The Air-Brushing of History

Two new books about the origins of AIDS tell it like it wasn’t

In recent months (October 2011 and March 2012) two new books about the origins of AIDS have been released: The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin, and Tinderbox by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin. Both books have enjoyed generally positive reviews in the scientific and lay press.

Both volumes start off with the assumption that the oral polio vaccine (OPV) theory of AIDS origin has been disproved and that the bushmeat origin theory is now proven.

I have examined both of the texts with some care (at least the parts that cover origins, rather than the early spread of HIV), and have followed up on some of the key supporting references cited in these books. What I have discovered leads me to conclusions that are dramatically different from those of Pepin, Timberg and Halperin. Apart from the questionable assumptions that underpin both books, what is quickly clear is the number of factual and logical errors that each contains in key parts of their origins histories.

It is my belief, indeed conviction, that neither of the origins accounts detailed in these books is valid, and that neither book stands up to scrutiny.

One wonders whether the blunders in The Origins of AIDS and Tinderbox are the result of a series of unfortunate accidents – or whether there is something else going on here. Could this be carefully choreographed misinformation? It is worth noting that none of the three authors ever bothered to contact me – either to seek my views or to challenge them. By contrast, I have always sought to interview everyone who is available who might be relevant to this subject – a total of well over 700 interviewees to date.

After thinking about this for some time, I have to say that I suspect that both books have an agenda: that of trying to enshrine the bushmeat theory as the only surviving theory of how AIDS came into being.

If I am right about this, then this represents an important new stage in the origins of AIDS controversy. The rather crude techniques being used bring to mind those group photographs of Soviet leaders in the 1940s and 1950s in which unwanted and inconvenient people (such as Joe Stalin’s enemies) suddenly disappeared from the frame, airbrushed
away. As with people in the forties and fifties, so with ideas today.

It is worth noting that Jacques Pepin’s book even takes the title of The Origins of AIDS. This might be coincidence, or it might be an attempt to expunge from the record the multiple award-winning film of exactly the same name (the one that examined and commended the OPV theory). Since the film version of The Origins of AIDS was released in 2003 (and, among other things, was short-listed for an International Emmy), a concerted campaign has been staged to try to limit its availability, either at film festivals, as a DVD, or as a film broadcast on TV.

So is this airbrushing of history a cause for dismay? In my opinion the fact that the bushmeat supporters have finally stuck their heads above the parapet, to put forward their scenario (actually two somewhat conflicting scenarios, but let’s leave that for now) of how AIDS came into being is actually a positive development. Previously their hypothesis was so amorphous that it was hard to pin down, and therefore hard to defeat. It was like battling a puff of smoke.

Now, at long last they have nailed their colours to the mast, and committed their own versions of history to paper. (I am so moved that I have begun to mix metaphors…)

So by all means read these two books. And by all means read my reviews of them, below. And then make up your own minds.

My own suspicion is that the stories told in each of these books are only designed to hold up for a few years, until hopefully (from the perspective of the bushmeat believers) they can come up with something a bit more plausible. This is reminiscent of cigarette manufacturers in the 60s and 70s who kept searching for amenable scientists who would be willing to publish papers attesting that smoking was safe. Those big companies knew they wouldn’t win the war. But if they could win a few more battles, last out a few more years, then this ensured a few additional billions in the bank.

So I do not see the latest bushmeat offensive as a cause for disillusionment or downheartedness – indeed, rather the opposite. The wilder the blows, the easier it is to dodge them – and the more one senses that the opposition is getting rattled.

It turns out that both books have been written in close collaboration with members of the bushmeat movement. In the more scholarly work by Pepin, this is not made clear, but I have learnt this through the grapevine, from someone who happened to talk with one of the author’s advisors. In Tinderbox, a glance at the Acknowledgements section quickly reveals who have been the main sources for the book, and they include several of the usual suspects from the bushmeat camp, such as Beatrice Hahn and Michael Worobey, the very same persons who are most lavishly praised in the pages that follow.

This posting includes my reviews of each book.

It also, at the request of some of the regular readers of this web-site, includes a Quick Guide to the origins debate: what the bushmeat theory and the OPV theory are proposing, and whether the alleged refutations of the OPV theory that are often quoted by bushmeat supporters are scientifically sound.

I recognise that my postings on this site are often quite detailed (even, it might be said, quite lengthy), so I have attempted to boil this Guide down to the bare bones, which in this instance is a bit under five pages….provided one prints up in a suitably small font!

Finally, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to any of these pieces by providing suggestions or information, as well as those several trusted advisors who have read and commented on the drafts. Many of these persons are professors of medicine, science, or of other fields such as law. I have decided that these people will remain unnamed, not least because the debate has now become so acrimonious that in some instances at least, honest input can only be provided if it remains anonymous.

Ed Hooper, 25th April, 2012

The remainder of this posting is in three parts:

  1. The Origins of the AIDS Pandemic. A Quick Guide to The Principal Theories and the Alleged Refutations.
  2. Review of The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin. [C.U.P. 2011]
  3. Review of Tinderbox by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin. [Penguin USA; 2012]