Scientists Toss Hooper Theory on AIDS Origin

Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), September 17, 2000, Sunday

© 2000 Charleston Newspapers

LONDON – Until last year, the name Edward Hooper would have registered with virtually no one in the field of AIDS research.

But in 1999, Hooper catapulted himself into the limelight with a 1,070-page book, which argued that scientists from Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, testing a polio vaccine in the Belgian Congo in 1957-1960, may have unwittingly started the AIDS epidemic.

On the surface, Hooper’s claims seemed to have merit. The oldest known case of AIDS occurred in a man from Kinshasha, the former Leopoldville, near the mouth of the Congo River.

His blood, drawn in 1959, later tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

No earlier case of HIV-positive blood has been identified.

What’s more, most of the other early cases of HIV, dating back to the 1970s and early 1980s, also occurred in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi – the former Belgian Congo. And most of those came from cities or towns close to where former Wistar director Hilary Koprowski tested his oral polio vaccine.

Koprowski also maintained a chimpanzee colony – known as the Lindi Camp – just outside Kisangani, the former Stanleyville, which was headquarters for the vaccine trials.

Since scientists now know that HIV originated in chimpanzees and was then passed on to people, it wasn’t much of a leap for Hooper to speculate that Koprowski’s vaccine may have been grown in the kidney cells of the chimps kept at Lindi and become tainted with SPIcpz, the chimp version of AIDS, which then got passed on to people through the vaccine.

Perfectly logical but, as it turns out, probably wrong.

Last week, during two days of heated scientific debate at the Royal Society of London, Hooper’s claims were shot down by a withering display of facts and cutting-edge genetic studies.

The weight of the evidence indicates that:

– The vaccine was cultivated in monkey kidneys, not chimps;

– Some of the early cases of HIV occurred in areas of the Congo where no one was vaccinated, while some of the most heavily vaccinated areas had no cases of HIV;

– The beginning of the AIDS pandemic goes back to 1930, decades before Koprowski and his team set foot in the Congo, according to three scientific groups who each used different methods to date HIV’s “molecular clock.”

If that weren’t enough, tests conducted on the last remaining vials of polio vaccine used in Congo – announced by the Wistar Institute last Monday – found no HIV or SIV in the samples.

Another test confirmed that the polio virus used to produce the vaccine was grown in monkey tissue, not chimp cells.

The evidence, AIDS experts agreed, delivered a serious, if not fatal, blow to what’s come to be called “Hooper’s theory.”

“It’s like a baby that was pretty sick when it went into the meeting. It squawked a lot and now it’s dead and has finally been buried,” said John Moore, a leading AIDS researcher at the Cornell University Medical Center in New York.

If and when the origin of AIDS is finally pinned down, Hooper’s claims are likely to be but a footnote in that story.

But the fact remains that Hooper, a man with no formal training in the science of AIDS, managed to get the attention of both the public and AIDS researchers, prompting an extraordinary meeting of one of the world’s most esteemed scientific bodies.