How do you know about AIDS

Thesis on the origin of HIV: AIDS - a consequence of medical sloppiness?

AIDS not only brings unspeakable suffering to a steadily increasing number of African families. The immunodeficiency erases villages that have grown over generations from the map and leaves entire stretches of land deserted. Trade and economy wither, universities and research institutions are losing their staff. Even the public administration is orphaned - in the Malawi Ministry of Health, for example, there is no specialist department that does not already have several AIDS deaths.

Animal transmission

For some time now there have been a wide variety of attempts to explain the disease. In lay circles, for example, there is a stubborn assumption that the HIV virus was accidentally, perhaps deliberately released from the secret laboratories of American (or Russian?) Military during the development of biological weapons. The assumption of a "natural transmission" of HIV from an animal reservoir to humans is largely undisputed among experts.

The virus, according to the thesis, is originally a pathogen in monkeys (HIV-1 in chimpanzees and HIV-2 in a mangabetic species). When these monkeys were hunted, slaughtered and eaten, humans were infected in individual cases. As long as those concerned lived in remote jungle villages and traditional social structures were still intact, AIDS was confined to isolated areas.

Male migration

The epidemiological situation changed significantly after the Second World War and especially with the independence of the former colonies. More and more roads crisscrossed the continent, and trucks reached even the most remote hamlets. The cities grew rapidly and, like a magnet, attracted crowds of young men whose fathers had still cleared and burned and tilled their fields with a hoe. Women and children lagged behind and - as expected - promiscuity and prostitution developed in the wake of male migration. Every truck stop, every workers' settlement, every barracks became an extremely effective hub for pathogens causing venereal diseases, including HIV.

Worldwide distribution

According to this theory, the starting point of the AIDS epidemic was a hunter who became infected with the bloody flesh of a killed monkey, emigrated to the city a little later - or was drafted into the army - and transmitted the virus to a dozen women through promiscuity. They then ensured the further spread of the pathogen. A coincidence that can only be calculated statistically - the transmission of HIV from a monkey to its hunter, who then leaves his home for the city a little later - resulted in the epidemiological meltdown as a quasi-mandatory medical infection necessity due to a changed socio-economic reality.

Logical gaps in theory

However, this "natural transfer" theory is not without logical gaps. Paleontologists confirm that monkeys have been hunted and eaten in Africa for at least 50,000 years - but generations of well-trained tropical doctors have never reported an illness remotely reminiscent of AIDS, let alone seen an accumulation of such cases.

It is also wrong to assume that Africa was a continent of inner peace and stable family ties before independence. War, displacement, enslavement and rape, even prostitution, had existed for centuries. This spread the HTLV-1 virus (another retrovirus believed to have come from monkeys) in and beyond Africa. So why not HIV?

Not more common in monkey hunters

If the HIV precursor virus has indeed been transmitted over and over again from monkeys to humans, then the population groups that traditionally hunt monkeys, the pygmies, should have the highest contamination. In all pygmy populations examined so far, however, neither HIV nor HTLV-1 infections could be detected with any significant frequency. The few HIV-positive pygmies known today have all stayed in larger cities for a while, so they may have become infected there in the usual way.

Is it the result of medical misconduct?

The obvious weaknesses of the current explanatory model for the origin of AIDS have not escaped an expert on the situation: Edward Hooper, former Africa correspondent of the BBC and long-time UN employee in Central Africa. He put his research and the conclusions based on it on 850 pages of text - with an additional 250 pages of detailed footnotes - on paper. In the work, which has received much attention in the USA, he confronts the professional world with a hypothesis that at first glance is as plausible as it is explosive: The AIDS epidemic, says Hooper, is simply the result of blatant medical misconduct in the development of a vaccine against polio, an era of infectious medicine that was previously the halo of epochal science.

In the early 1950s, two American researchers, Hilary Koprowski and Albert Sabin, competed to produce a polio vaccine. The race was ultimately won by Sabin (whose oral vaccination was used around the world until a few years ago), but Koprowski was one step ahead for a while. He had carried out the largest vaccination studies and was therefore able to show exact figures about the effectiveness of his vaccines.

Human experiments in Africa

His vaccinees, however, were not American children threatened by polio, but unsuspecting villagers in the most remote parts of Africa, who were simply ordered to line up and have the vaccine solution dribbled into their mouths. Between 1957 and 1960, around a million people in the Belgian colonies of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi were demoted to guinea pigs with a quasi-military tone of command.

Virus culture on monkey kidney cells

At that time, polioviruses could only be grown on monkey kidney cells, and monkeys had to be killed week after week in order to harvest the organs necessary for the virus culture. There is some evidence, so claims Edward Hooper, that chimpanzees were used as donors in individual cases, which Koprowski kept in his field laboratory on Lindi in deep Congo, near the city of Stanleyville, in order to check the effectiveness of the various vaccine virus strains.

Koprowski, Hooper explains knowledgeably, repeatedly sent monkey kidneys from Lindi to his vaccine laboratory in Philadelphia, which were used to cultivate the polioviruses. One - or more - of these monkey organs could - without Koprowski knowing it - have been infected with the HIV precursor virus. This was multiplied in Philadelphia and returned to Africa via the polio vaccine, where the viruses were administered as medication to an unsuspecting population.

Unethical vaccination studies

This sequence can be traced microbiologically without any problems (for example, polio vaccines were contaminated with the SV 40 tumor virus from rhesus monkeys and green monkeys, which was transmitted to millions of people via oral vaccination in the 1950s), but it is also epidemiological some facts for Hoopers thesis. The earliest AIDS cases documented in Africa occurred in those regions of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi - often even in the exact villages and cities - in which Koprowski had carried out his unethical vaccination studies. And the oldest known HIV-positive blood sample, from 1957, comes from a man in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), the time and place coinciding with Koprowski's vaccination campaign.

Just clues

Even if Hooper can only provide circumstantial evidence, but no definitive evidence, for his hypothesis that a chimpanzee virus triggered the AIDS pandemic via the polio vaccine, his arguments still make the medical community difficult to explain. Simon Wain Hobson, an internationally recognized AIDS researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, for example, finds the scenario outlined by the journalist "convincing". And Stephen Norley, AIDS expert at the Paul Ehrlich Institute for Sera and Vaccines in Langen, Hesse, says that the facts have been well researched and that the hypothesis is worth taking seriously.

"Date of origin" fits

Even the "origin date" of HIV recently calculated by American scientists to be 1931 does not contradict Edward Hooper's thesis. Because of the probabilistic approach in the mathematical model of the researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, a hypothetical date for the virus "jumping over" from apes to humans is also possible at the beginning of the 1950s.

After all, the offer from the Wistar Institute, for which Koprowski worked at the time, to look for the suspected culprit in the remains of the former vaccines, will in all probability not ultimately decide the dispute. A total of six - out of probably several hundred - batches of the old vaccine are still available, so a negative sample does not rule out that one or two other batches were contaminated with the virus. In addition, the experts are not sure whether the 50-year-old remains are so well preserved that the slightest traces of the original pathogen are still present.

Transmission by injection?

Another, plausible explanation for the AIDS calamity would also be a slap in the face for modern medicine: in rural Africa until a few years ago syringes and needles that were not or only insufficiently sterilized were used again and again. This paved the way for the transmission of a dozen dangerous pathogens - from malaria to infectious jaundice to syphilis.

It has been proven that the largest of all early Ebola virus epidemics in Yambuko, Congo, originated in a missionary hospital where unsuspecting sisters treated dozens of patients with the same syringe.

Increase in virulence of SIV?

Just as well, the HI precursor virus, the so-called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), may one day have been transmitted from an infected person to various other people. It is conceivable that blood was taken again from one or the other patient within a short period of time, for example for a transfusion from a relative, and that the virus was spread to other people from this person with non-sterilized injection material (for example during a vaccination campaign) after a few days has been.

A change in the pathogen, which is known in infection medicine as "increase in virulence through multiple passage", is not unlikely. The phenomenon applies equally to pathogens as diverse as unicellular parasites, bacteria and viruses. Recently, it was also possible to show for genetically modified SIV that rapid passage of the virus from monkey to monkey leads to a dramatic increase in virulence, in which a pathogen develops that triggers the typical AIDS clinical picture in monkeys.

Exchange through body fluids

In analogy to the animal experiments, it can be assumed that a rapid multiple passage of SIV caused by iatrogenic, i.e. by medical sloppiness, could have mutated the - relatively benign - HI precursor virus into a deadly immune deficiency virus. The new variant, however, was not only more dangerous, but also gained an additional advantage through a random further mutation: It could not only be transmitted through blood, but through all types of body fluids, especially those that are exchanged during intercourse. With the onset of economic development, migration and promiscuity did the rest to spread the new virus variant, i.e. HIV, across the African continent.

Literature: Hooper, Edward: The river: a journey to the source of HIV and AIDS; Little, Brown and Company, Boston 1999. Korber, B., et al .: Timing the ancestor of the HIV-1 pandemic strain, Science 289, 1789-1796 (2000). Butler, B .: Analysis of polio vaccine could end dispute over how AIDS originated. Nature 404: 9 (2000). Joag, S.V., et al. Chimeric simian / human immunodeficiency virus that causes progressive loss of CD4 + T cells and AIDS in pig-tailed macaques. J. Virology 70: 3189-3197 (1996).