Patricia Reaney, Reuters, Philadelphia Daily News, September 12, 2000
© 2000 Philadelphia Daily News
AIDS experts yesterday dismissed a theory about the origins of the HIV virus which suggests the disease was spread to humans through a contaminated polio vaccine used in Africa in the late 1950s.
At a two-day conference on the origins of AIDS, they presented evidence rejecting claims by journalist Edward Hooper in the book “The River” that scientists inadvertently triggered the AIDS epidemic.
Hooper said a polio vaccine, developed by Professor Hilary Koprowski of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and tested in Europe and the Belgian Congo, used cultures of chimpanzee kidney cells that could have been infected with a monkey virus and transmitted to humans.
Koprowski and Dr. Stanley Plotkin, of the University of Pennsylvania, who worked with him in Africa 40 years ago, denied that chimpanzee kidneys were used and presented evidence from other scientists who supported them.
“The oral polio vaccine that has saved millions of lives has nothing to do with the dissemination of AIDS,” Koprowski told the conference.
Plotkin said the spread of HIV started in the 1930s, long before the vaccination program in the Congo began, and the first cases of the disease are not associated with the vaccination.
“Mr. Hooper made significant mistakes in reporting where vaccination was done, and in general, the epidemiology of AIDS is consistent with sexual transmission but does not agree with the polio hypothesis,” he told a news conference.
Human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) attacks a person’s immune system and leads to AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Although the original vaccine was used up during the program, recent tests at three laboratories on 1950s-era polio vaccine samples found no evidence of HIV or a monkey virus or any DNA indicating that chimpanzee cells were used to prepare the vaccine.
“All the samples were found to be negative for HIV,” said Dr. Claudio Basilico, of New York University School of Medicine in New York and the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.
“There is nothing in the results from these tests to support the theory that HIV entered the human population during the late 1950s polio virus clinical trials in Africa,” he added.
Dr. Bette Korber, of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said a genetic analysis of the HIV virus showed that the last common ancestor of the virus existed around 1931.
Hooper, however, stands by his claims and dismisses suggestions his theory hampers efforts for worldwide polio immunization.
“We should not be so ready to believe that our scientists know all the answers,” he said.