September 16, 2005
A theatrical documentary
written by Christian Biasco (2005)
English version by
SV40. SV40 is a monkey virus. “V” for virus, “S” for simian, “of
monkeys”, “40” because in 1960 when it was discovered, it was the
40th monkey virus to be identified. Certain scientists say it is
cancerous – that it causes cancer.
Laboratory tests have confirmed that it
causes cancer in hamsters. But what does that have to do with us? I
mean – poor monkeys, poor hamsters. But for us humans what
difference does it make if SV40 is cancerous or not? Well it should
make a difference considering that the major portion of the millions
of polio vaccines produced between 1954 and 1963 were contaminated
So in fact it’s important to know
whether SV40 is cancerous or not. But let’s talk about AIDS because
that’s what this presentation is about. AIDS is an illness caused by
HIV. HIV is also a monkey virus (or at least it started out as one).
Could it be that HIV, like SV40, was passed from monkeys to humans
through polio vaccines?
But one thing at a time.
Chapter 1 -
What is poliomyelitis? Well, we just need to take the name apart:
“itis” = inflammation, “myelos” = matter, “polio” = grey.
Inflammation of the grey matter… in the spinal cord. It’s the
illness caused by the poliovirus.
Very briefly, here is how it operates.
The poliovirus enters the mouth, travels
down, arrives in the intestines, causes fever for two weeks, then
goes out and leaves the patient immune for life. Our immune system
develops antibodies, so we get taken in only once. This happens in
99 out of 100 cases. In the other 1% however, the virus enters the
mouth, travels down, and arrives in the intestines.
From there it gets into the blood-stream
and starts circulating until it arrives at the spinal cord, where it
begins to multiply and cause damage. Then it can paralyze a leg,
both legs… When it interrupts the contact between the spinal cord
and the diaphragm, the victim dies of suffocation. Never heard of
it? And yet all of us have been vaccinated against the poliovirus.
Poliomyelitis was the nightmare of our grandparents. You still don’t
remember? Wait: you remember Heidi? Heidi had a friend. What was
Heidi’s friend’s name? Clara! Little Clara. What was her problem?
She was paralyzed, in a wheelchair. And why? Because she had… polio!
Another example: you’ve all seen the
movie Forrest Gump? The child, from infancy had metal braces around
his legs because he was a victim of… polio! Have you seen the war
film Pearl Harbor? At a certain point the president, with great
difficulty, gets up on his feet and shouts,
“Don’t tell me it can’t be done!”
That president, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest president of the United States, the
only one to be elected 4 times, was afflicted as a young man by…
polio! Now you remember!
FDR and the fight against poliomyelitis.
It was a priority on his political agenda. And the iron lung,
remember? That huge iron tube where they put polio victims? It
compressed and decompressed the air to do what the diaphragm was no
longer able to do. A life closed in a cylinder. This didn’t happen
in the middle Ages, this was just 50 years ago! But the history of
the fight against poliomyelitis is an example of the determination
of a whole nation, the USA, confronting its problems, focusing and
concentrating its resources.
A combination of politics and scientific
progress. And after years of research and investment the solution to
the problem was found at the end of the 50s with the development of
Salk and Sabin vaccines, which have completely eradicated polio
in the developed countries and, hopefully, will succeed in doing so
on every continent. This is the one developed by
Jonas Salk. (He
takes a polio vaccine in hand)
What’s in here? Poliovirus. Dead…
neutralized. How does it work? You take some poliovirus and kill it,
or rather, you render it inactive with formaldehyde, then you inject
it to stimulate the body to develop antibodies. Easy! Not really.
The difficulty in preparing this
is to get the right balance. In fact, first of all you have to be
sure the virus is really inactivated, otherwise something might
happen, like in the case of the Cutter accident where 200 children,
instead of being immunized, contracted poliomyelitis. But at the
same time you can’t inactivate it too much or it becomes twisted and
the immune system doesn’t recognize it and doesn’t produce
So you end up with a vaccine, which is
completely useless. But Salk succeeded in finding just the right
balance. In 1954 millions of doses of his vaccine were tested and
used, immediately reducing the number of cases of poliomyelitis.
Today it’s still one of the safest vaccines in the world. But
there’s one problem. The immunity is limited in time. After a few
years it’s necessary to re-vaccinate. And I don’t like injections,
if I can, I do without! For this reason a second vaccine was
developed: the Sabin vaccine. This one. (He takes another polio
vaccine in hand)
What’s in here? Poliovirus. Live…
attenuated. Deprived of its capacity to cause illness. How? Well
here the process is much more complex. The poliovirus is passed
through tissue taken from different animal species. Chemical
substances are added. To put it simply, you wear it out and try to
tame it. The Sabin vaccine is potentially more dangerous than the
Salk because we’re talking about a live virus, which could possibly
be transmitted, to other people.
But the advantages of it are numerous.
First of all, it is administered orally by means of a few drops on a
lump of sugar or on the tongue. But the main thing is, it provides
immunity for life.
Albert Sabin succeeded in
developing the first attenuated oral vaccine, safe and efficient,
which was tested in the Soviet Union at the end of the 50s and is
still used today. But just a moment here.
Who am I to be telling this story? I’m
not a doctor, not an historian, not a journalist. I’m just an
ordinary person. So is what I’m telling you invented? No. Perhaps
some of it is simplified, otherwise we’d be here for ages and you’d
have to sniff coke to follow. Ok. But who or what gives me the right
to speak about such a specialized topic? My diplomas? Obviously I’ve
done my homework and I’m trying to understand and explain it
But we are so used to believing only the
experts and specialists that we no longer think with our own heads.
When we go to vote on genetically produced food or nuclear energy or
complex questions of economy, why do we always have to trust blindly
in the expert who happens to be at hand? Why can’t we think on our
In any case a bibliography is available
so you can check for yourselves. OK. So let’s get back to these
vaccines. What have they got to do with monkeys? Well, if I have to
vaccinate the population of a whole nation, I need millions of doses
of vaccine, thousands of liters. I have to find a method for
cultivating vaccine on an industrial scale. I have to find a kind of
tissue on which the poliovirus can multiply. It thrives in the human
spinal cord. Would you be willing to lend me yours? No? Well, since
I can’t use human tissue, I have to use… monkeys. Because of their
genetic similarity to humans.
But as it was soon discovered, even
better than in the spinal cord, the virus grows well in the kidneys
– in the kidneys of monkeys. So how do I proceed? The process is
called amplification. I take a monkey and I open it up. I remove the
liver and I go in and take out those two large lima beans that are
in there, the kidneys. I cut these into very very fine pieces and I
slide the resulting paste into a bottle with a nutritious substance.
Then I add a little bit of vaccine from
a test tube and wait until the virus reproduces. After a few days,
using a filter, I remove the monkey cells and any possible bacteria
and… that’s it. A kind of multiplication rather like the loaves and
the fishes. But there’s a problem with this process. Stowaways. The
contamination of the vaccine by hidden monkey viruses. If there is a
monkey virus in the kidneys, it won’t be held back by the filter,
because if the poliovirus passes, it will too.
So it’s dangerous to use monkeys!
Researchers have always been aware of
this and have tried to take precautions so the clandestine viruses
don’t contaminate the vaccine. And the danger should not be
underestimated because certain monkey viruses are extremely lethal
for humans. Sabin, for example, knew this very well. In 1932 it was
actually he who identified an unknown virus in the cadaver of one of
his colleagues who had been bitten by a monkey.
Another was identified after a small
epidemic broke out in a laboratory in Germany in 1967. The virus
severely attacked 31 people of whom 7 died. But fortunately for us,
these viruses were always discovered in time, thanks to various
safety measures. In fact, before a monkey is used it is necessary to
make sure it is healthy. How? Well, by examining it.
Then, as a further precaution it is put
in quarantine to see that it is not harboring some illness.
So tests are made to make sure it is not
infected with viruses. And then, if it is healthy, it is used. So,
everything going smoothly? No, because obviously you can only test
the presence of viruses that you know. And so there was at least one
that got past all the checks. You know it already: SV40. An Asian
monkey virus. In 1960, right in the middle of all the vaccination
campaigns around the whole world, it was discovered that the monkeys
they were using to produce polio vaccine were healthy carriers of a
virus. When it was tested, it was found to cause cancer in hamsters.
So what happened? Panic!
A potentially cancerous monkey virus had
been transmitted to millions of people! I’m not telling you a story,
the SV40 case is covered in any serious course in medicine. However,
destiny would have it that this virus was pronounced harmless in
humans. Sheer luck. There are many modern studies re-opening the
case because it seems that the virus is at least a secondary actor
in the appearance of a certain type of tumor. But that’s another
Hilary Koprowski, who at the
time of this drama was in competition with Sabin, having also
developed an oral polio vaccine, wrote to the World Health
Organization urging them to abandon the use of monkey kidney tissue
…monkey kidneys are too dangerous and could possibly
reveal other surprises…
But his advice was not followed and it
was simply decided to abandon Asian monkeys, used until then, and to
use African green monkeys instead because they were not naturally
contaminated by SV40.
Incidentally, they aren’t green, they’re
grey. Only their genitals are colored.
“Much of the oral polio vaccine used
throughout the world is produced in primary kidney cells from
What’s important about this sentence? It
was written in 1985 in
Science, one of the most prestigious
scientific magazines in the world, in an article reporting the
discovery in this type of monkey of a virus, which is genetically
very similar to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS in humans.
Now it’s time to explain what HIV has
got to do with monkeys.
Chapter 2 - AIDS
SIV. Now let’s see if you can work it out: “V” for… virus, “S” for…
simian, “I” for… immunodeficiency. Simian immunodeficiency virus.
This name distinguishes it from another virus: HIV, human immune
Almost every species of African monkey is a
carrier of its own particular SIV: chimpanzees, African green
monkeys, baboons and sooty mangabeys.
SIV and HIV belong to the same family of
viruses and are very similar to each other. But “SIV” is actually
not an accurate name for African monkeys, because they don’t become
ill from it – no immunodeficiency. They have co-existed with SIV for
thousands of years. Asian monkeys, on the other hand, are not
naturally infected with SIV. On one occasion sooty mangabey SIV was
transmitted to some Asian monkeys in a laboratory.
They became ill and died in a manner
very much resembling AIDS in humans. HIV causes death in humans in
practically 100% of cases, which indicates that the human immune
system is not accustomed to such a virus. Would it be reasonable to
conclude that HIV has been recently acquired from the world of
But the matter is even more complicated
because in humans there are two different types of HIV –
predictably, HIV-1 and HIV-2.
The first, HIV-1, is responsible for 99%
of AIDS cases in the world. The other, HIV-2, is restricted to West
Africa. It also causes AIDS but it has a longer latency period and
seems to be less transmittable. They are so different from each
other that in order to detect them two different tests are
But now here’s the interesting part:
HIV-2 resembles the sooty mangabey SIV – so much so that if you
bring one or the other to a laboratory without indicating its
origin, they won’t be able to tell whether it’s simian or human. A
similarity to HIV-1 has also been found in chimpanzee SIV, but not
as close. Sufficiently close, however, to suggest that HIV-1 was
transmitted from monkeys to humans.
But how on earth did this virus pass
from monkeys to humans if it is practically only transmittable
through sexual relations (intercourse) and the use of infected
syringes? Come on, what are you thinking about? There is a simpler
explanation. In different regions of Africa they eat monkeys. It’s
possible that by eating insufficiently cooked meat, or by being
bitten by a monkey at the moment of capture, or – even more probable
– while butchering the meat, someone could have cut himself and in
this way allowed monkey blood to enter into contact with human
blood. It’s plausible.
This is the “bushmeat” theory, accepted
by the majority of the scientific community. But it has one weak
point: why now? Monkeys have been eaten in Africa since the dawn of
Why were there no AIDS epidemics before
the 80s? How can we explain the sudden appearance of two different
epidemics in the 20th century?
“Bearing in mind that several
thousands of doses of the original Salk vaccine produced in the
1950s were contaminated with SV40, a simian agent, one wonders
whether monkey kidney tissue might not be the source of the AIDS
virus in man…”
Two South African virologists, Lecatsas
and Alexander, wrote this in a South African medical journal in 1989.
If the monkeys used to produce the
vaccines were infected with SIV, it would not have been noticed
because they are asymptomatic – they do not show any sign that could
indicate they are infected and a test for isolating this type of
virus was not developed until 1985.
“…while it would be simplistic to
assume and even more difficult to prove that polio vaccine is
the source of HIV infection in man, it would be equally naïve to
ignore the possibility…”
Do you realize what this man is
insinuating? It’s a frightening hypothesis.
He is debating whether the fight against
poliomyelitis, one of the greatest conquests of modern medicine, was
not the cause of the most tragic medical disaster of the
contemporary age. I don’t know whether you are aware of the extent
of the tragedy. Up to now, AIDS has caused the death of 30 million
people. If their coffins were lined up end to end, they would form a
band of death around the whole world.
3 million people per year die of AIDS.
That’s one person every 10 seconds. In certain African countries
life expectancy has dropped by 40 years. If nothing is done, a baby
born there will have a 70% chance of dying of AIDS before the age of
30. Perhaps the greatest health catastrophe known to humans.
Now do you think Lecatsas’ hypothesis is
something to be taken lightly? No. In fact a response to it followed
immediately in the same publication.
“To suggest that live polio vaccine
may carry the potential danger of AIDS because of contamination
with simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIV)… is a recklessly wild
and unscientific speculation. Studies carried out by ourselves
and others have failed to isolate SIV from monkey kidney tissues
derived from seropositive monkeys. … In this context, letters
such as that of Lecatsas … serve only to misinform, confuse and
mislead, and do little to help our own and also international
efforts to meet the goal of the 41st World Health Assembly, i.e.
the global eradication of poliomyelitis…”
Question: if it was such an unscientific
speculation, why did they carry out tests?
As early as 1985, the World Health
Organization conducted tests – without advertising it too much – to
check for the presence of SIV in vaccines produced from 1970 to the
present day. They were found to be clean. And what about vaccines
There was another test carried out in
Japan. OHHTTAA! (imitating a martial attack) Joking aside, Ohta was
actually the name of a Japanese researcher. In 1989, he took two
seropositive monkeys and produced a vaccine using modern production
methods. The result was reassuring because SIV was already
eliminated in the first passages, thanks in particular to the use of
trypsin. So modern polio vaccines are safe. But what about those
produced using the earlier techniques?
The Japanese article contains a warning:
“AGM (African green monkeys)
naturally infected with SIV should not be used for preparation
Which is as much as to say that, good
news, we found no trace of SIV, but, take it from us, it’s better to
avoid the risk. And recklessly wild speculation? – and this is not
in a rock mag! If scientists don’t ask themselves these questions,
who is going to?
Lecatsas did not accept the criticism of
his suggestion and wrote back in the same issue:
“To ignore the overwhelming
statistical possibility of cross-species infection via millions
upon millions of doses of vaccine over a 40-year period would be
naïve. We believe in the free expression and exchange of ideas
as a necessary ingredient in scientific advancement. We also
believe that sooner or later the question we have raised will
have to be addressed and, we hope, answered.”
In any case, we can easily see that
Lecatsas’ hypothesis is merely theoretical and has little to do with
the polio vaccination campaigns.
The earliest trace of HIV in a human was
found in a serum taken during a genetics study conducted in 1959 in
Kinshasa, in Central Africa, and diverse other studies indicate that
the origin of HIV is localized in the regions of Congo, Rwanda and
Burundi not in the US where the Salk vaccine was tested, and not in
the USSR where the first Sabin vaccine was tested. So the polio
vaccine theory as presented by Lecatsas is simply not true, is it?
Unless of course there were other
vaccinations in Africa before 1959…
Chapter 3 - Belgian
About 250,000 people of both sexes and of all ages were vaccinated
with a live, attenuated experimental
vaccine called CHAT, which was
administered orally. When? Between February 1957 and April 1958.
Where? In the Belgian Congo and in Ruanda-Urundi, now called
Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, exactly in the
epicenter of the HIV-1 epidemic.
The first mass vaccination with a live
polio vaccine carried out on humans. The same vaccine was also
tested in Kinshasa between 1958 and 1959 on 46,000 people. Kinshasa
was then called Leopoldville and was part of the Belgian Congo – the
exact place where in 1959, one year later, the first HIV-positive
blood sample in the world was taken! But who organized this
You already know him. Hilary Koprowski, the one who
recommended in 1960 that monkey kidneys should no longer be used in
the production of polio vaccine.
But who is
He was born
in Poland in 1916, studied the piano and medicine simultaneously but
chose a career in research because, as he put it,
“I did not have enough talent to
become the best pianist in the world.”
After immigrating to the USA, he began
work in the field of polio.
In March 1951 he surprised everyone by
announcing that he was the first researcher to administer a live
oral vaccine to human beings. The “volunteers”, whom he described as
“retarded”, were 20 children from a mental home in the State of New
York. No cause for scandal, it was absolutely normal practice to use
the mentally handicapped as guinea pigs.
Koprowski’s experiments went on for 6
years and involved newborn infants of female prison inmates in New
Jersey. Prisoners were also prime subjects for experimentation! In
1956 he carried out a larger experiment in Belfast, but the check
tests done by locally-based doctors indicated that Koprowski’s
vaccine was not at all safe and should no longer be used.
In 1957 Koprowski became Director of the
Wistar Institute of Philadelphia, a modest research centre, which he
modernized from top to bottom. But before he took over, he carefully
prepared the terrain by entering into an agreement with the Belgian
authorities. At that time Koprowski and Sabin were in fierce
competition with each other. After the discovery of the
disadvantages of the Salk vaccine, attention was focused on live
The first to develop a safe and
efficient one would be a hero. It was a fight to the finish with no
holds barred. Koprowski and Sabin hated each other, but precisely
hate can breed a robust competition, which produces results
Soon after arriving in the Congo, the
first thing Koprowski did was testing his vaccine on the “residents”
at a chimpanzee colony.
As a “precaution”, he had the vaccine
administered to the animal keepers as well, who were of course
African. And so it was, that the successful immunization of a few
keepers became the justification for the first mass experiments in
the history of an oral polio vaccine. Called forth by the sound of
beating drums, the Africans traveled from the countryside to the
meeting-places of the villages.
There they were lined up and the liquid
vaccine was squirted into their mouths. By means of a small tube
connected to a flask, about 300,000 people were vaccinated between
1957 and 1959. But meanwhile Sabin had begun his campaign in the
Soviet Union with the support of a government which was only too
happy to be able to give the US a swift kick where it hurts and
demonstrate that one of their compatriots, in spite of having
emigrated abroad, was the inventor of the first safe and efficient
oral polio vaccine.
In 1959, at a conference held in
Washington, the situation became clear: Sabin’s results were found
to be superior to Koprowski’s. Moreover, on that occasion, Sabin
finished Koprowski off with a revelation like a poisoned dagger:
“… tests on the large lot of
Koprowski’s type 1 “CHAT” vaccine used in the Belgian Congo
trials… revealed the presence of an unidentified,
non-poliomyelitis cytopathogenic virus…”
So according to Sabin, who was
recognized by everyone as being very precise, Koprowski’s CHAT
vaccine was contaminated by a virus he could not identify. After
this, Koprowski’s chances for success were reduced to a minimum.
The SV40 scandal in 1960 might have been
of some help to him, but meanwhile, back in the Congo, the end of
the world had come: a revolution had begun which was to bring the
country first independence, then civil war and finally the cruel
Mobutu dictatorship. The whites were obliged to leave the area in
haste. And then, as is always the case with whoever loses the race,
Koprowski’s vaccinations were completely forgotten.
So now let’s
summarize the situation: the place and time of the vaccinations
correspond with those of the AIDS epidemic.
From the point of view of logic there
was also a precedent: SV40. In addition, the great authority, Sabin,
claimed that Koprowski’s vaccine was contaminated. And if we want to
be malicious, why did Koprowski recommend in 1960 that monkey
kidneys should no longer be used?
I’m not saying it happened like this,
but it certainly bears questioning. At this point the theory is no
longer just a hypothesis. That’s the oral polio vaccine theory (OPV/AIDS
theory). Now let me ask you a question: if you were journalists and
came to these conclusions, would you publicize them? Obviously you would have to consult some
specialists or interview the persons directly involved.
named Tom Curtis found himself in this situation and set out to
interview the great men of science.
This was their response to the theory:
Dr Jonas Salk: “What value is it to
anyone to try to imply such a cause and effect relationship?”
Dr Albert Sabin: “You can’t hang
Koprowski with that.”
Dr Hilary Koprowski: “You’re beating
a dead horse… My opinion is that this is a highly theoretical
situation which… does not make sense.”
Dr David Heymann, World Health
Organization: “The origin of the AIDS virus is of no importance
to science today… Any speculation on how it arose is of no
Dr William Haseltine, Harvard
University: “It’s not relevant … Who cares what the origin was?
Who really cares? If you want to do something good, write about
problems people experience.”
Do you agree with them? Do you also
think it’s not important to know the origin of AIDS?
Perhaps their reasoning was,
“Now it’s here, who cares how it got
here, we have to find a solution.”
But a greater knowledge of the origin
might possibly suggest new ideas for a cure, for its prevention.
And apart from this, in an adult
society, if a tragedy happens, you not only rescue the victims, but
you ask yourselves what the cause was in order to prevent similar
disasters from happening. But even apart from these practical
considerations, don’t you think that the death of 30 million people
requires an explanation? I grew up with the idea that science can
ask questions about anything.
We ask whether there’s water on Mars, if
anti-matter exists, we study the glacial eras, we analyze 14th
century poetry… Why is it not considered important to inquire into
how a virus managed to attack humans and cause millions of deaths?
I know, put like that it becomes a
question of priority. Of course, next to research into a cure for
AIDS, the subject of its origin comes second. But surely not after
quantum physics or other incredibly expensive fields of research. Or
is there another explanation…? Perhaps people, the masses, you and
me are considered too stupid to understand such a complex topic.
We don’t have the knowledge and we might
draw hurried and erroneous conclusions, that vaccines are bad, that
science is an abomination. Why can we not be considered mature
people capable of understanding, reflecting and deciding freely? I
believe if things are explained calmly and clearly, you can
understand them. Maybe it costs more to explain them well, but all
of society profits.
Who knows, perhaps this is what Tom
Curtis thought when in March 1992 he published his article on the
oral polio vaccine theory:
“The Origin of AIDS. A startling new
theory attempts to answer the question, ‘Was it an act of God or
an act of man?’ “
And where did Tom Curtis publish it? In
Chapter 4 -
Suppression of Dissent
In 1987 an independent researcher named Louis Pascal happened to
formulate the same theory on the origin of AIDS: polio vaccines,
SV40, experiments in the Congo and all the rest. He wrote an article
and sent it to 13 biologists and researchers in the field of AIDS.
Then he sent the manuscript to 3
scientific journals. One refused it with no explanation, another
refused it because it considered the theory implausible, and the
third did not answer. Pascal had a different article accepted by an
African magazine, but unfortunately it went out of business before
it appeared. Pascal also wrote a big new article for a medical
ethics journal, but they refused to publish it because it was too
This long article was finally published
in December 1991 by an Australian university after more than 4
years, and then only because a professor named Brian Martin thought
that Pascal had been the victim of what he termed “suppression of
dissent” – the censure or blocking of an uncomfortable idea by a
power group, in this case the scientific community.
Why were Pascal’s ideas not accepted?
Was it because they are threatening for the image of medicine and
medical research? Or was it because Pascal was not a professional
researcher, not affiliated with any institution? Because if you
don’t have a piece of paper saying who you are you don’t count?
No, it was because Pascal’s articles are
not written in the dry concise style required by scientific
journals. He is too passionate. It’s his fault; he should have stuck
to the rules. But in the end it was published. …500 copies? Nobody
even noticed it.
But a few months later when Curtis’
article appeared in Rolling Stone it was a different story. Rolling
Stone has a circulation of hundreds of thousands of copies. So what
was the reaction of the scientific world to the theory? One
scientific journal in particular took the trouble to follow the
case. Not just any journal, one of the most prestigious in the world
– you know it already – Science: “Debate on AIDS origin: Rolling
Stone weighs in”.
Curtis’ theory was just another of a
long line of “wild speculations”.
Now, in a scientific debate whom do you
believe? Rolling Stone, a rock magazine, or Science, one of the most
famous scientific journals in the world? No! Try to think with your
own head and read the article! Science did not furnish any proof to
refute the theory; it merely stated that the "experts" considered it
implausible. Curtis disagreed with them and wrote to Science
contesting the criticism and restating his position.
His letter was published by Science in
May 1992 and only then did Hilary Koprowski respond:
“As a scientist, I did not intend to
debate Tom Curtis when he presented his hypothesis about the
origin of AIDS in Rolling Stone. The publication of his letter
in Science… however, transferred the debate from the lay press
to a highly respected scientific journal….”.
Got it? According to Koprowski’s
reasoning, a theory can only be discussed if it is presented in a
So, my ideas, your ideas, unless they
appear in a scientific journal, don’t count. Of course scientific
journals can’t just publish anything. All submissions are subject to
quality control. And that’s the curious thing, precisely because
Koprowski’s letter is full of errors and inaccuracies – even the
notes are out of sync – and none of the facts he presents actually
refute the theory. Curtis once again disagreed and wrote to Science
pointing out the errors in Koprowski’s letter.
And how did they react?
They didn’t publish his letter! We can
accept that, in order to have merit, a theory must appear in a
scientific journal. But if they don’t publish all our arguments, how
can it be discussed? But that wasn’t all. Immediately following
publication of the article in Rolling Stone, the Wistar Institute,
with whose support Koprowski had organized the vaccinations in the
Congo, called together a panel of experts to evaluate the relevance
of the theory.
After 6 months the findings of the group
were presented at a press conference:
“…we consider the probability of the
AIDS epidemic having been started by the inadvertent inoculation
of an unknown HIV precursor into African children during the
1957 poliovirus vaccine trials to be extremely low.”
They didn’t say “impossible”, just
Why? The report cited the OHTA’s (he
jokes again with a martial attack) test, where it was noticed that
the virus had already disappeared during the first steps of vaccine
production. But that study said nothing about the old method of
vaccine production. Then the oral route is not an efficient way of
infecting with SIV or HIV. It is possible, however, that some of the
vaccinated individuals had sores, wounds or blisters in their oral
cavity, thus increasing the chances of infection.
In addition, there is evidence that the
virus can be transmitted from mother to newborn via breast-milk, or
through oral sex. How many of the vaccinees were teething infants or
kids, who bit their tongues in fear or anxiety? It’s known that
infants under 30 days were given 15 times the normal dose, to be
sure that they were effectively immunized.
The Wistar expert panel’s report ended
with the following warning:
“In closing, we feel compelled to
mention that the current controversy highlights the problems and
difficulties associated with using monkey tissue for production
of vaccines administered to humans.
To this day, live-attenuated
poliovirus vaccine is produced in the United States and in most
other countries using primary African green monkey kidney cells.
(…) There may well be other monkey viruses that have not yet
been discovered that could possibly contaminate vaccine lots.”
Them, too? It’s already the fourth time
that somebody warns against the use of monkey kidney tissue cultures
in the vaccine production: Koprowski in 1960, Lecatsas, Ohta, and
now the Wistar Institute panel.
And still today the majority of polio
vaccines are produced using monkey kidneys, when there are nowadays
alternative methods of production, which are safer. Questions of
interests? Don’t change the subject…
Basically, the panel of experts
gave just one piece of evidence, which challenged the theory. The
In 1959, a young man of 26 from Manchester, who
had been in the navy, died the victim of diverse organisms, which
literally devoured his body. It was a horrible death and I would
rather spare you the details.
Everything pointed to a collapse of the
immune system. The doctors in charge of the man were so shocked and
perplexed that they decided to take samples of his organs to carry
out tests, perhaps at some later date, in the light of new
scientific knowledge. When the AIDS discussion began in the 80s, the
case was reviewed but the samples were not submitted to a
double-blinded test until 1990.
The result was unequivocal. All the
check samples were seronegative, while in 4 out of 6 of the sailor’s
samples the presence of HIV was detected. The young man was
seropositive and died of AIDS.
But why should the Manchester sailor
case have been such a crushing proof against the theory?
Because he was in the navy and had
apparently traveled in Africa between 1955 and 1957. But he had
returned to England before the beginning of the Koprowski
vaccinations in the Belgian Congo. So if the young man had become
infected before 1957, that meant that HIV was already present in a
human before the beginning of the vaccinations and therefore they
had nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic.
Immediately after the press conference,
Science published a very short editorial reporting that the panel of
experts had demolished the OPV/AIDS hypothesis. No reservations. No
Curtis was again in disagreement and wrote to
Science protesting that the group of experts had disproved
absolutely nothing. The Manchester sailor could very well have been
infected by a companion after his return to England because the
symptoms of disease had not appeared until the end of 1958 when
several thousand people had already been vaccinated.
It was also possible that the young man
had taken part in another of Koprowski’s vaccinations, for example
the one in Ireland in 1956. Moreover, a theory could not be refuted
on the basis of one proof only. The letter arrived at Science at the
end of 1992. And what was their response?… No, wrong! They published
And once more Koprowski replied, this
time not in a letter but with a lawsuit against Curtis and Rolling
“…the destruction of (his)
professional and personal reputation, for mental and emotional
suffering, and for …humiliation and embarrassment…”
But just a moment. Where are scientific
theories supposed to be discussed - in specialist journals or in the
As someone later remarked,
“Being burned alive as a heretic is
admittedly worse than facing financial ruin, but except for the
threat being different, we have seen this mode before.”
The lawsuit occupied Curtis full time
for about a year but he was never brought to court.
At the end of 1993 the lawyers of the
two parties reached an agreement whereby Rolling Stone had to pay a
symbolic amount of one dollar in compensation to Koprowski and print
a “clarification” stating that the oral polio vaccine theory (OPV/AIDS
hypothesis) was only,
“…one of several disputed and
unproven theories…” on the origin of AIDS.
The clarification praised the figure of
Koprowski as a scientist and regretted,
“…any damage to (his) reputation
that may have been caused by the article…”.
However, it did not actually retract
Curtis’ article, nor did it mention having been published as part of
a legal agreement.
The costs of the case amounted to
$300,000 for Koprowski and $500,000 for Rolling Stone. But why was
Koprowski satisfied with a mere clarification instead of the
retraction of the article, and why did he not insist on a trial? Was
it perhaps because, according to American law, the onus would have
been on Koprowski to prove that his vaccine had not been responsible
for the AIDS epidemic? The lawsuit achieved one objective, however:
it discouraged the lay press from publishing anything more on the
theory. And Curtis’ career as a journalist? Seriously impaired.
Science reported that Rolling Stone’s
clarification had closed the case and that Koprowski felt relieved.
At this point the theory seemed disproved for all time. But was it
As we have seen, the only real evidence
to refute the theory was the case of the Manchester sailor. And in
1995 a stupendous revelation made its appearance, presented by
Who is David Ho? What do you mean who is David Ho? David Ho is a
brilliant researcher in the field of AIDS. And, he was also a member
of the panel of experts at
Well, after their report was drafted,
Ho, who is a bit pedantic, wanted to know more about the virus of
the Manchester sailor. As it appeared to have been the first case in
the world, he thought it might provide important insight into the
beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He obtained the same samples, which
had been double-blind tested in 1990.
In his tests he also detected the
presence of the virus, but although on one hand his results
concurred with those of 1990, on the other, something did not
convince him. So he had samples sent directly from the doctor who
had been in charge of the sailor and carried out the tests again.
His conclusions, published in 1995, were rather surprising to say
the least. The original samples were found to be seronegative, while
those sent by the English laboratory had been seropositive.
But the strain of the virus found in the
latter belonged to a person who had probably died at the end of the
80s, and the samples themselves were discovered to be a mixture of
tissue from at least 3 different people!
“…Either tissue samples were mixed
up in a laboratory… or the samples were deliberately switched.”
But who would have mixed up the samples?
Well… it could have been an error.
But then what was the real cause of
death of the Manchester sailor? Maybe he was one of those rare cases
in which the collapse of the immune system is the same as those
infected with AIDS, but which are seronegative. Extremely rare
cases. And so, discussion of the theory went on. But who was left?
Lecatsas hadn’t shown any further interest in it, Curtis had been
eliminated by his lawsuit and Pascal… that was another mystery.
No one had ever seen him. Of course
Louis Pascal is a pseudonym. Louis Pasteur and Blaise Pascal: the
great medical researcher and the great philosopher. Curtis, Martin
and others had only communicated with him by letter but no one had
ever met him in person.
And in 1996… he disappeared completely.
What a story!
Chapter 5 - The River
Slim. What does the word `slim` mean to you? The ideal physique?
Marketing hype? The latest fashion trends?
“Slim” is what they called AIDS in
Uganda in the middle of the 80s. “Slim”, because before it kills
you, it renders your figure truly slender and light as air. “Slim”
is also the title of Englishman Ed Hooper’s first book, which tells
about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Uganda.
“Now why”, he asks himself, “do the
Ugandans use an English word for this illness? It’s obviously
new for them, too! But in that case, what is its origin?”
Hooper analyzed all the theories on the
origin of AIDS from the most far-fetched to the most plausible.
One of them, for example, said that HIV
had fallen from the tail of a passing comet. For a while another one
circulated that suggested HIV was an organism, which had escaped
from a laboratory for bacteriological weapons. Come on, when you
first heard it you kind of believed it too, didn’t you? According to
the most popular version of this theory, HIV was created at the end
of the 70s in a US military laboratory. The aim? To reduce the
number of blacks, homosexuals and sinners.
But there’s another variation.
According to this theory, the Nazis
invented HIV during World War II. They called it Virus Q so as not
to confuse it with “H I V”, “Heil Führer!” It was allegedly
created in a German laboratory to exterminate the American army,
which, as we know, is full of homosexuals. “Zo ze Erkräft was lodit
zu go und bomp ze YOU ESS. But wenn ze Plän arrreifs über Afrika
obviously the most direct route to the States – Pech, bäd luck, eet
kräschis und infekts Afrika”. And the laboratory in Germany? “Ze day
after, Pech, bäd luck, ze Royl Erfoss bomp ze Labor in ze Vaterland
und so ze Epidemik begins in Afrika only, ausschliesslich!”
Other theories are more believable – and
One, for example, concentrates on
experimentation with monkey blood. In an attempt to cure syphilis,
chimpanzee blood was injected directly into the patients: an ideal
method for transmitting a virus such as HIV! Another study records
the grafting of particles of monkey testicles to the abdominal
rectus muscle or the scrotum to induce sexual rejuvenation.
It seems this practice was rather common
at the beginning of the last century, but little documented. I
wonder if it worked… Then Hooper turned his attention to the
“bushmeat” hypothesis. But he, too, asked himself exactly the same
question: why now?
In 1992 he read Curtis’ article and, as a result,
became involved in research on the oral polio vaccine theory. And
what did he discover?
Well, above all it was Hooper who found
out that the Manchester sailor had not even been to Africa. The
furthest point he had reached was Gibraltar. In addition, he managed
to discover that the vaccination campaigns involved a much greater
number of people. Not 300,000 as Curtis thought, but over a million
people were vaccinated between 1957 and 1960 in 28 separate
campaigns in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
Hooper did research in several archives
around the world. However, in the archive of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs in Brussels, which contains documentation pertaining to the
colonial administration in the Belgian Congo, precisely the files
from October 1956 to July 1958… missing!
In the successive documents, part of the
correspondence between Belgium and health authorities in the Congo
concerned, strangely enough, the safety of Koprowski’s vaccine,
because several small epidemics of polio had developed after the
vaccinations. Some of these discrediting events were even reported
in scientific journals at the time. And what about the World Health
Organization, who made it clear on several occasions that they had
given no official consent for the Congo experiments and were plainly
distancing themselves from the project.
Moreover, in a document in 1958, they
stated that the vaccinations being carried out in the Congo were a
glaring example of how such experiments should not be undertaken.
Apart from this, the vaccinations were practically useless, the
majority of the African population being naturally immunized at
birth. What do you think?
Did the Belgian authorities in the Congo
go to each African and say,
“look, this is an experimental
vaccine, we’re not really sure that it works and we’re not even
sure if it’s safe, the fact is you probably don’t even need it,
but will you agree to take part in the experiment anyway for the
benefit of the Western countries?"
OK, I know I shouldn’t make such a case
out of it. In Koprowski’s time ethics in scientific experimentation
were just at the beginning. Now these things no longer happen. But
then, how is it possible that Koprowski tested an experimental
genetically-engineered rabies vaccine on some cattle in Argentina in
1985 without proper authorization and without notifying the farmers
or the local population, who continued to drink the milk from those
But if we go into this any further
we’ll be here all night and I won’t be able to tell you the whole
On top of that there’s a real problem with the theory.
until the SV40 case, Asian monkeys were used, right? Then they
started to use African green monkeys. In certain rare cases baboons
were used. But the ancestors of HIV-1 and HIV-2 are found in
chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, which were never used in the
production of vaccines. Therefore the theory is invalid. Period.
But are we sure that chimpanzees and
sooty mangabeys were never used? Sabin for instance was always very
explicit in his articles and always referred to the species of Asian
monkey used. Whereas Koprowski… In his articles at the time,
Koprowski was never specific about the type of monkey used. Is it
possible that nobody asked Koprowski what kind of monkeys he used?
Koprowski has three alternative
versions: Indian monkeys, African green monkeys and Philippine
monkeys. “The laboratory records were lost in a move.” – his exact
words. But is it at all possible chimpanzees were used in the
production of Koprowski’s vaccine? Here we have another dramatic
surprise: both Curtis and Pascal indicated the existence of a large
colony of chimpanzees in the Belgian Congo in 1958.
Hooper discovered from various sources
that more than 400 were kept there, the largest chimpanzee colony in
the world at the entire disposal of Doctor Koprowski! To produce
polio vaccine perhaps? Officially to test his vaccine which was a
completely useless measure. But let’s not get into animal rights, at
the time there wasn’t even any respect for the rights of the
Africans, so you can imagine those of the animals.
However, their numbers are clearly
disproportionate. One document mentions that chimpanzee kidneys were
sent to the US to produce tissue cultures, but for a different
research project on hepatitis. So chimpanzee kidney cultures were in
fact used. What would have been the motive not to use them for the
production of polio vaccine?
If you ask any virologist who was active
at the time, he will tell you: the price. Obtaining kidneys from
chimpanzees was more expensive than using those of lesser species.
But if you had 400 at your disposal? Pascal even speculated that the
name of the vaccine, CHAT, could have stood for CHimpanzee ATtenuated … OK, so let’s say the oral polio vaccine theory is true.
That would explain the HIV-1 epidemic. But how do you explain the
Well, Koprowski wasn’t the only one to
test his vaccines in Africa. In a test carried out in Morocco in
1953, about 6,000 babies were vaccinated with a so-called polio
vaccine, which two years later turned out to contain a parasitic
rabbit virus, fortunately harmless for humans. Then there was Pierre Lépine of the Pasteur Institute who also did experiments.
One was recorded in Mitzic in 1957.
Where’s Mitzic? In Serbia? No, it’s in Gabon! 2,000 people were
vaccinated within a few days and the only reference to the test in
scientific literature was in the last two lines of an article about
something else. But lo and behold in 1994 in the region of Gabon
another AIDS epidemic was discovered which had nothing to do with
HIV-1 or HIV-2. HIV-3?
No, because after an in-depth analysis
it was revealed that this new virus belonged to the chimpanzee SIV
family after all, so it’s a bit similar to normal HIV-1, which is
found everywhere in the world.
However, one thing is clear: this is a
further example of a separate and independent passage of a virus
from chimpanzee to man. The first trace of this particular variation
of HIV goes back to 1962, to the case of the Norwegian sailor. But
wasn’t the sailor from Manchester? Not that sailor, another one.
This one was in Cameroon between 1961 and 1962, contracted HIV,
transmitted it to his wife and children and the whole family died in
Blood samples were preserved, and in
1997 it was discovered that the virus of the Norwegian sailor was
precisely this other HIV-1. And as the first cases of HIV-2 were
recorded among some Portuguese veterans around the middle of the
60s, is it not possible that the Portuguese were also developing
their own version of a vaccine in East Africa using, for example,
Edward Hooper, “The River: a journey back to the
source of HIV and AIDS”, 1999. Ten years of research.
Thousands of documents consulted in
dozens of archives, American, European, African. Hundreds of hours
of interviews. All of it printed by one of the biggest publishing
houses in the world. It could not be ignored as Pascal was, nor
could it be silenced by a lawsuit as Curtis was. (The cover’s
different because this is the pocket edition.)
More than a thousand pages. A tough
Chapter 6 - The Royal
After the appearance of Hooper’s book, the media became more
interested in the theory. The scientific community could not remain
silent. Hooper was alone but he had an ally worthy of the highest
Who is Bill Hamilton?
Probably the greatest evolutionary
biologist of the 20th century. First there is Darwin then there is
Hamilton. After the outcome of the lawsuit against Curtis, Bill
Hamilton had intervened defending the plausibility of the theory and
pointing out the danger for science of such legal action. From the
height of his prestigious position he had written to Science twice,
but they had refused to publish his letters.
Then he had written to Nature, another
respected journal, which … also refused to publish. So when Hooper’s
book came out, Hamilton decided to assume a more active role: he
decided to organize a conference at the
Royal Society in London, the
most celebrated scientific academy in the world, of which he was,
naturally, an honorary member.
He invited the chief exponents of
research in the fields of epidemiology, virology and primatology, as
well as experts in genetics, in order to discuss the two principal
theories of the origin of AIDS: the “bushmeat” hypothesis and the
polio vaccine theory.
But Hamilton also wanted new research to
be carried out. When he became tired of responses such as “Yes,
that’s very interesting but our research funding comes from… So I’m
afraid I must refrain from getting involved with this”, he decided
to undertake the task of gathering new scientific data himself. For
this purpose he organized a series of expeditions to the Congo.
He went on his first mission in 1999 and
on a second at the beginning of 2000. But our story, which will
appear to have been written by a wicked TV series scriptwriter,
suddenly took a different turn. Hamilton contracted malaria in the
Congo, returned to England, and a few days later lapsed into a coma.
On 7th March 2000, at the age of 64, Bill Hamilton, the greatest
evolutionary biologist of the 20th century, died.
I don’t imagine there was anyone so
cynical as to be happy about Hamilton’s death, but soon voices were
heard saying that the OPV/AIDS theory was being taken too seriously,
that the meeting as planned by Hamilton was unbalanced and, if not
corrected, many of the guest speakers would not come. As a result
the meeting was put back from May to September and re-organized.
The new date is one which is not likely
to be forgotten: 9/11… 2000, exactly a year before
unforgettable day. It’s the 11th of September. In the auditorium of
the Royal Society all the warriors are present. Hooper and Koprowski
ignore each other. The chairmen open the conference in honor of Bill
Hamilton, a great man of science, an example for all by virtue of
his brilliance, integrity and open-mindedness.
Applause… and the battle begins!
- First refutation: the methodology
you used to demonstrate a correlation between the locations of
the vaccinations and the appearance of the first cases of AIDS
is not correct!
- Without going into detail, it
seems to me difficult to maintain that there is no relationship
- Second proof: we have established
the origin of the AIDS epidemic at 1931!
- That is known to be a hypothetical
- Third proof: chimpanzees were
never used; Koprowski and many other researchers at the time
- There are actually no existing
documents and besides I have witnesses who confirm that, on the
contrary, chimpanzees were used.
- Are we to believe African workers
and doubt the word of Western researchers?
- Such discrimination is
- Trypsin eliminates HIV in the
primary phases of production.
- We know practically nothing about
how and where vaccine was originally amplified and if trypsin
- The vaccine was also tested on 6
- But it is possible that only the
vaccines used in the Congo were amplified using chimpanzee
Up to now Hooper has warded off the
blows very well, but this last attack is fatal:
- Koprowski’s old vaccines have at
last been tested!
- No trace of SIV was found, nor of
HIV, nor of chimpanzee DNA. Only that of Asian monkeys.
“Some beautiful facts have
destroyed an ugly theory.” “Disputed AIDS theory dies its
OK. So let’s say the OPV/AIDS theory is
not true. Why have the various weak points of the “bushmeat”
hypothesis not been challenged? Who has decided that the transfer
theory is to be simply accepted as valid?
Above all, it does not clarify why there
are no historical or social incidents of AIDS before the 20th
- You know, not everything in Africa
is reported. There were probably epidemics, but they have been
forgotten or confused with other illnesses.
- But millions of Africans have been
transported all over the world as slaves, and there was never
any evidence of AIDS outside Africa until the 1970s.
- Perhaps the virus was confined to
one isolated tribe…
- No. Because there would have had
to be at least 7 isolated tribes to account for at least 7
different simultaneous epidemics!
- During the 20th century in Africa
there was colonization, a liberation of sexual customs,
urbanization. It is known that life in the cities has become
much more liberal. And then deforestation, which has brought
humans much more into contact with monkeys…
- And how do you explain the genetic
- Genetic what?
- There are cases in which the human
virus and the monkey virus are almost identical.
But it would seem that these viruses in
humans are not pathogenic and not transmittable to others. So, in
order for a monkey virus to actually cause disease, it must be
genetically dissimilar in some way, and then become modified,
adapted to the human body.
What could have caused viruses such as
these to adapt themselves to humans?
Since the end of the Second World War,
increasingly more disposable syringes, throw-aways, have been
manufactured and used.
But Africa is often short of medical
supplies, so disposable syringes, which are impossible to sterilize,
have been refilled dozens of times. And in passing the needle
quickly from arm to arm…
- So this is the new theory: the
virus was transmitted several times, naturally, from monkey to
human. But it never caused AIDS, nor did it ever spread. Then,
with the repeated use of disposable needles, the virus was able
to adapt itself to humans and cause AIDS!
- Once again medicine stands
accused. How is it possible that this time the theory is
accepted so readily?
- Well, it’s not the fault of
medicine exactly, more the shortage of medical supplies in
developing countries. A much more politically correct theory,
don’t you think?
- Of course.
It’s so easy to blame
Chapter 7 - Finale
The final refutation of the OPV/AIDS theory was based on the
analysis of Koprowski’s old vaccines. But where did they come from?
The tests were finally made on the eve of the Royal Society
conference, 8 years after the Wistar panel had declined to carry out
the testing because it would have been “laborious, expensive and …
But did their results really in fact
represent an “exoneration of the polio vaccines”?
It is evident that of those samples,
whose existence was discovered by Curtis in 1992, only one in eight
might have been related to those used in the Congo – perhaps none of
them, because they were probably from original batches and in that
case produced prior to amplification in chimpanzee kidneys. And
anyway the theory did not predict that all of the vaccines were
contagious, nor even that all of the batches were contaminated.
And after 40 years it was highly
probable that no traces of HIV would be found. Both Martin and
Hooper wrote to Nature to contest the results. And, guess what?
Neither of the two letters was accepted. Hooper now declares he is
certain that the origin of AIDS lies in the polio vaccines used in
Africa and accuses the world of science of deliberately covering up
The scientific community insists that
the OPV/AIDS theory has no foundation and poses a threat to
“…one lesson to be learned from considering
the OPV as a source of HIV is how plausibly it might have happened
and how cautious we need to be over introducing medical treatments
derived from animal tissues, such as live, attenuated vaccines or
On this note the meeting in 2000 of the Royal
Modern vaccines are still produced using monkey
Does that mean they are dangerous? No.
Even if it would be better not to use
monkeys any longer to produce them, I believe that the experience
acquired in 50 years of production has rendered vaccines very safe.
Under no circumstances do I want this story to be interpreted as
saying that vaccinations are bad. It is thanks to vaccines that
poliomyelitis for us no longer exists.
But there are other situations in which
prudence is required. Genetically engineering, cloning, transgenic
food, new technologies, new drugs, xenotransplants: implants of
animal organs into humans... Who decides when these risks are
tolerable? And how? I believe a decision of this kind should be
taken by all of society and that it should not be left up to the
scruples of a team of researchers.
And so we come to the end of our story.
If the theory did turn out to be true,
would it be necessary to blame Koprowski? What difference would it
make? I think it would be more important to ask ourselves about the
behavior of modern medical researchers, and Koprowski is only one of
many. Where will a society based on competition and individualism
lead us, in which only the strongest, the richest and the fastest
win, and in which there are, inevitably, others who lose?
Increasing numbers of people, even
entire companies, are pushed into taking ever greater risks, even if
these are likely to lead to disasters of vast proportions. Someone
asked me if I was certain I wanted to take sides against science…
The fact is I believe, on the contrary, that this story teaches us
how important it is to develop the most fundamental element of
science – our own critical sense.
And anyway, science is not the
equivalent of truth, of certainty. It involves, above all,
recognizing the limits of our knowledge. But what do you think? Is
the OPV/AIDS theory true or not?
Personally, I can only answer that
question in a strictly scientific manner: nobody knows.
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