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Something Happened


In the movie version of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, a shipwrecked passenger is fished out of the sea by a cargo ship on its way to deliver crates of apes, lions, and other wild animals to a reclusive and mysterious scientist on an island in the South Pacific. At one point the passenger asks a member of the ship’s crew, “Hey, what is all this mystery about Moreau and his island?” “I don’t know,” says the sailor. “If I did know, maybe I’d want to forget.”

Dr. Moreau is tinkering with evolution. He has moved to this remote island laboratory to create a hybrid race of beast-men. He wants to change “the physiology, the chemical rhythm” of these creatures, something similar, he says, to vaccination. Moreau believes he is working in the service of mankind and science, but in the end his beast-men turn on him and destroy his laboratory and everything else on the island. Reading The River, Edward Hooper’s book about the origin of the AIDS epidemic, I began to wonder whether Hooper had ever read Wells’s book or seen Island of Lost Souls. I also wondered just how prescient Wells might have been about what goes on in modern biology labs. “The spirit of Dr. Moreau is alive and well and living in these United States,” says the science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss in the afterword to a recent edition of Wells’s book. “These days, he would be state funded.”

Thirty-three million people living in the world today carry HIV. So far fourteen million have died of AIDS. In some urban areas in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Malawi more than 20 percent of sexually active adults are infected with HIV. The UN estimates that AIDS is responsible for 5,500 funerals a day in Africa. The disease is ruining families, villages, businesses, and armies and leaving behind a sadness so immense that it may take hundreds of years to heal.

AIDS is caused by a family of viruses called HIV that destroy the immune system that protects the body from disease. These viruses pass from person to person in bodily secretions during vaginal, anal, or oral sex; they also pass through blood transfusions and pharmaceuticals made from blood products and through bloody hypodermic needles. Infected mothers may also transmit these viruses to their babies in the womb or through breast-feeding. There is no cure, and the immune defenses of even the lucky patients who can afford the newest, most expensive treatments eventually falter. Death, often painful, follows diseases caused by strange microbes that once were extremely rare.

Some African monkeys and apes carry viruses that closely resemble HIV, and most AIDS researchers now believe that the HIV viruses are really primate viruses that somehow jumped into human beings. HIV-1, the virus responsible for most cases of AIDS to date, probably came from a chimpanzee, and HIV-2, a less aggressive virus more common among West Africans, almost certainly came from a monkey called the sooty mangabey.

In thousands of years of human history, not a single person is known to have been infected with HIV until 1959. It is possible that there were cases before that year, but no colonial medical officer, African doctor, or traditional healer ever noticed them. Now 16,000 people become infected with HIV every day and 7,000 people die of AIDS. Why have these horrible viruses started killing people in such vast numbers now and never before? Numerous explanations have been proposed. AIDS has been said to be a divine act, punishing humanity for its godless ways. Or the viruses were allegedly concocted in germ warfare labs in Maryland or the USSR or at the UN and then escaped. It has even been claimed that they came from outer space. Hooper has devoted more than a decade to this question, and he does not seem to know for certain why HIV turned up now and never before. His best guess, however, is that HIV emerged from an accident in a jungle laboratory in the 1950s, not all that much unlike Dr. Moreau’s.

In the 1950s, a group of scientists associated with the American pharmaceutical company Lederle, and later the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, were racing to develop the first polio vaccine that could be given by mouth instead of by injection. Hilary Koprowski, a Polish-American vaccine expert, was the leader of this team.

Oral polio vaccines are now one of the greatest successes of modern science. They are administered throughout the world, and the World Health Organization predicts that early in the next century an extensive international vaccination campaign will have eradicated polio from all the world’s populations. The vaccines used are those of Albert Sabin, who eventually won the race against Koprowski, but the two teams were very close for some time.

Back in the 1950s, Koprowski was impatient to test his vaccine on a large number of people, and since he had contacts with doctors in the Belgian Congo he decided to launch a vaccine trial there. The Belgian authorities were obliging, and in those days this approval was all that was required. Over a period of three years, between 1957 and 1960, Koprowski and his colleagues fed his oral polio vaccine to approximately one million Africans in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Although this was a trial, the African subjects were not aware of it. All they knew was that their local chiefs had summoned them to line up before a group of white doctors who were dispensing what they were told were “sweets” but which were actually mouthfuls of vaccine squirted from a metal syringe. Koprowski and his Belgian colleagues kept a colony of a few hundred chimps at a research station in a remote part of the Congo beside the Lindi River. They used these chimps in experiments to test the safety and effectiveness of the polio vaccines. However, Hooper believes the vaccines used in Koprowski’s African trials were contaminated with the primate precursor of HIV, and that it came from the chimpanzees at Lindi.

Oral polio vaccines are polio viruses that have been weakened so that they don’t cause disease. In the Fifties, scientists grew live polio vaccines in monkey kidneys that had been cut into tiny pieces and placed in a jar filled with fluid. Cells would grow out of the minced pieces of tissue and form a sort of underwater floor on the bottom of the dish. A few drops of a solution containing a weak vaccine strain of polio virus would be added to the dish; the virus would reproduce inside the cells, and after a week or so the fluid would be teeming with living polio vaccine virus. The fluid was filtered, diluted, and then fed to people. Their immune systems would learn to kill the vaccine virus, and when vaccinated people encountered the real virus later on, their bodies would be able to fight it off.

Hooper believes that Koprowski sent the kidneys of some chimpanzees from his Lindi research station to his lab in Philadelphia and used them to make the vaccine that was later administered in Africa. In The River Hooper painstakingly tries to account for every chimp that was ever kept at Lindi in the late 1950s. He found that many died shortly after they were captured, and many others were killed after being used in experiments, but he claims that the fate of a few dozen chimps went unrecorded. If, as Hooper believes, the kidneys of these missing chimps were actually used to make Koprowski’s vaccine, then it is possible that this vaccine might have contained the chimp version of HIV-1. The kidneys of all primates contain cells called macrophages, in which viruses like HIV can grow. Vaccine-making procedures in the 1950s were rather crude, so if Koprowski did use chimp kidneys, and if these kidneys came from a chimp carrying the precursor of HIV-1, he just might have been growing chimp HIV in his polio vaccine. When African children were fed the vaccine, the chimp virus might have infected some of them through oral cuts or sores or through the mucous membranes in their mouths. When these children grew up, they would have passed the virus to their sexual partners and children, and before long, in Hooper’s view, the global AIDS epidemic would be underway.

Versions of this story have been around for a while, although few scientists take it seriously anymore. It was first advanced in 1987 by a disqualified Texas medical doctor called Eva Lee Snead, who later wrote a book called Some Call it “AIDS”—I Call it Murder! The Connection Between Cancer, AIDS, Immunizations and Genocide. A philosopher named Louis Pascal heard Snead discussing AIDS and polio vaccines on the radio and decided to look into it further. He then wrote a detailed research paper arguing that it would have been technically possible for a primate precursor of HIV to have contaminated the Congo polio vaccines. He also criticized the scientific community and the editors of The Lancet and Nature for not publishing his articles.1 Later the journalist Tom Curtis wrote a more sober article about the polio theory in Rolling Stone magazine.2 Snead, Pascal, and Curtis argued that if AIDS had crept into the human race while hidden in a polio vaccine, it would not be the first time that something like this had happened. Many polio vaccines from the 1960s were contaminated with a monkey virus called SV40 that is now suspected of promoting various human cancers, including mesothelioma, an aggressive form of lung cancer.

Hooper has taken these arguments considerably further. Hooper is a journalist, not a scientist, but his 850-page book, with another 250 pages of notes, reflects some arduous reporting. He traveled back and forth across Europe and the US, interviewing people ranging from famous AIDS researchers like David Ho and Robert Gallo to the people who worked with Koprowski in the Congo to a group of men sitting outside a bar in St. Louis who might have known someone who might have known someone who probably didn’t die of AIDS in the 1960s. The detail is at times fascinating, at times confusing. Nevertheless, The River is among the best surveys to appear on the epidemiology of AIDS.

For Hooper’s theory to be true, Koprowski must have been using chimpanzee kidneys to make the African vaccine. Koprowski claims he grew his vaccine in the kidneys of Asian monkeys, not chimpanzees, and that his Congo chimps were used only for testing the vaccine. Everyone else who might have known which kidneys were used to make the vaccine is either dead or can’t remember. Some people who were associated with the Congo research in the 1950s remember chimpanzee kidneys being shipped across the Atlantic to a lab across the street from Koprowski’s in Philadelphia, although it is not clear that any of them went to Koprowski himself. Koprowski says his papers have been lost and there is no other documentation that might resolve the matter. Hooper found that the earliest cases of HIV and AIDS emerged from the very regions and, in some cases, the very towns and villages in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi where some of Koprowski’s trials took place. Could HIV have escaped from Koprowski’s lab and spread throughout the world? 3

  1. 1

    What Happens When Science Goes Bad: The Corruption of Science and the Origin of AIDS: A Study in Spontaneous Generation,” Working Paper no. 9, University of Wollongong Science and Technology Analysis Research Program (Wollongong, New South Wales, 1992), available at www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/dissent/documents/AIDS.

  2. 2

    Tom Curtis, “The Origin of AIDS: A Startling New Theory Attempts to Answer the Question: Was It an Act of God or an Act of Man?” Rolling Stone, March 19, 1992, pp. 54-61, 106-108.

  3. 3

    HIV emerged at least twice in Africa, once around the Congo-Rwanda border as HIV-1, and once in West Africa as HIV-2. The two HIVs differ genetically in that they have similar, but not identical, genes, and those genes are ordered differently in the viral genome. Also HIV-2 is less aggressive than HIV-1 in that it is transmitted less easily, and people with HIV-2 develop AIDS more slowly than people with HIV-1. Koprowski’s vaccine, according to Hooper, would only have been responsible for HIV-1. For the origin of HIV-2, Hooper postulates that Dr. Pierre Lepine of the Pasteur Institute conducted polio vaccine trials around Guinea Bissau in the 1950s. Lepine claims to have grown his vaccine in baboon cells, but Hooper thinks he might have used sooty mangabey and that this might have gone unrecorded. On the other hand, Hooper writes, Lepine might have used kidneys from a baboon that had been infected with a sooty mangabey virus.

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