At a Sept. 11 meeting of the Royal Society of London, convened to discuss the origin of HIV/AIDS, researchers aired scientific data showing that the hypothesis that HIV/AIDS originated from an experimental oral polio vaccine had no scientific merit. The hypothesis was popularized by journalist Edward Hooper in his 1999 book, The River,1 and supported by the late evolutionary biologist William Hamilton. It states that a type of oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) called CHAT, produced by Hilary Koprowski and colleagues from the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, and other polio vaccine researchers in Africa, was derived from culture of the virus in chimpanzee kidneys that were contaminated with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Koprowski is now professor of microbiology and immunology at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia.
The Royal Society meeting, organized by Hamilton and originally scheduled to occur last May (which turned out to be several weeks after Hamilton's untimely death from complications from malaria, contracted while collecting chimpanzee fecal samples in Africa in his attempt to prove the OPV/HIV hypothesis) was rescheduled for September. The rescheduling resulted because a number HIV vaccine researchers invited to participate were reluctant to attend a meeting that appeared to be slanted toward supporters of Hooper's hypothesis. It also allowed researchers given 1950s samples from the Wistar Institute's OPV--the vaccine Hooper claimed was contaminated with SIV--a chance to complete studies of the samples.
Sample testing was coordinated by Claudio Basilico, chair of microbiology at New York University Medical Center. Samples were tested by independent laboratories: Roche Molecular Systems in Pleasanton, Calif.; the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig; and the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
These data, announced at the Royal Society meeting, showed that the only primate DNA present in the samples was from the Asian macaque and that there was no sign of DNA from other primate species, nor was there any hint of contamination from SIV or HIV-1.
Stanley Plotkin of Aventis Pasteur, Doylestown, Pa., who worked with Koprowski on the CHAT vaccine, and had previously said that Hooper's allegations against Koprowski and his colleagues "amount to accusations of misconduct and negligence,"2 told The Scientist what data he thought were "critical in rejecting the Hooper hypothesis":
* "Documents showing that monkey [and not chimpanzee] kidney cells were used.
* Testimonials from all scientists [involved in making the vaccine] still alive (16) that no chimp cells [were] used.
* Epidemiological data showing that association of vaccine sites and AIDS cases is invalid.
* Phylogenetic data showing that HIV started radiation in 1930.
* Data showing that SIV doesn't survive vaccine preparation.
* Data showing that SIV [is] close to HIV isolated to the west of the Congo.
* Negative PCR data for SIV/HIV in vaccine samples.
* PCR data showing macaque kidney, rather than chimp kidney [was] used to make vaccine lots."
This is not likely to finish the controversy as newspaper reports indicate that these data did not satisfy Hooper. But researchers who were interviewed by Hooper for his book have said that Hooper, who has no formal scientific training, misunderstood or misquoted them.
Myrna E. Watanabe is a freelance science writer in Patterson, N.Y.
1. E. Hooper, The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1999.
2. K. Birmingham, M. E. Watanabe, "HIV researchers upset by Royal Society discussion of 'River theory,' Nature Medicine, 6:489, May 2000.