Plotkin’s chums (1): Eminent scientists sign their names to falsehoods, in a bid to protect Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski
The secret is out. Seven eminent scientists who have long been prominently involved in the “origins of AIDS” debate, allegedly as “honest neutrals” (Robin Weiss, Simon Wain-Hobson, Beatrice Hahn, Bette Korber, Steve Wolinsky, John P. Moore, and Robert Gallo), are actually part and parcel of a cover-up.
In the past two months, these seven scientists have signed their names to letters which attempt to exonerate Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski from any involvement in the origins of the AIDS pandemic.
The only problem for these scientists is that the letters they wrote (which they probably did not expect to be seen by persons other than film festival directors) have ended up on other desks – including mine. And what the letters reveal is seven men and women who are quite prepared to sign their names to falsehoods and misrepresentations.
Finally, these seven scientists have provided irrefutable evidence of something which has been suspected for some time. They are in fact anything but honest neutrals. What these letters reveal is that they are an active part of the Plotkin/Koprowski defence team.
The MFP/Galafilm documentary, “The Origins of AIDS”, has been selected for showing at around a dozen international film festivals, and has to date won four important prizes. The most recent of these was “Best Current Affairs Documentary of 2004”, at the Europa Film Festival in Berlin. A Prix Europa is generally considered to rank second only to an Emmy.
The film has also recently been short-listed for an Emmy for “best documentary of 2004”. It is one of just four films so honoured. The results are due to be announced on Tuesday November 23rd.
However, it is now apparent that a desperate campaign has been launched by certain scientists, led by Stanley Plotkin (a man who played a major role in the production and testing of CHAT vaccine in the 1950s) to persuade the organisers of these festivals to remove the film from their schedules, and/or to influence the juries that award the prizes.
The aforesaid scientists (Dr Plotkin and his supporters, and the developer of CHAT vaccine, Dr Hilary Koprowski) have taken to writing false and misleading letters about “the origins of AIDS” to the directors of these film festivals, urging them not to show the film.
To date, I have been informed of five film festivals which have been approached by one or more of these scientists, though I believe there may well have been others.
In addition, I am informed that either one or both of doctors Koprowski and Plotkin have made direct attempts to influence the awarding of prizes. More of this will be reported in due course.
Among the scientists who are known to have written letters denouncing the film in recent weeks are the following: Stanley Plotkin, Robin Weiss, Simon Wain-Hobson, Beatrice Hahn, Bette Korber, Steve Wolinsky, John P. Moore, and Robert Gallo.
I was recently sent copies of the letters that these eight scientists sent in August and early September to the organisers of a small film festival held in France: the Festival du Film Scientifique de Oullins. They are – to say the least – revealing.
With minor exceptions, the eight letters are identical. The second paragraph of each letter claims the following: “The signers of this letter are all scientists involved in public health or more specifically the fight against AIDS.”
That is true. What the Oullins letters do not make clear, however, is that each of these scientists has some direct personal interest in the debate, and that each of them has published false or misleading statements about the OPV/AIDS theory in the past [see Part 2 of this article].
The only exception, it would seem, is the ninth letter-writer, (Mark Wainberg, the Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre in Montreal, Canada). At present, I do not know of any previous public participation in this debate by Professor Wainberg.
Unlike their attempts to suppress or discredit the OPV/AIDS theory in the scientific literature, which have enjoyed success owing to the influence these scientists exercise upon leading scientific journals (which have consistently published the criticisms and alleged “disproofs”, while ignoring the primary evidence supporting the OPV/AIDS theory), this latest campaign to suppress the truth seems to have backfired rather dramatically.
Having seen “The Origins of AIDS”, most festival organisers know something of the background to this controversy. Apart from this, it would seem that they are far less easily led than their colleagues in the world of science. To date, I do not know of one instance where a film has been cut from the schedules because of an approach by the Plotkins. This is not to say, however, that it has not happened.
Meanwhile, the men who made the vaccine, Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski, have recently been instructing lawyers to issue legal threats to television stations that have broadcast, or intend to broadcast, the “Origins” documentary. These legal threats, discussed elsewhere on this site, clearly have even more impact than the letters urging film festival directors to “eliminate the film from your festival”, and they are being dealt with individually by the television stations in question.
However, this is not to say that the legal threats have any more substance than the “truths” and “proofs” which are claimed by the Plotkin defence group. For instance, Dr Koprowski recently threatened one TV station that had broadcast the documentary that he would take legal action unless they posted an on-screen retraction of the major points of the film within a finite time period. The TV station ignored the threat, and some weeks later were informed, without further explanation, that Koprowski would not be proceeding further. (Koprowski has a long history of attempting to enforce his will through legal action, or the threat of legal action. However, he does not normally bother to inform the recipients of his legal threats when he decides to desist.)
The misleading letters
The letters being sent by Dr Plotkin and his supporters (or defenders) all attempt to discredit the OPV/AIDS theory (the hypothesis on which “The Origins of AIDS” focuses), and to raise questions about the integrity and accuracy of the film. The letters are inherently dishonest, in that they contain many provable untruths, together with unsupported statements which are falsely presented as if they were facts.
The text of one of these letters (written by Simon Wain-Hobson) is reproduced below.
Virtually the same letter was sent by all the scientists mentioned. It would seem that a master copy was sent by one of the scientists to the others, who then reproduced it (often in a different font, but otherwise unchanged). Amusingly, the same basic errors and flaws – including grammatical and punctuation errors – exist in the different versions sent.
The only slightly different version is that sent by Stanley Plotkin, which excludes two paragraphs, and includes one extra paragraph. I shall discuss this version later in this article.
The Wain-Hobson letter reads as follows. [For referencing purposes, I have numbered the paragraphs. Otherwise, what follows is identical to the original, including grammatical and punctuation errors.]
1. I am writing about a film (“The Origin of AIDS”, produced by Chappell and Peix) that is supposed to be shown at your Film Festival. You should have been aware of the film’s thesis, its antiscientific content, and the dangerous message it contains.
2. The signers of this letter are all scientists involved in public health or more specifically the fight against AIDS.
3. Basically, the film argues that the AIDS virus was transmitted to humans through a contaminated polio vaccine allegedly made in chimpanzee cells, and administered in the then Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. This is supposed to have happened owing to the hidden local production of vaccine by scientists at the local laboratory in Kisangani. The scientist who was in charge of the laboratory in Kisangani has vehemently denied production of polio vaccine. The alleged basis for this idea comes mainly from statements by people who were not involved or only indirectly involved in the vaccination campaign. Their statements were obtained by leading questions and are taken out of context.
4. Two international scientific meetings have been held on this subject, where full presentations by the British journalist who invented the HIV-Polio idea were given, and the conclusion was reached that no substantive evidence supported it. In fact, much concrete evidence is against the film’s thesis, the latest being a paper published recently in the journal Nature (enclosed). In brief, tests of the vaccine lots used in the Congo are negative for HIV, the HIV virus was circulating before the polio trials in the Congo, the chimpanzees present at Kisangani did not carry the ancestor of HIV, and there is no real correlation between the polio trials and the earliest cases of AIDS.
5. We have also enclosed other documents that will help you understand the background. The most concise is one titled, “Galafilm”.
6. It is important to point out that despite lengthy interviews conducted by the film’s directors, with scientists who do not support the HIV-polio thesis, none of their testimony was included in the final film, depriving it of any pretension of objectivity.
7. The film is not only false, but also harmful, in that uninformed citizens might draw entirely erroneous conclusions from this unbalanced presentation. Furthermore, this film serves to promote the rumor that the current oral polio vaccine contains the virus of AIDS, a rumor that has infleunced Nigerians to stop vaccination, with a resulting epidemic of paralytic polio that has spread to many African countries and, which greatly impedes the eradication of polio from the world. Moreover, the film plays into the anti-vaccinationism that has had bad effects in many countries, leading to problems such as the recrudescence of measles and mumps in the United Kingdom.
8. Journalists have the right to express or to put on film whatever they wish, and we do not dispute that right. However, they should have an ethical obligation to try to represent the facts correctly and honestly, which is manifestly not the case with the Chappell-Peix film. We therefore urge you to eliminate the film from you festival.
An analysis of the flaws in the Oullins letters
The foregoing letter is a revelation, for it is riddled not only with untruths, but with statements which the signatories know to be untrue.
For instance, every single statement from the second half of paragraph 3 [“The scientist who…”] to the end of paragraph 4 [“…earliest cases of AIDS.”] is either untrue or misleading. Let me analyse these statements one by one…
“The scientist who was in charge of the laboratory in Kisangani”, the Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville [LMS], was Dr Ghislain Courtois, who died in the 1970s, long before this debate began. The head of the virology department in the LMS, Paul Osterrieth, had indeed denied that he produced polio vaccine in Kisangani, but his testimony is awash with gaps, contradictions and inaccuracies.
The OPV theory is based on carefully cross-checked evidence from dozens of witnesses, several of whom were indeed directly involved with the vaccination campaigns, (and also with the preparation of chimpanzee tissue cultures and/or CHAT vaccine in the Kisangani lab).
The enquiry into these events was conducted in impeccable fashion, and the incriminating statements against the vaccinators were not obtained either by leading questions, or by taking statements out of context. Indeed, much of the key evidence was volunteered by witnesses.
No conclusions as such were reached at the two scientific meetings in question, although there is growing evidence to indicate that the first of these meetings, at the Royal Society in London, was set up (by several of the scientists who have signed these letters) with the express purpose of attempting to bury the OPV theory. The second meeting, at the Lincei academy in Rome, was far more balanced and fair. However, the summing-up speeches at both meetings were delivered by one of the letter-writers, Robin Weiss, and both were deeply biased. (At the London meeting, Weiss even admitted that his opinions were just his “plain, personal prejudice”, though this statement was omitted from the published version of his speech.) In contrast to what the letter-writers claim, there is in fact a great deal of “substantive evidence” to support the OPV theory.
The Nature article in question reports one small piece of data, and then announces (incorrectly) that this disproves the OPV theory. The article misrepresents the relevance of this data, and most certainly does not constitute “concrete evidence” against the OPV theory.
None of the vaccine actually used in the Belgian Congo or Ruanda-Urundi has ever been tested for HIV or SIV. The claim that a sample of one of the vaccine lots used in the Congo has been tested for HIV is debatable, for it depends upon the definition of that famously vague concept, the “lot”. The reality is that one of the vaccine pools used in the Congo (CHAT pool 10A-11) has been tested for HIV, with negative results. However, this is entirely irrelevant to this debate. As I have repeatedly pointed out, it is the vaccine batches that were used in the Congo (most of which, it seems, were also prepared in the Congo) that need to be tested. However, Robin Weiss has publicly stated that none of these exist any more. In this instance, he is probably right.
There is no evidence whatsoever that HIV was circulating before 1959, only calculations based on the phylogeneticists’ mistaken insistence that they are able to date the epidemic.
The Lindi chimps could well have been infected with the ancestor of HIV; there is not one shred of evidence to disprove this.
The claim that there is no real correlation between the polio trials and the earliest cases of AIDS is mere assertion, nothing more. Statistical analysis arrives at very different conclusions.
As can be seen from the above, most of the arguments used by the letter-writers are based on the principle of “I am a scientist, so what I say must be right”. In reality, what they are attempting is a slight-of-hand, for each of the foregoing claims has been demonstrated to be either wrong, or highly questionable.
In the later paragraphs of the letter, the claims continue in similar vein. For instance:
Paragraph 5: The much-vaunted “documents that will help you understand the background” actually consist of articles written by the same group of scientists (Plotkin, Weiss and Hahn), together with one each by Paul Osterrieth and by Jon Cohen of Science magazine – another man who has shown bias in his coverage of this debate [see separate article on this site].
The final article is a WHO position statement issued in September 2004. This paper consists of a two-paragraph introduction mentioning “The Origins of AIDS” documentary, followed by the text of a WHO statement about the OPV theory issued in 2000. By describing that theory as a “long-disproven hypothesis”, the paper demonstrates both a lack of scientific rigour, and a tame echoing of the views of the Plotkins.
All of these supporting articles contain mistakes and errors, many of which I have pointed out in essays on this web-site. Several of them claim, falsely, that the OPV/AIDS theory has been “destroyed” or “refuted”, or that it is “dead”.
Paragraph 6: The claim that no dissenting views were included in the film is false, for we see several of the aforementioned scientists (including Plotkin, Weiss and Wain-Hobson, as well as the principal vaccine-maker, Hilary Koprowski), expressing their scepticism or rejection of the OPV hypothesis in the film.
However, this is the one point made by the Oullins letter-writers for which I can find some sympathy. I too wish that more of the so-called “scientific disproofs” of OPV/AIDS had been examined in the documentary, for this would have been the best way to demonstrate the superficial nature of the Plotkin group’s claims.
Having said that, however, I would defend the right of the programme-makers to make the film that they wished to make. I know for a fact that they went to enormous lengths to try to get Koprowski and Plotkin to agree to be interviewed, and were frustrated by the failure of these scientists to give straightforward responses to these requests. Finally, both men declined interviews, but only after delaying the film for several months. In other words, they had ample opportunity to put their point of view, and they declined it. Now they claim foul play.
As for the others, I believe that many of those anti-OPV scientists who ended up on the cutting-room floor did so because they were unable to express themselves clearly and/or succinctly on camera.
At the end of the day, though, this was a point-of-view documentary, and most knowledgeable viewers seem to conclude that the film-makers, having been exposed to both sides in this debate over a period of some three years, ended up being more persuaded by my position than by that advocated by the Plotkins. The film-makers had the courage to question the platitudes uttered by these scientists, and to say: “Look: what these people are saying doesn’t add up!”
Paragraph 7: As I have highlighted elsewhere on this site, there is not one shred of evidence linking the OPV theory to the refusal of Nigerians, or Britons, to take certain vaccines. The claims made by the Plotkins are either falsely referenced, or else the content of the references is misrepresented. What such deliberately misleading claims reveal is how determined these people are to try to discredit the film, the OPV theory, and/or myself, at any cost. They are engaged in a smear campaign, pure and simple.
Paragraph 8: Given the consistently misleading nature of their own submissions on this subject, the final claims that the “Origins of AIDS” film is incorrect and dishonest are not only unsupported by facts, but also hypocritical.
Lastly, a mention of Stanley Plotkin’s letter, which is slightly different from the rest. It has a rewritten paragraph 2, and paragraph 7 is omitted (possibly through oversight, rather than intention).
Plotkin’s second paragraph reads as follows:
“Allow me to introduce myself: I am Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Emeritus at the Wistar Institute of Biology, former Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, former Chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases, and President of the World Society for Pediatric Infectious Diseases. In the interests of full disclosure I was a young researcher and was partly involved in the events of the 1950s that are central to the film. I have conducted investigations into the allegations therein, principally directed against Dr. Hilary Koprowski of Jefferson Medical College and Dr Paul Osterrieth, a retired Belgian virologist. In the film, these two people are called liars and in effect mass murderers.”
It is interesting that despite his providing information “in the interests of full disclosure”, Plotkin admits only to being “partly involved” in the events described. What Dr Plotkin fails to acknowledge is that as Koprowski’s most trusted assistant after his (Plotkin’s) arrival at the Wistar Institute in August 1957, and as someone who spent the month of May 1959 in the Belgian Congo reviewing the vaccination programme, he actually played a rather prominent role, probably exceeded only by Koprowski himself.
It is also worth noting that Plotkin’s final sentence, claiming that Koprowski and Osterrieth “are called liars and in effect mass murderers”, is completely false. Nowhere do such words – or implications – appear in the film. The words “liars” and “mass murderers” are Stanley Plotkin’s, and they represent part of his own dubious contribution to this debate. The only other person to have used these terms in connection with the origins of AIDS debate is his former boss, Hilary Koprowski.
There is one other slight difference in Plotkin’s version of the letter. Perhaps having decided that it would be more diplomatic to leave the plea to drop the film from the schedules to his colleagues, Plotkin omits the final sentence of paragraph 8, [“We therefore urge you to eliminate the film from you festival”], from his version.
What lies behind the untruths?
These letters go far further than anything these scientists have claimed before, and each one of them must be well aware that he, or she, is signing his or her name to falsehoods.
What one now has to ask is why these eminent scientists have chosen to sign a letter that is based on untruths and misrepresentation.
To my mind, the only conceivable explanation is that none of them expected this letter to appear in a public forum: none expected to be found out.
How desperate do you have to be to abandon your integrity in such a fashion? The fact is that, with the apparent exception of Wainberg (about whom I have little or no background information), each of these scientists has a vested interest in the outcome of this debate.
Some of them – the most desperate – fear disgrace (and perhaps law-suits) if the vaccine that they helped make and test in Africa in the 50s is proved to be linked to the origins of the AIDS pandemic.
Others stand to lose intellectually and financially, if their work of the last several years (and their defence of the vaccine-makers) is shown to have been based on flawed research and misrepresented conclusions.
One thing is inevitable, however. Having committed themselves to a falsified version of events, all of these scientists are now in serious danger of damaging their personal and professional reputations. For all of them can now be seen to have placed self-interest above scientific integrity.
Their current compromised situation will not get any easier, for over the next few months more and more evidence will be revealed about what doctors Koprowski, Plotkin and their colleagues did in central Africa in the 1950s.
What do the Oullins letters tell us?
We now know that Plotkin is in cahoots with the very scientists (Weiss, Wain-Hobson, Hahn, Korber, Moore and Wolinsky) who got so actively involved in the origins-of-AIDS debate after my book, The River, came out in late 1999. These scientists (especially the first two) promised to deliver an even-handed investigation of the issues raised in that book, and instead they got together to fabricate a defence of the status quo.
There is considerable evidence to indicate that these same scientists have been in close contact on this subject since at least early 2000, and it now looks increasingly likely that they (or most of them) were involved in the planning of a cover-up from before the time of the Royal Society meeting in September 2000.
In the past, Hilary Koprowski has funded many initiatives through his vast private fortune, estimated at $30 million, much of which came from his patenting, in the US and Japan, of monoclonal antibodies (which were actually discovered by Caesar Milstein of the Medical Research Council, at a time when MRC scientists were not allowed to patent their discoveries). We also know that much of the money for Plotkin’s defence team has been provided by Pasteur Merieux, the pharmaceutical house of which Plotkin used to be managing director. Whether these two sources have helped provide monies, or favours, which have eased the process of collaboration of these scientists with Plotkin and Koprowski is not yet known.
But one thing is certain. By providing false evidence to help defend the developers of CHAT vaccine, these seven scientists (who have previously presented themselves as “honest neutrals” in this debate) have now revealed that they are anything but honest neutrals.
What they are really concerned about is not good evidence, or good science. It is the creation and continuation of a cover-up, and the mutual protection of their own increasingly vulnerable backsides.
Edward Hooper; November 21st, 2004
[Part 2 of this article will be posted shortly.]