Copyright 1999 Nation Newspapers Ltd. The East African
Nairobi – A controversial new book which claims that the origins of Aids could lie in a polio vaccine programme in East and Central Africa during the late 1950s has been shunned and condemned by the scientific and medical community.
Former BBC Africa correspondent Edward Hooper’s book, The River, which was recently published by Penguin Press, says that the vaccine used in the CHAT experimental vaccine programme, which was carried out in the then Belgian colonies of Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, could have accidentally been contaminated by a monkey virus containing the HIV virus’s closest “relative” – the simian immunodeficiency virus or SIV.
However, Hooper’s claims have been rejected by most of the scientific community although the Times newspaper reports that some experts may have been pressurised into condemnation.
Despite the fact that a map comparing the CHAT trials of 1957-60 with the first instances of HIV infection in Africa shows remarkable correlations, with 31 of the 38 confirmed or probable cases before 1980 coming from the DRC, Congo and Burundi, the medical and scientific community has remained hostile.
The Times also notes that of the 39 African HIV-positive blood counts taken during the pre-1980 period, more than 87 per cent came from towns where CHAT trials took place and 100 per cent within a 140-km radius of CHAT vaccination sites. Moreover, the first ever sample of HIV-positive blood was taken in 1959 from a man who lived in Leopoldville, a CHAT vaccination site.
The latter was the first example of HIV-positive blood samples being taken and none have been found to pre-date this.
The evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton, a Royal Society research professor at the University of Oxford, and the writer of a foreword for Hooper’s book, told the Times that the findings should be viewed as more than coincidence.
“The synchronicity of time and place is remarkable,” Prof Hamilton said.
“None of the facts amounts to proof but taken together, the trend and accumulation is impressive. At least the OPV (oral polio vaccine) theory of the origin of Aids now merits our attention.” Prof Hamilton believes that the OPV-Aids theory is highly likely to be more than mere coincidences but a recent review in the magazine Nature by John Moore, a microbiologist, dismissed the hypothesis as being yet another conspiracy theory.
The Times however says that the medical establishment has “been put on the defensive” over the book’s findings and it says that this is because it is afraid that a medical intervention, which was designed to stop the most feared disease of the post-war period, could have “accidentally conjured up more deaths than the combined efforts of Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin.” This fear, the report says, is based on the findings that “it was not Africans who gave Aids to the West but Western medicine at the end of the colonial era that gave it to them.” The report furthermore points out that all the records on the CHAT vaccination that ought to have resided in the Belgian foreign ministry archives have gone “missing” as have the records of the experiments involving 100 chimps which were undertaken at a camp in Lindi in the then Belgian Congo.
While it is stressed that at the time the dangers of SIVs were not known and the contamination of the polio vaccine could, even if it were proved to have happened, only have been an accident. It is also pointed out that further research in this area could possibly find a cure for a virus which currently infects around 23 million men, women and children in Africa.
Distinguished immunologist Omar Bagasra says in his recent book, HIV and Molecular Immunology: Prospects for an Aids Vaccine, that a cure may already lie with those same people who were vaccinated with CHAT in the then Belgian Congo. He says that survivors of the CHAT trials might carry the sort of viral particles that can be utilised for future Aids vaccines.
Prof Hamilton says that the medical establishment remains hostile to research into the field because it “cannot bring itself to believe that a disaster of this magnitude could have been started by one of its own. My experience has been that nobody wants to talk about this and there is always a lot of nervous side-stepping whenever I mention it.
“Only recently a colleague said that he supposed there might be truth in the theory but he wasn’t going to publish anything on it. He went on to say that he would lose his grant from the medical research body that supports him.” The Times report says that it ought to be fairly easy to prove one way or another whether Hooper’s theory has validity or not.
It says that there is a vial of vaccine locked in a freezer in a biomedical research establishment, the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, which was part of the production lot used for the CHAT trials and tests could be carried out on it.
Moreover, other tests could be done on stored blood samples dating from before the trials which, if HIV were found in them, would shatter Hooper’s theory.
The reluctance of the Wistar Institute to sanction the release of the CHAT sample – they say it is too small to prove conclusive in tests – has angered Aids activists who want the issue cleared up.
The Times report says that at present, without records, “proof either way is elusive. Hooper himself concedes that his findings are not conclusive.
Yet it is perhaps puzzling that all but one of those who worked on CHAT and were interviewed by him could not remember the source of the vaccine substrate.
“The exception was Gaston Ninane, a Belgian virologist on the team who told Hooper that chimp kidney tissue culture had been used – but then retracted the statement a few minutes later.”