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Subject: Did Polio Trials Trigger Aids Virus?
Date: Sun, 10 Sep 2000 11:46:25 -0700
September 10, 2000
Did Polio Trials Trigger Aids Virus?
Controversial book prompts rare symposium, where vaccine's creators will defend their work
By Huntly Collins / Knight Ridder
Was a monumental effort to conquer polio, once the leading cause of physical disability, responsible for unleashing the world AIDS pandemic, which has stricken 53 million people, most of them in Africa? That's the question that will be addressed Monday and Tuesday at an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Society of London, one of the world's most distinguished scientific bodies. At issue is whether a massive trial of an oral polio vaccine developed by Hilary Koprowski, former director of Philadelphia's Wistar Institute, inadvertently triggered the AIDS epidemic.
The trial, conducted in the former Belgian Congo between 1957 and 1960, tested the oral vaccine on nearly 1 million Congolese people, most of them women and children.
In a 1999 book "The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS," British journalist Edward Hooper suggests that Koprowski's vaccine may have been contaminated with the chimpanzee version of the AIDS virus which, through the trial, was passed into the human population for the first time.
Scientists, not journalists, usually prompt meetings of the Royal Society, chartered by Charles II in 1662 to promote the exchange of new scientific ideas. One of the group's first presidents was Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics.
But in this case, Hooper, a former correspondent for the BBC in Uganda, has seized center stage because his heavily researched book -- 1,070 pages long and 10 years in the making -- ignited the controversy.
In promoting his hypothesis, Hooper captured the attention of William D. Hamilton, a noted developmental biologist at Oxford University and member of the Royal Society.
Hamilton, 63, died last March after contracting malaria while on an expedition to Congo to collect chimpanzee stools as part of an effort to verify Hooper's theory.
The Royal Society symposium was originally organized by Hamilton, who was dismayed by what he considered out of control in Africa and parts of Asia.
Genetic sequencing studies, which attempt to date HIV by its mutation rate, indicate that the virus probably moved from chimps to humans several centuries ago and that the particular type of HIV that sparked the human epidemic probably emerged as a branch in the HIV family tree in about 1930, more than two decades before Koprowski's trial began.
Hooper, on the other hand, believes that the divergence of that branch had already occurred in chimps and that people weren't infected with that virus until Koprowski began his polio trials in Congo.
The earliest known case of HIV dates from 1959 in the Congo.
At the symposium, Simon Wain-Hobson, an AIDS researcher at the Pasteur Institute outside Paris, is expected to present the results of laboratory tests that could bear heavily on the issue.
Wain-Hobson has tested the fecal samples that Hamilton brought back from Congo. If those samples are found to carry chimp versions of HIV that have genetic sequences close to the HIV-1 M group viruses, then Hooper's theory would get an enormous boost.
So far, none of the viruses isolated from chimps in captivity in other parts of Africa have yielded any simian immuno-deficiency virus that is closely related to HIV.
In addition, the meeting will lay bare what could be another critical piece of evidence: laboratory tests of the last remaining vials of Koprowski's oral polio vaccine, which have been sitting in a freezer at Wistar on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for some 40 years.
Those samples have now been sent to three independent laboratories for sophisticated tests to determine whether the polio virus that went into the vaccine was contaminated with SIVcpz, the chimp version of AIDS.
The testing may also determine whether the live polio virus used to make the vaccine was grown in the kidney cells of chimpanzees, as Hooper suggests, or in the kidney cells of African monkeys, as Koprowski and Plotkin contend.
Lessons from the past While the meeting has its detractors, many scientists believe it will serve a useful end.
"It's an important meeting," said David M. Hillis, a microbiologist at the University of Texas, who has followed the controversy over Koprowski's polio vaccine trials. "It's important to determine where and how the AIDS virus got into the human population so we can prevent that from happening again in the future."
The issue is relevant not only to AIDS but also to a host of other diseases that have moved from wildlife to people.
Flu, for instance, is caused by bird virus that has used genetic tricks to establish itself in humans. And most of the new emerging diseases, from Ebola to hantavirus to West Nile fever, originated in wildlife.
Scientists predict that such zoonotic diseases will occur more often as environmental changes, stepped-up global travel and suburban development put people in closer contact with nature.
"This is going to happen more and more," said David M. Morens, a medical epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health.
What's more, the new field of gene-based therapy, which often uses viruses to deliver genetic material to cells, as well as advances in xenotransplantation, in which animal organs are used to replace those in people, up the odds that a potentially lethal microbe from another species could accidentally get introduced into the human population.
In that respect, the Royal Society symposium on the origin of AIDS could signal potential dangers in the future.
"There are lessons to be learned from the past," Weiss said.
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