this product is believed by many others to be unsafe, especially when administered in conjunction with other vaccines; some have argued strongly that it is associated with Gulf War Syndrome. [See in particular the work of Dr Meryl Nass, on http://www.anthraxvaccine.org.]
The most recent disturbing article to be published about the modern anthrax vaccine highlighted one particular unit of 105 British servicemen and women, known as 33 Field Hospital, all of whom were given an anthrax jab, or jabs, in the 2003 Gulf War. Since then, allegedly, not a single pregnancy involving these troops has been trouble-free. There have been two deaths in infancy, one still birth, two miscarriages, one baby which is fighting for its life, and one which has serious skin problems. [“Lethal injection”, by Mike Hamilton; Sunday Mirror (UK); February 29th, 2004; pages 1, 4 and 5.] Without a properly controlled epidemiological study, one cannot determine causation, but these distressing details (and the fact that the soldiers themselves apparently link these events to the anthrax vaccination) suggests, at the least, that a proper enquiry should be launched.
Let me close by rebutting the latest accusations by doctors Koprowski and Plotkin, and by once again making my position on the current polio vaccine clear.
The eradication of poliomyelitis from the human race is a vitally important goal, now not far from being achieved. I have stated my position on modern polio vaccines at every opportunity in media broadcasts since The River was published in 1999 – and I shall continue to do so. Furthermore, I have written letters to various publications in Africa, offering the same message. I don’t know how many of these letters have been published, but my letter to You magazine in South Africa was printed on page 7 of its October 2000 issue.
I have no hesitation in adding my voice to all those others which have been proclaiming that the polio vaccines being used today (both oral and injected) have been carefully safety tested, and are safe for human use. All those who still require polio vaccination are advised to get themselves vaccinated, and by so doing, protect themselves, while helping to eradicate poliomyelitis from the planet.
In short, as far as is known, modern polio vaccines are safe.
It is the assurances of doctor Koprowski and doctor Plotkin on issues related to the OPV debate which are not safe, and which cannot be relied upon.