Two new books and a flurry of new articles have recently appeared about the “origins of AIDS”, plus a third conference on the subject has been staged…..
Some Glimmer of Light, Perhaps, At The End Of The Tunnel?
I shall use this blog to address five new developments in the origins of AIDS debate.
The first three, sadly, are the same old same old, even if they sometimes reveal just how desperate some of the “1908 Cameroonian Bushmeat” group have become. But the last two may contain some positive developments.
(1) First, in section (1), I shall provide some brief feedback about a third origins of AIDS conference that was organised (and attended) by members of the bushmeat school in Paris 2010, ten years after the Royal Society meeting on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS epidemic” held in London in 2000, and nine years after the Lincei Academy meeting on “Origin of HIV and Emerging Persistent Viruses” held in Rome in 2001. I only heard about the Paris conference a few months back, two years after it took place, but recordings of the main addresses have now been posted on line, so others can see and hear what went on. This time the bushmeat people were able to invite just themselves and their best buddies, and in places the results are comical – and very revealing. (2) and (3) Next I shall comment on the sloppy errors and inaccuracies that have been promulgated in two recent books about the AIDS pandemic by eminent academics (one a historian; one a social scientist) both of whom claim to be setting the record straight. The second book, at least, seems to have its own agenda, which is unsurprising, given that one of the most vituperative members of the bushmeat school appears to have been a major source and inspiration for the author. Finally I shall highlight three new articles that have appeared in the last year, the first two (4) from two of the doyens of the bushmeat school, and the third (5) from a team that has nothing whatsoever to do with the origins debate. Rather surprisingly (at least in the first instance), these articles suggest that the momentum in this bitterly-disputed debate may be moving somewhat towards the OPV theory.
1) Somewhere beneath the radar (except to the invited few), the supporters of the “1908 Cameroonian bushmeat” hypothesis staged their own rather exclusive little conference in Paris on 9th and 10th of June, 2010. It was called “Simian viruses and emerging diseases in humans”, even if most of the papers were about SIV and HIV, and it was staged in what were apparently quite salubrious surroundings at the Saint-Louis Hospital. It featured pretty much all of the likely suspects, with a couple of notable exceptions. Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn, on whose theorising much of the bushmeat origin theory is based, were not present. But all of the following people were: Robin Weiss and Simon Wain-Hobson (the two surviving organisers of the first “origins” conference, staged in 2000 at the Royal Society in London); Preston Marx and his colleague Ernest Drucker, who argue that unsterile needles and blood transfusions were the factors that allowed a simian virus that had crossed to humans to adapt to and prosper in the human host; one current and two former members of Eddie Holmes’ team from the zoology department of the University of Oxford (namely Oliver Pybus; Michael Worobey, now from the University of Arizona; and David Robertson, now from the University of Manchester); Hahn’s long-time ally, Martine Peeters; Peter Simmonds from the University of Edinburgh, who would appear to be a colleague of Paul Sharp; and medical historians such as Jacques Pepin (author of the 2011 book, “The Origins of AIDS”), Philippe Lemey, Tamara Giles Vernick, Catherine Coquery Vidrovitch and Joao Sousa. The majority of these persons delivered 15-minute speeches, while others joined in the discussion sessions.
There was a fairly jolly collegial atmosphere, encouraged, one would imagine, by the fact that nearly everyone present was more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. The nearest thing to an opposing voice came from Jacques Leibowitch, whom some may remember as a rather larger-than-life French immunologist “with a disposition tilted towards permanent agitation” from Randy Shilts’ iconic history of the early AIDS epidemic: “And The Band Played On”. That book was published in 1987, and I have not heard of Leibowitch in the field of HIV/AIDS research since then. (To be fair, he has published 20 HIV-related articles in those 25 years, many relating to the field of antiretrovirus therapy, but as far as I know his name has not been on everyone’s lips.) However, in the final round-table discussion, which was chaired (rather pompously at times) by Preston Marx, Leibowitch tried more than once to point out that if there had been thousands of HIV infectees in Africa by 1960 (as bushmeat proponents, notably Worobey and Sharp, have been arguing), then cases of AIDS would have been recognised and reported in the 1950s medical literature by conscientious colonial doctors. Leibowitch was allowed to speak once, and nobody had a decent answer for him; thereafter Marx firmly shut him up whenever he attempted to return to the same point.
This hugely important point is one that I have been making for several years. I have spoken with over a dozen colonial doctors who worked in what is now called the AIDS belt of Africa in the 1940s and 1950s: all insist that had there been AIDS cases back then, they would have swiftly been identified and reported as unusual. At worst, they argue, the odd one might have been missed if it occurred far from the eyes of medical science. However, the bushmeat hymn is that the crucible of HIV/AIDS was the Congolese capital of Leopoldville, which was extremely well served by doctors and nurses, and so it seems highly implausible that a burgeoning HIV-1 epidemic in the 1930s to 1950s (which is what they postulate) would not have produced several visible – and reportable – AIDS cases. To say that AIDS can present as TB or cryptococcosis (and thus not be noticed as “a new disease”) is to miss the point: most AIDS cases present with multiple symptoms of immunosuppression, and are thus very unusual and highly noticeable. The “AIDS would not have been recognised” view is vigorously promoted by members of the bushmeat faith because otherwise their hypothesis crumbles, but it is one of the principle clues suggesting that there is something radically wrong with their theory.
But let me return to the convener of that closing discussion session, Preston Marx. He has an interesting history as regards the origins of AIDS. For many years he has had his own theory of how newly crossed SIVs might have become established in the human host, and theoretically his version of the early human spread of HIV could be combined with either the OPV or bushmeat version of origin. In practise, however, his hypothesis has always been treated as if it represented another arm of the bushmeat overview. It was already clear back at the Royal Society meeting in 2000 that Marx had come up with the version of the origins hypothesis which people like Robin Weiss found credible, and were prepared to approve. Marx’s hypothesis, in short, was politically acceptable to the movers and shakers and policy-makers.
According to Marx, SIVs have been crossing to humans from African primates such as the chimpanzee and the sooty mangabey since the Year Dot. Generally, the primate viruses do not take in humans: they lead to dead-end infections which are not passed onward from one human to another. What changed, according to Marx, was that new factors came into play in Africa in the early twentieth century, such as injection campaigns with needles that were not properly sterilised, and inadequately screened blood transfusions. Several of the AIDS historians have theories with slight modifications, which run along essentially the same lines.
To my mind all of them, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to come up with a plausible history that melds nicely with the “Cameroonian bushmeat 1908-1931” scenario that has been promoted (erroneously, in my view) by people such as Hahn, Sharp and Worobey. Marx’s theory describes a form of iatrogenic AIDS, but strictly speaking it’s “Iatrogenic Lite”, for Marx focuses not on physician-related origins, but physician-related onward spread. I believe that all of them are pitching along the wrong lines, for they tie their arguments to a entirely hypothetical (but politically acceptable) place and date of origin (Cameroon, 1908-1931), rather than to the first proven examples of HIV infection (in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo, 1959-1960). The main reason why the latter scenario has been described as “ugly” (Robin Weiss again) is that a huge vaccination campaign conducted in living memory with the blessing of the Belgian and American governments horrifies the elderly scientists who were actively involved with the campaign, upsets present-day politicians, and sends the shivers up policy wonks sitting in institutions and agencies around the world, all of whom tremble at the thought of what might happen if a large slice of the global population were to recognise that the OPV theory had merit. They fear lawsuits, loss of faith in the medical profession, and perhaps even a worsening financial collapse. And some of them, I suspect, have more personal concerns. They fear for their own jobs and reputations.
I used to think Preston Marx was a bright free-thinker and a general good guy, but I changed my mind fairly quickly at the Royal Society conference, where I saw him in action and realised that he is as ambitious and unscrupulous as are many of his bushmeat colleagues. Previously, back in 1995 or so, I had spoken on the phone with Marx, and we realised that we had been thinking along broadly similar lines on HIV origins: something didn’t add up, otherwise there would have been cases of AIDS occurring back in prehistory. As it was, it was fairly clear that HIV and AIDS had not existed back in the years of the Slave Trade (ending in the mid-1800s) because there was no trace of any HIVs having been exported from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas until the 1970s. I told Marx I was flying to America, and he invited me to his lab attached to the LEMSIP Primate Center in New York state, and there made a private presentation of his ideas, which he had titled: “The Country Clinic Hypothesis”. (A bushmeat hunter or seller who is transiently infected with SIV from chimp or monkey gets a seroconversion illness and goes along to the local clinic, where he is injected with vitamins or other “medicine”, and the unsterilised needle is then used on others, thus disseminating the SIV and exposing other human beings to a human-adapted version of it.) I thought it was great theorising, but that it didn’t add up as a complete theory.
In about 1997 I phoned Preston and mentioned to him that I would like to write about his country clinic theory in my book, “The River”. He was gracious, and said he wasn’t going to do any more work on the theory and that I was welcome to write about it. I devoted Chapter 49 of “The River” to his hypothesis. Just after the book had been published, we spoke again, when Preston (in the US) and I (in London) participated in a discussion at the end of a lengthy feature about “The River” on “Newsnight” (BBC2 on British television). As it ended, and our microphones were being unclipped, I asked if he had received his copy of the book yet, and added that I had devoted a chapter to his work. To my surprise, he didn’t seem pleased. He said that I shouldn’t have done that, for he was still working on it; and at that point our microphones were disconnected. I wrote to Preston a week or so later to remind him that two years earlier we had talked this through on the phone and he had given me full permission to write about his hypothesis.
I met Preston in the hotel on the first evening of the Royal Society meeting, and he was chatty and extremely friendly. And the next day, when he delivered his speech, he started with a few gags about me and “The River”. He said he was one of the few scientists who had come out of “The River” looking good (loud guffaws from audience), and then he read the very complimentary section about himself; (more laughter). “But”, he went on, “you can imagine how surprised I was when I woke one morning to find that the theory I had been working on had just been announced ahead of time by Ed Hooper in his book….” (Laughs, sympathetic groans, noises of disapproval from the part of the hall where Koprowski and Plotkin were sitting.) I was furious about this, not least because I seriously doubted that Preston Marx had forgotten the phone conversation in which he gave me permission – and because I had reminded him about this permission twice in the preceding year. Later, I felt that he was probably the only scientist at the meeting who had managed to land a couple of real blows on me. But in order to do this, he’d had to tell a rather nasty untruth. Marx emailed me a few weeks later as if we were still great buddies, but since I no longer trusted him I did not reply, and I have not had contact with him since.
Enough of Preston Marx. Let me return to the Paris meeting of June 2010. I had not heard anything about this meeting until the middle of this year, when one of the attendees told me about it and pointed me towards the web-site. When I accessed the site, I was surprised to find that there were film downloads available of the speeches and discussion sessions, but no transcripts or published proceedings. Since then, someone who has been a great supporter (and indeed a friend) ever since “The River” came out 12 years ago has done me a mighty favour, and has made hand-written transcripts of all the major speeches. Granted, transcripts read differently if the Powerpoint presentations are not viewed at the same time, but none the less, what struck me forcibly about the Paris meeting (both in the podcasts that I viewed and the transcripts that I read) was the poor quality of much of the material.
Take for instance the final roundtable discussion (with its rather clumsy suppression of Leibowitch), which is chaotic and which achieves very little. Or Michael Worobey’s speech, which comes across as halting and unimpressive. (Note for instance his ongoing vagueness about whether or not the SIVs have co-evolved with their host species, which vagueness is prompted by the striking fact that the SIVs appear to have evolved many thousands of times faster than their primate hosts. Also note the very apposite question that is put to him at the end of his speech by Lutz Gurtler, namely how he knows that the 1960 HIV sample from Leopoldville (and, by extension the 1959 one, also from Leopoldville) is not “a chimp virus at that time introduced into a human being”. Worobey answers that “if you want to guess that the 1960 virus came from chimps….[you would need] maybe 200 or so cross-species transmissions from chimps to humans to explain that.” Since this is exactly what might be expected from SIV-contaminated vaccines being given to humans in that area in 1957-60, further discussion on this question would have been welcome. However, at that point the convener (Simon Wain-Hobson) winds it up.
Of course one thing the Paris symposium did do was allow the supporters of the “1908 Cameroonian bushmeat” hypothesis to declare a common purpose, to reaffirm their bonds, to clap each other on the back and tell each other what good fellows they are, and to chat and make new plans over coffee and wine. There appears to have been quite a lot of all that going on. What there was not a lot of was good, clear science.
I think that at this juncture it’s best if I leave it to interested readers to follow up for themselves and make up their own minds. The symposium programme is available here, and it is fairly straightforward to register one’s name and identity, after which podcasts of the individual speeches may be downloaded.
See what you think. And please let me know your own views about the meeting. I’d love to have some feedback, positive or negative.
2) Next let me comment on a book published earlier this year: “The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back”, by Nicoli Nattrass [Columbia UP; 2012]. Ms Nattrass gained her doctorate in economics, is described on the fly-leaf as “a recognised expert on the political economy of antiretroviral treatment”, whose research has “informed the work of AIDS scientists and activists across the globe”. She is also apparently a former Rhodes Scholar, and director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. At the time of her book’s publication, she was a visiting professor at Yale University, where Jonathan Engel [see below] also won his spurs.
She has written previously about Peter Duesberg and his long-disproved arguments that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and indeed much of her latest work focuses on the same subject. She also writes about several other old potatoes, such as Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous failure (after reading Duesberg) to address the spreading HIV epidemic in South Africa, and the theory that HIV and AIDS were spread through the smallpox campaign waged in Africa in the late 1960s. In this book, her central thesis is that there have been a lot of conspiracy theories about the origins of AIDS, but that the clear light of science (directed by the cool reflective thinking of bona fide scientists) is now being used to demonstrate the erroneous nature of such theories.
As it happens, I largely concur with her judgement about many of her targets. Where I do not agree with Ms Nattrass is in the four pages where she addresses my own work, and the OPV theory. These pages seem to be part and parcel of a concerted campaign to dismiss the OPV theory that was typified by the recent books by Pepin and by Timberg and Halperin, reviewed on this site in April.
- Review of The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin (26 April 2012)
- Review of Tinderbox by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin (26 April 2012)
Firstly, let me examine the evidence that Nattrass puts forward to dismiss the OPV theory.
At the start of her section on OPV/AIDS (pages 28-31), Ms Nattrass quotes Christopher Hitchens who, she says, “has astutely observed [that] conspiracy theory is the ‘white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version’.” However, she very carefully avoids branding OPV/AIDS as a conspiracy theory outright. Instead, she does a clever sleight of hand, for immediately after the Hitchens quote, she stresses that “by suggesting that the African HIV epidemic was the unintended consequence of a vaccination campaign, [the OPV theory is] not a conspiracy theory in the strong sense of the term. To the extent that a conspiratorial move is made, it is to assert that the truth about HIV’s accidental origins is being covered up by the scientific community today.”
I believe that these two sentences are examples of sophistry. Despite Ms Nattrass’s denials, it seems that an attempt IS being made to tar OPV/AIDS with the conspiracy theory brush. Significantly, her second sentence accuses me of making a “conspiratorial move” by asserting that members of the present-day scientific community are engaged in a cover-up. But this is not a “conspiratorial move”. I have provided copious evidence to support this conclusion – and what’s more, on the basis of the articles of mine and others which she cites in her endnotes and bibliography, Nattrass must surely know this.
Here is some of the relevant historical background. Within a couple of weeks of the Royal Society meeting in September 2000, I posted a detailed rebuttal on-line of the papers by Stanley Plotkin and his former boss, Hilary Koprowski, as given at that meeting. This made it clear that the Royal Society articles by these two doctors (who were both involved with overseeing the CHAT vaccination campaigns in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi in the 1950s) were based on inaccuracies, spin and deliberate obfuscation. Later, in 2003, I posted on-line a 200-page monograph, “Dephlogistication” (originally published by the National Academy of Lincei in Rome, and available on this site). This stressed the inaccuracies in Koprowski’s initial reports of his activities in the Belgian Congo, as well as further illustrating the inaccuracies and untruths in Koprowski’s and Plotkin’s statements made at and after the Royal Society meeting [the official proceedings of which were published as: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. (London) B; 2001; 356; 777-977; mostly available on this site]. Shamefully these Proceedings included an additional Postscript which – amidst a climate of great secrecy at the Royal Society – Stanley Plotkin was allowed to insert into the published papers as a “last word”. This was yet further evidence of bias from the Royal Society – this time from its editorial team. When I asked the editor of that volume, Professor S. Zeki, for a chance to reply in print, I was told that no opportunity existed within the Royal Society format. Sadly, therefore, that venerable Society has aided and abetted the cover-up. [See “The Politics of a Scientific Meeting” by Brian Martin. Available here.]
Later in 2003 the award-winning film documentary, “The Origins of AIDS”, was released, in which Pierre Doupagne, the technician who worked at the Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville (LMS) in the 1950s, admitted to me on audio tape that he had been making chimpanzee tissue culture “for a long time” and giving it to Paul Osterrieth, the LMS virologist who handled the polio vaccines in Stanleyville. In a separate videotape interview in the same film, Doupagne admitted that chimpanzees had been involved in the manufacture of those polio vaccines. These two statements by Doupagne (which were supported by other statements made by African technicians working at the LMS in the 1950s, a few of which featured in the film) were crucially important, for they represented the first clear statements by neutral witnesses indicating that the accounts given by Koprowski, Plotkin and Osterrieth about which tissue cultures had been used at the LMS in the 1950s were untrue. Not only that, but they tied in precisely with other evidence which I had already presented in “The River” – such as the initial statements made to me in 1992 by Gaston Ninane, another LMS doctor, that chimp kidney tissue culture had been used to make the polio vaccines (which information he stated clearly twice, and then retracted once I told him that the articles of the day had mentioned only “monkey kidney tissue culture”). Moreover, there was documentary evidence that in 1958 a team representing the US Army (and including two of the doctors at the LMS) had been sending kidneys from the Lindi chimps to Philadelphia, where they were used to make tissue culture.
At the very least, the new evidence presented in the film showed that there was a vigorous dispute about how the African polio vaccine had been made, and that a growing number of neutral witnesses (and some non-neutral witnesses – such as Ninane – when speaking unguardedly) had reported that chimp kidneys had been used locally in Africa to make batches of the vaccine.
Ms Nattrass makes direct reference to the 2003 article (“Dephlogistication”) in her endnotes and bibliography, and has therefore presumably read it. She also references a 2010 article by Brian Martin which refers to the aforesaid film documentary (“The Origins of AIDS”), and to a process of “apparent legal intimidation” involving a team led by Stanley Plotkin (and consisting of many of the leading scientific supporters of the “1908 Cameroonian bushmeat hypothesis”) which attempted to dissuade TV channels and film festivals from showing the film, on the false grounds that the central hypothesis had been “refuted”.
For a link to Brian Martin’s 2010 article, “How to attack a scientific theory and get away with it (usually): the attempt to destroy an origin-of-AIDS hypothesis”; Science as Culture, 2010; 19 (2); 215-239, see the following: A New and Important Paper by Brian Martin.
How, then, can Nattrass describe my argument that there is an ongoing cover-up going on as a “conspiratorial move”, given the evidence that I have provided? It is not my fault if she has not properly read (let alone followed up on) the articles that she references.
I do find it significant that, just like the other two authors who recently wrote books about the origins of AIDS which attempted to dismiss the OPV theory out of hand (Jacques Pepin and Craig Timberg), Nattrass has never made any attempt to contact me.
Later, Nattrass states: “although the polio vaccine theory cannot be conclusively disproved, keeping it alive involves ever more convoluted hypotheses.” As evidence to support this assertion, originally made by Robin Weiss, she quotes the old arguments put forward by the bushmeat theorists: (a) the alleged molecular clock dating of the first HIV-1 to “between 1908 and 1941”; (b) the “phylogeographic analysis [that] pinpoints the probable source of the viruses that gave rise to the HIV-1 group M….as being chimpanzees in the extreme southeast corner of Cameroon”, and (c) the negative results of testing samples of oral polio vaccine found at the Wistar Institute. She states that I dismissed these test results, even though I had previously called for them. This is true. What she does not properly explain is why I dismissed the results as irrelevant – namely that further discoveries made after the text of “The River” was completed made it quite clear that none of the tested samples had ever been anywhere near Africa; and thus none of them could have been administered in Africa. These tests (which were of the correctly numbered pools of vaccine, but not of the correct batches) represented a deliberate attempt to mislead, rather than to illuminate.
I have addressed the 3 above-mentioned points, (a), (b) and (c), in a recent essay, linked below, so with the exception of the comment in the previous paragraph I shall not repeat myself here. The Origins of the AIDS Pandemic. A Quick Guide to The Principal Theories and the Alleged Refutations.
Nattrass also fails to report that the Year 2000 tests of vaccine samples provided by Koprowski’s Wistar Institute cover only the first two of 17 “Experiments and investigations that could be conducted to shed further light on the OPV/AIDS hypothesis” that I listed in Appendix B of “The River”. As far as I know, apart from this spurious testing of non-African vaccine samples (which was misleadingly presented by the testers as if it HAD involved African vaccine samples), the only one of the remaining 15 investigations I proposed that has ever been attempted by any of the “bushmeat” proponents is #5, a search for archival samples of ancient HIV-1 from before 1957. We know that Michael Worobey has had access to ancient biopsy and autopsy samples from Stanleyville and Leopoldville for over 10 years now; on this site, I have drawn attention to the fact that he cornered the market in ancient samples from the Stanleyville basement, but has never reported this fact, or produced any report on the findings of his tests. What is noteworthy is that the earliest sample of HIV that he has found is the 1960 sample from Leo. This means that the 1959 sample of HIV-1 known as sample L70, which was originally reported in 1986, remains the oldest sample of HIV-1 known to medical science. 26 years have passed, during which concerted attempts have been made to find an older HIV sample, but without success.
So what is behind Nattrass’s subtly biased coverage of OPV/AIDS? Significantly, the main witnesses whom she quotes in her analysis are Stanley Plotkin and Jon Cohen. I have already mentioned Plotkin above. Cohen is the chief AIDS reporter for “Science” magazine and an interesting character. Although he is highly intelligent, I personally found him partisan, and hostile to the OPV/AIDS theory. Moreover, I am told that while discussing Cohen and his active role in the OPV/AIDS debate back in 1992, Hilary Koprowski made an unmistakable gesture indicating that on this subject he had Cohen in his pocket. To what extent this gesture was a true indicator of their relationship, as opposed to the braggadocio of a defiant old man, is not clear.
The other person who has clearly had an influence in the writing of the Nattrass book is one of seven named people whom she singles out in her Acknowledgements, and whom she thanks for “helpful comments on earlier drafts”. This is “John Moore”, who is revealed by various references in the book to be the same Professor John P Moore (as he likes to refer to himself) whose role in the origins-of-AIDS debate is now fairly notorious. These references reveal that as well as commenting on drafts, Moore has been a significant source for the material in her book. Indeed, on page 123 Nattrass reveals that she and Moore co-wrote a New York Times editorial together. [For those who want to check; it was actually defined as an Op-Ed piece, and entitled “Deadly Quackery”. It appeared on June 4, 2006, indicating that Nattrass and Moore had known each other for at least six years before the publication of her current book. Other references in the book indicate that they have worked together quite closely during that period.]
Professor Moore is a man of strong opinions which he likes to advertise in on-line blogs, and in the letters pages of newspapers and scientific journals. For several years he seems to have acted as a sort of rabble-rouser for the scientific establishment when it is attacked by non-scientists. Whether he does this because he loves to involve himself in scientific controversies and enjoys a good fight, or whether he receives any backing or funding, overt or covert, is not clear. However, by Year 2000 he was already known to be a close associate and friend of the Newsday journalist Laurie Garrett, who had ingratiated herself with certain sections of the US medical establishment with her award-winning but error-strewn book, “The Coming Plague” [Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1994], which argued that mankind is confronted with new pathogens emerging from the rain forests of the developing world, and that interventions by Western scientists are needed to save the day. Both Moore and Garrett launched angry and unprincipled attacks on “The River” in 1999 and 2000, and Garrett has since gone on to become “Senior Fellow for Global Health” at the Council of Foreign Relations. The CFR describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher”, but over the years this “independent think tank” has, in the eyes of many, shown itself to be uncomfortably closely linked to US foreign policy. Garrett is often quoted in the public domain as an “AIDS specialist”. Interestingly, I am told that when she was questioned about the OPV theory by a professor some years after 2000, she declined to make any response.
As it happens, several of John Moore’s past targets have been people whom I too have no time for, such as Peter Duesberg and the “AIDS denialists”. However, his involvement in the origins-of-AIDS debate has been odious and unprincipled from the very start. In 1999 and 2000 he engaged in virulent and abusive attacks on myself and on others who disagreed with his views on this topic – both in blogs, and in personal emails that were, however, copied to other recipients, such as his past boss and the co-organiser of the 2000 Royal Society “AIDS origins” meeting, Professor Robin Weiss. These attacks demonstrated a wildness, a lack of integrity and a rather childish nature. But what were genuinely damaging were the letters he sent to newspapers and journals which attempted to discredit my work (likening it to the moon being made of blue cheese and suchlike), and which were based on crass misrepresentations and untruths. In one infamous letter to the Daily Telegraph Moore said that he would not be attending the Royal Society conference, because he had more important things to do. However, come the conference there he was, asking questions from the floor, and it gradually became clear that he was acting (and had been acting for some months) as a consultant and advisor to doctors Koprowski and Plotkin. Indeed, Plotkin mentioned Moore at the end of his first published riposte to “The River”, which was an uncensored version of his Royal Society article “Untruths and Consequences” which was printed in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases (of the editorial board of which Plotkin is a long-time member).
[See: CHAT oral polio vaccine was not the source of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 group M for humans. by Plotkin SA; Clin Infect Dis.; 2001; 32(7):1068-84.] Plotkin’s expression of thanks to Moore was given for “lending me some of his courage to face defamatory accusations”, which amusingly combines the implication that Plotkin had been defamed, with a characterisation of Moore as a courageous but put-upon victim. (This may well have been one of those sections of the Plotkin paper which the Royal Society refused to publish on legal grounds.) In his published statements on this topic, Moore has repeatedly characterised me as “a journalist”, and himself as a “professional scientist”, with the implication being “who do you want to believe?” I believe that, far from being an impartial witness, Moore has had his own private agenda in this debate from the start. During the first four months of 2000, Moore repeatedly promoted himself in the public arena as a professional scientist who did not believe in the OPV hypothesis. This is interesting, because I have information indicating that back in late 1999, soon after he wrote the review of “The River” for “Nature” in late September 1999, John Moore was already examining ways to attack and undermine the OPV theory. The fact that “Nature” (which journal is heavily influenced on the topic of AIDS by Robin Weiss, and which has been consistently biased against the OPV theory) gave the job of reviewing “The River” to Moore, is consistent with this. So is the fact that by the time of the Royal Society conference in September 2000, Moore was already acting as an advisor to Plotkin and Koprowski. This strongly suggests that far from being a naive innocent caught up in a matter far beyond his understanding, Moore is actually a willing and active participant in an ongoing cover-up. The Nattrass book, one suspects, is part and parcel of the same process. It’s a pity that Nicoli Nattrass appears to be so heavily influenced by the ideas of people like Moore and Plotkin. If she had investigated just a little more thoroughly, she might have realised that there is indeed a conspiracy about the origins of AIDS. The conspiracy is to suppress the OPV theory of origin at all costs, and to promote the unlikely alternative theory that the pandemic began in the first three or four decades of the twentieth century, when a hunter or butcher in south-eastern Cameroon came into contact with chimpanzee bushmeat. The bushmeat crew propose that their rather convoluted origins scenario somehow spawned a situation in which “many hundreds” or “thousands” of people were already HIV-infected in the AIDS crucible of Leopoldville by the end of the 1950s. On this point at least (the existence of many hundreds of infectees in Leo by 1960) they and I pretty much agree! I say that the virus got there via the OPV campaign, for all zero-to-five-year-olds in Leopoldville (and a smaller number of adults) were vaccinated between 1958 and 1960. The bushmeat crew say that these HIV infections must have happened because of the gradual spread of HIV over many decades, including an initial journey down from their mooted Cameroonian hearth. To which I say: “If you are right, then why did HIV-1 spread from Cameroon ONLY to Leopoldville (600 kilometres to the South) in the first 3 to 5 decades of the pandemic? And where are your AIDS cases in Leo before the OPV campaigns began in the Congo: say in 1955 or 1950? Do you really think there could have been 1,000 or more HIV-infected persons living in the capital of the Congo in the early 1950s, but without any new disease being recognised by experienced colonial doctors? And do you really think it was just coincidence that within a couple of years of the start of the polio vaccinations, the first two examples of HIV infection in the world occurred, followed two years later by the first really plausible case of AIDS?”
3) A further example of an academic who only adds to the misinformation about the origins of AIDS is Jonathan Engel, whose book “The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS” was published by Smithsonian Books in 2006. It has not made much of an impact: indeed, I only heard of it a couple of months ago. The fly-leaf informs us that Engel got a BA from Harvard, an MBA from the Yale School of Management, and a PhD in the History of Medicine from Yale (where Nattrass is now on sabbatical). Apparently he has since “served on various White House medical advisory committees and various other medical advisory boards”, which presumably pertains to the era of George W. Bush.
He makes a polite reference to me on one page of his text (50), as a “historian” of AIDS, and on the next page he reports that I wrote an “exhaustive investigation of the origin of AIDS”, but these references are made within the context of the early arrival of AIDS in Haiti. The only reference to the results of my origins investigation comes in three sentences near the end of his prologue (page 3), although here I am referred to anonymously. Here, he writes: “One tenacious author seized on the explanation that the virus, or at least one iteration of it, while of monkey origins, had actually been inadvertently included in batches of oral polio vaccine that were administered to patients in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. The thesis, while compelling, and perhaps even titillating, couldn’t stand up to rigorous investigation. As cases became known that predated the vaccine administration, and as genetic researchers confidently dated the primary mutation to two decades prior, the thesis was dismissed.”
Jonathan Engel PhD, is described on the flyleaf as a “distinguished medical historian”, and we note his Ivy League qualifications, but his dismissal of the OPV theory is as sloppy as it is flawed. He really ought to get his basic facts correct if he is going to claim to be writing a “global history of AIDS”.
Here’s where he is wrong. In reality there are NO known cases of AIDS, or samples of HIV-1, that predate the OPV vaccinations in the Belgian Congo in 1957-60. The earliest plausible AIDS case remains Helene from Lisala, who died in 1962, while the earliest known sample of HIV-1 remains the L70 sample from Leopoldville in 1959 that was originally reported in 1986. The dating of the AIDS epidemic by genetic researchers to 1931 (or more recently to 1908) is merely a theory – nothing more. The model used for such theoretical calculations (the molecular clock) usually works well for mutation, but simply does not work for recombination, which is responsible for 90% of the evolution of the SIVs and HIVs. Moreover, it seems that the geneticists are not willing to apply their molecular clock model to a multiple introduction to Homo sapiens of SIVs. In other words, they insist that their model should only be used to date a single chimp-to-human transfer. However, the occasional comment still slips out (for instance from Worobey at Paris: see above) suggesting that were they to use the molecular clock to model a multiple and near-simultaneous introduction of SIVs, their clock would now appear consistent with the OPV theory, and with a multiple introduction of different SIVs (“maybe 200 or so”, Worobey suggested) to Homo sapiens via vaccines administered in 1957-1960.
Thus the “confident” dating of the genetic researchers is actually guesswork, being based on an inherently flawed model and on modellers who are partisan in their work and in the way they interpret their results. Each new phylogenetic dating study of HIV-1 (or indeed HIV-2) is confirmed by references to previous flawed studies, and thus the inbuilt errors become self-sustaining. Phylogenetic dating cannot disprove the OPV theory, as the bushmeat geneticists frequently claim that it does. Instead, as presently employed, it simply fails to address it.
As for Engel’s claim that the start of the AIDS pandemic depended on a primary mutation (or, as he writes two sentences later, a “pathogen…that had mutated more toxic qualities in the course of the twentieth century”), this too is misleading. The crucial event, according to the bushmeat theorists, is not that SIV became more “toxic” [which is a poorly-chosen adjective], but that SIV successfully transferred to a human host for the first time, and was then able to remain in the new host by onward passage.
Even if most of Engels’ text refers to the mid-1970s onwards, one would have expected him to make some sensible observations about how the epidemic started. Instead, when he attempts to explain origins, the “distinguished medical historian” makes at least two rookie mistakes in the space of five sentences. This gives a sense of the lightweight nature of his book. He writes nicely, he tells the story of the epidemic (albeit rather less grippingly than Randy Shilts did 25 years ago), but in places his scientific understanding and perspective seem to be very limited.
4) Meanwhile the latest overview of the theories of Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn, confidently entitled “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Pandemic”, appeared a year ago in “Cold Spring Harbour Perspectives in Medicine”; 2011 September; 1(1); a006841. Weblink here. And a second significant article from the Hahn/Sharp team, entitled “Eastern Chimpanzees, but not Bonobos, Represent a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus Reservoir”; J. Virol.; 2012; 86(19); 10776-91, was published in July this year; read the abstract only here. In the analysis that follows, these are referred to as the “2011 article” and the “2012 article”, respectively.
The history of publication and disclosure on these two articles is interesting. After failing to report on SIV infections in “Eastern chimpanzees” (ie Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii, or Pts) for almost an entire decade (even though they have apparently been getting rather exciting results through that time), Sharp and Hahn’s team finally announced at a retrovirus conference in 2010 that SIV infections were widespread in Pts chimpanzees right across the northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Their previous statements about SIVpts have been rare, largely because it suited them to argue that Michael Worobey’s SIVpts sequence from the Parisi Forest (110 kilometres from Stanleyville/Kisangani), published in 2004, was a “typical” SIVpts sequence, and then to claim (falsely) that this disproved the OPV theory because all the chimps from Lindi Camp came from “the vicinity of Kisangani”. (As I have repeatedly noted, they didn’t. Lindi Camp’s Pts chimps came from a 300,000 square kilometre region encompassing all of northern DRC, and there were also several Ptt chimps at Lindi, which clearly originated from even further afield.) Now Sharp and Hahn have finally acknowledged what has seemed probable for some time: that SIV infection among Pts chimps is endemic and widespread.
The abstract delivered in 2010 (and the 2011 article cited above) both indicated that the prevalence of SIV in Pts chimps in the wild is roughly the same as it is in Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) chimps from Cameroon, which they estimated at around 5.9%. But the July 2012 paper from the same team revealed that SIV-prevalence in wild Pts chimps is about 13.4%, and in wild Pts chimps from DRC is even higher: 14.9%. This is an SIV-prevalence more than two and a half times greater than that of Ptt chimps in Cameroon.
The same paper reported the testing of 543 (elsewhere in the paper it states 495) stool samples from bonobos (Pan paniscus) allegedly spread across the bonobo range (south of the River Congo in the DRC), and the finding of SIV infection in none of them. However, this cannot be regarded as definitive proof that there is no SIV in bonobos, because the 495 (or 543) stool samples (thought to come from 244 different bonobos) were actually collected from only six different field sites.
It will be recalled that there is evidence that both Pts and Ptt, as well as bonobos (or pygmy chimps) were among the chimpanzees that were present (often co-caged) at Lindi Camp in the late 1950s.
Hahn and Sharp argue that evidence for SIVcpz-pts transmission to humans is lacking, even though (when using a full-length clone of SIVcpz-pts) they were able to infect both primary human and chimpanzee CD4+ T-cells in the laboratory. They propose that the lack of evidence of SIVcpz-pts transmission to humans might be because of several reasons. Among them are (a) that there might be “differences in the frequencies or types of ape-human interactions in the DRC” (here I presume that they are thinking of something like a lower proportion of the population being in the habit of capturing chimps for the pot); (b) that cross-species transmissions might have happened but might have been missed because of limited sampling; and (c) that perhaps the SIVs from Pts chimps have lost the ability to overcome a “human restriction factor” called tetherin, whereas the SIVs from Ptt chimps are still able to do this (after a significantly fewer number of mutations).
I find both the 2011 and 2012 papers by Hahn and Sharp genuinely interesting, even if I am not prepared to hazard any guesses about the significance of the findings until the authors see fit to publish an extensive catalogue of sequences from these Pts chimpanzees from across the region. (Presumably much of this sequencing work has already been done, so I wonder why after all these years the sequences have still not been published. At present, readers are left to rely on the assurance by Sharp and Hahn that none of their Pts SIVs were “particularly closely related to Ptt viruses…including those identified at the westernmost collection sites” for Pts, in other words those that lie closest to the Ptt range. But where is the data to back this up? After all, their confident statements sometimes change from one year to the next, as shown by the complete turnaround in their analysis of Pts SIV infection rates noted a few paragraphs above.)
By the way, even if the latter assurances by Sharp and Hahn about the SIVs of Pts and Ptt both being monophyletic (ie two entirely separate branches of the SIV phylogenetic tree) are correct, and even if there is a significant difference in tetherin activity between the SIVs of Ptt and Pts, this still has little or no bearing on the viability of the OPV hypothesis. Some years ago I reported on this site the first documentary evidence that at least one Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) chimpanzee had been present at Lindi camp in the 1950s. Clearly if this one Ptt chimp was SIV-infected, then because of co-caging and group-caging policies, it would have had the potential to infect scores of Pts chimpanzees and Pan paniscus (bonobos, or pygmy chimps) with an SIVcpz-ptt-like virus, which would thus have had an opportunity to adapt to the new subspecies or species. But perhaps more importantly, and as I have also repeated in several essays, there is further evidence indicating that not just one, but many Ptt chimps were present at Lindi, and from an early stage of the Camp’s existence. (The work on this is ongoing, and more material will be presented in time.) Of course, further adaptation (and recombination) between SIVs from different chimpanzee subspecies (or even species) could also have taken place in vitro, if kidney cells and sera from different chimp varieties were placed together in tissue culture.
The other interesting development is that in their 2011 review, Sharp and Hahn for the first time acknowledge that iatrogenic interventions such as vaccination campaigns may have played a role in the origins of AIDS, enhancing the possibility of human-to-human passage, and thus allowing more opportunities for a non-human primate virus (such as an SIV) to adapt to humans.
I might be wrong about this, in that I have probably not read all their articles, but I believe that this might be the first time that Sharp and Hahn have acknowledged this possibility, at least in so prominent a fashion.
I believe that the fact that they are doing this now is significant. Up to now, the central argument on which they have relied in order to assert that they have refuted the OPV theory has been, quite simply, spurious. (This argument depended on the claim that Worobey’s Parisi Forest chimp SIV sequence, which was apparently only about 70% homologous with HIV-1, would be typical of the sort of viruses that should have been found at Lindi Camp, because – they asserted – Lindi only used chimps from the immediate vicinity of Kisangani/Stanleyville.) That this argument of Sharp, Hahn and Worobey was (a) an unsupported assertion, and (b) incorrect, is acknowledged by an ever-growing number of those who contact me through this web-site. This is not, as they say, rocket science. It is only those who have a vested interest in this debate (such as Hahn, Sharp, Worobey, Plotkin, Moore and so forth, and – lamentably – the editorial staffs at “Nature” and “Science”), who have stubbornly argued otherwise.
But now, with the publication of some of the SIVpts data, Hahn and Sharp apparently feel able for the first time to examine (albeit tentatively) a different line: that perhaps there is something innately different about the biology of SIVpts in humans, or something different in terms of “ape-human interactions in the DRC”.
This can only be a healthy development, and I commend this new attitude as shown in their 2011 article – albeit with two caveats.
My first caveat is that the only mooted iatrogenic (physician-caused) mishaps that Sharp and Hahn are apparently prepared to examine are “large scale injection campaigns in west central Africa” (ie in Cameroon, Gabon, Congo Brazzaville or Equatorial Guinea). These campaigns are superficially quite impressive: ie they were widespread, and they did indeed occur in the early decades of the last century, and in regions adjoining those parts of south-east Cameroon where the chimpanzees, according to Hahn and Sharp, are the ancestral primate hosts of pandemic HIV-1. Linking the “large scale injection campaigns in west central Africa” to the mooted “chimp hosts of the HIV-1 ancestor” is of course highly attractive to “1908 Cameroonian bushmeat” proponents, and (I would imagine) their political supporters and/or masters. Firstly, these campaigns occurred about 1,000 kilometres west of Kisangani/Stanleyville and Lindi Camp. Secondly, they were almost universally campaigns conducted by French or German doctors; none of those involved, it seems, was American (or for that matter Belgian, or indeed British). Thirdly, many of those who conducted the trials were not identified by name. Fourthly, even those named doctors who served in such campaigns did so 70 or more years ago, and presumably have long since departed this earth. This is in contrast to doctors such as Hilary Koprowski (currently 95) and Stanley Plotkin (80), who masterminded the 1950s CHAT vaccinations in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, and who are still very much alive and kicking.
However, it is important to note (as I have done on this site a few times now) that Hahn and Sharp have glossed over a vital detail: that the SIV virus in the south-east Cameroonian chimps is only about 85% similar to pandemic HIV-1, and is actually NOT proven as the immediate ancestor of the human AIDS virus. Or, to quote some of those who seemingly collaborate with Sharp and Hahn on tetherin research: “it is highly possible that a strain(s) of SIVcpz responsible for the cross species transmission has yet to be sequenced”, where the words “a strain(s)” actually means “the strain or strains”. [See Lim E.S. et al: “Ancient Adaptive Evolution of Tetherin Shaped the Functions of Vpu and Nef in Human Immunodefiiciency Virus and Primate Lentiviruses”; J. Virol.; 2010; 84(14); 7124-7134.]
In other words, the historians and anthropologists speaking at the Paris conference, and writing in recent books and papers, may have jumped the gun. They are all coming up with links to the south-eastern Cameroon region favoured by Sharp and Hahn, yet there is actually no proof that this region is the true ancestral home of HIV-1. It is notable that in some sentences in their most recent papers Sharp and Hahn have softened their stance: in these, they refer to south-eastern Cameroon as the “likely” place of origin of pandemic HIV-1, whereas in previous papers they were not above asserting that this had been proven. (And they still make sweeping claims, such as the assertion that their Cameroonian findings “have allowed the origins of HIV-1 to be unraveled”. By contrast I, of course, believe that the true origin of HIV-1 lies in a colonial laboratory 1,000 kilometres or more to the east!)
My second caveat is that Sharp and Hahn end the penultimate paragraph of their paper with a sweeping disclaimer that seems designed to discourage follow-up, as follows: “However, whether these medical interventions and/or social factors really played a role in the emergence of HIV-1 and HIV-2, and more importantly, whether such “jump-starts’ were required to spawn the AIDS pandemic, will remain unknown.”
To sum up: the “campaigns in west central Africa” that are discussed by Sharp and Hahn occurred in a place and time-frame that are not (at least for now) politically sensitive. However, the fact that the two doyens of the “1908 Cameroonian bushmeat hypothesis” have (I believe for the first time) acknowledged that there might have been “different ape-human interactions in the DRC”, and that iatrogenic interventions such as “large-scale injection campaigns” might have increased the chances of SIVs adapting to humans, raises some interesting questions. Among them are the following:
a) What if these interventions involving Ptt chimps were not only done in west central Africa, but also in central Africa – to wit, the old Belgian Congo?
b) What if their molecular clock calculations are spurious – and ignore the possibility of a “synchonised event” (to use Gerry Myers’ apposite phrase), namely multiple transfers through iatrogenic means at a date much later than 1908 or 1931, at a date that lies much closer to the dates of the first proven HIV-1 infection (1959) and the first plausible case of HIV-1-related AIDS (1962)?
c) What if the adaptation to humans came about in a different way: for instance if a locally-prepared polio vaccine had been grown in cells and sera not only from Ptt chimpanzees, but also from Pts chimpanzees, Pan paniscus (bonobos), and…..human beings? (Once again, this is part of ongoing research, but more will be published in due time.)
If Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn are genuinely interested in discovering how the AIDS pandemic was spawned, then they might like to investigate the foregoing three questions. Does their latest paper show signs suggesting that they might be prepared to abandon some of their more vacuous dogmas? Possibly it does, although I’m not sure that they realise it yet (let alone that they are prepared to acknowledge it).
To sum up: although I am encouraged by certain aspects of the latest analysis by Sharp and Hahn, I am discouraged by the fact that they seem already to have decided uinilaterally that certain aspects of the relevant history “will remain unknown”.
5) Finally, let me briefly refer to a one-page letter that appeared in Science in July this year. The brief communication is entitled”Attenuated vaccines can recombine to form virulent field viruses”, and was written by Sang-Won Lee and a group from the Asia-Pacific Centre for Animal Health, at the University of Melbourne. Certainly there are differences between this vaccination and the Koprowski polio vaccination in the Congo. For one: the vaccine that the Melbourne team was working with was not a live attenuated poliovirus vaccine, but a “live attenuated herpesvirus vaccine [that is] widely used in human and veterinary medicine.” Moreover, the viruses that I believe recombined in the Congo vaccines were not the attenuated polioviruses that were meant to be present, but rather simian immunodeficiency viruses that were present as adventitious agents in the substrate. And finally, the recombinations of the Australian herpesvirus vaccine took place in vivo in the bodies of vaccine recipients. By contrast, in the case of the 1950s Congo polio vaccines, recombinations could have occurred at three different junctures: (a) in vivo, in the bodies of co-caged Lindi champs of different species and subspecies; (b) in vitro, in the chimpanzee tissue cultures and sera used to prepare the OPV batches in Stanleyville; and (c) once again in vivo, when after the vaccination campaigns, different adult vaccinees had sexual relations).
Despite these differences, this brief report from Melbourne represents an excellent model for the type of event that I have for many years postulated as having happened in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi between 1957 and 1960. For here is evidence that apparently safe and attenuated vaccine viruses recombined in vaccine recipients to form new viruses that caused diseases in their animal or human hosts.
Taken all together, it seems that the next year or two might be even more interesting times in terms of the search for the origins of HIV and AIDS.
One final point. The developments related in this essay give an indication of how determined certain parties and organisations are to disprove the OPV theory through means fair or foul. To date, several attempts have been made to disprove the OPV theory through what is now revealed as bogus science. Let me therefore reiterate the warning I have given several times in recent years, that it is relatively easy for labels to fall off phials and paraffin wax-embedded blocks, and to end up attached to the wrong phial or block. Some of the bushmeat people may be getting desperate, so people should be on the look-out for any fresh attempt to “disprove” the OPV theory by means of a faked or wrongly-labelled sample that claims to date from before the OPV vaccination campaigns in Africa.
Ed Hooper, October 10th, 2012