How Academics Sometimes Assist With the Airbrushing of History

In February 2006, an important new book about AIDS in Africa appeared. Entitled "The African AIDS Epidemic: A History", and published by James Currey, it is written by John Iliffe, who is Professor of African History at the University of Cambridge.

In February 2006, an important new book about AIDS in Africa appeared. Entitled "The African AIDS Epidemic: A History", and published by James Currey, it is written by John Iliffe, who is Professor of African History at the University of Cambridge.Most of the book is both well-researched and well-written, and it represents an extremely helpful introduction to this subject for scholars, especially those who are not well-versed in the relevant scientific literature. However, this endorsement does not extend to its brief section on the origins of the pandemic, which is found in the first chapter of the book. Professor Iliffe virtually treats the bushmeat theory of origin as a given, and although he frequently uses my book "The River" as a source (e.g. for several of the earliest cases of AIDS), his one reference to my work in the text is fundamentally misleading.

This is the background. On pages 6-7, Iliffe spends a page and a quarter analysing the likely age of HIV-1, as measured by the hypothesis of phylogenetic dating. However, to his credit, he ends this section by stating that "The two teams who estimated dates for the differentiation of the M group [ie the pandemic strain of HIV-1] tried to exclude the effects of recombination, but geneticists feared that the problem was more difficult, and that conclusions based on a molecular clock ‘may be of very limited value’."

So far so good. It is what follows that is problematical. Professor Iliffe continues: "However uncertain their findings, attempts to date the epidemic clarified several problems in its history. Together with the identification of the 1959 case in Kinshasa, they effectively ruled out the theory, propounded in Edward Hooper’s fascinating book, The River, that the HIV-1 epidemic had been caused by a polio immunisation campaign in the Congo region during 1957-60 that allegedly used a vaccine bred on SIV-infected chimpanzee kidneys – a theory also contradicted by negative tests on surviving vaccine samples."

While I appreciated the compliment, I was aghast that Professor Iliffe should have dismissed the OPV theory in a single sentence, and on the basis of three arguments that are each manifestly unsound.

Let me briefly examine his three arguments.

1) Phylogenetic dating places the "most recent common ancestor" (MRCA) of HIV-1 in or around the year 1931 – in other words, before the polio vaccine trials were staged in Africa in the 1950s. However, such work is entirely theoretical, and it is based on an inherently false concept (that HIV-1 evolves through mutation, whereas in fact 90% of its evolution takes place through recombination). Indeed, Professor Iliffe himself has just conceded that such analysis "may be of very limited value".

2) In reality, there is no such thing as "the 1959 case". What Iliffe is referring to is not an AIDS case, but rather the first blood sample that has been found to contain HIV-1 Group M, which was allegedly obtained in Kinshasa in 1959. It is quite clear that a 1959 blood sample containing HIV-1 does not exclude the possibility of an epidemic engendered in 1957, especially if, as I maintain, many of the vaccine batches fed in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi were grown on different chimpanzee cells, and were therefore infected with different strains of recombined chimpanzee SIV. (In other words, I propose that there were several separate transfers of recombined chimpanzee SIVs to humans in 1957-60, and not just a single transfer of chimp SIV, as the geneticists propose.)

3) It is now clear that the "negative tests on surviving vaccine samples" were irrelevant to this debate, since the samples that were tested were not of the vaccines that were "allegedly…bred on SIV-infected chimpanzee kidneys" in Stanleyville, but rather of vaccines that were prepared in the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. These Wistar vaccines (or at least the samples that were released for testing) were apparently prepared using cells from the kidneys of Asian macaques. Nobody has yet located any of the vaccine batches that were administered in the Congo (or if they have located them, they have not released them for independent testing), but clearly these are the samples that need to be tested, to see if they were indeed, as I maintain, prepared in chimpanzee cells.

In short, the OPV/AIDS theory cannot be ruled out on the basis of these three flawed arguments.

I assumed that Professor Iliffe, a renowned scholar, had made these mistakes in good faith, and so I spent the better part of a day writing him a friendly letter which praised his book, but which pointed out my misgivings about this part of his analysis. I also asked him three brief questions, one of which concerned the identities of his scientific advisors or mentors.

A few days leter, I received a reply from Professor Iliffe that was less than three lines long. The reply both amazed and horrified me. Far from taking on board any of the errors I had gently pointed out to him, the sum total of his response on these matters was a single sentence: "I shall not enter into controversy."

This response was not only rather high-handed, but more importantly it was meaningless, for John Iliffe had already entered into controversy when he used bogus and flawed reasoning in order to "rule out" the OPV/AIDS hypothesis. Furthermore, his refusal to respond to my comments or to answer my questions suggested only one thing: that far from being an innocent caught up in a heated debate, that he too may be involved with the cover-up that several eminent scientists and academics have been mounting ever since the publication of The River in 1999. In fact, rather like those old Soviet photos in which past (and now "disgraced") leaders were airbrushed out, the first chapter of John Iliffe’s book seems to have been part and parcel of an attempt to airbrush the history of AIDS.

I replied immediately with a further letter, requesting a more detailed response and answers to my three questions. A month has passed, but I have received no reply from Professor Iliffe, and no longer expect to get one. I have therefore decided to post this brief essay, together with copies of my two letters to him, on this web-site. If John Iliffe does subsequently reply to my letter, I shall be happy to post at least the substance of that reply on this site.

It is unclear what lies behind the Professor’s misrepresentation of the beginnings of the pandemic, although his book does contain one intriguing clue. On page 15, Iliffe states that Cameroon "was probably a site of early HIV evolution", and then rather incongruously argues that "[p]erhaps because [of this]….the disease there remained scattered." (In fact, one of my three questions to him was a request for him to explain the meaning of this passage further.)

Paul Sharp’s recent claim that the source of the HIV-1 Group M virus lies in common chimpanzees originating from south-eastern Cameroon, about which I have several doubts [see "New Claims From Paul Sharp…." on this web-site], was first made public at a conference on human retroviruses held in Denver, Colorado in February 2006. Sharp made his speech just a few days before the publication of John Iliffe’s book. However, Iliffe must have written the passage about Cameroon several months earlier, which suggests that he had some prior knowledge of Sharp’s latest argument. This in turn suggests (but does not prove) that during the writing of his book, Iliffe may have been in contact, perhaps close contact, with one or more of the advocates of the bushmeat theory – either Paul Sharp himself, or one of the geneticists or microbiologists with whom he is closely allied, such as Beatrice Hahn or Bette Korber, or else one of the other anti-OPV/AIDS propagandists, such as Robin Weiss, Simon Wain-Hobson or John Moore.

Whether the "Origins" section of John Iliffe’s book is part and parcel of the same attempt to airbrush history is harder to determine, but one suspects that academic links may have played some role in his disturbingly misleading contribution to the "Origins of AIDS" debate.

Edward Hooper. 26/3/06.

1) On February 21st, 2006, Edward Hooper wrote a letter to John Iliffe.

2) On February 23rd, Iliffe replied to Hooper’s letter with a three-line note. The only section of that note which was directly relevant to the comments and questions in Hooper’s letter was the single sentence: "I shall not enter into controversy".

3) On February 26th, 2006, Hooper wrote a further letter to Iliffe, who has not replied.