Today on the 700 Club, Pat Robertson pushed a discredited conspiracy theory about HIV/AIDS. Robertson, who earlier insisted that gay people use special rings to spread AIDS, claimed that AIDS was a result of a polio experiment gone wrong:
“I think the World Health Organization was doing some experiment in the Congo on a monkey virus, a monkey injection to fight polio and it wasn’t an injection, they put it in sugar cubes and they gave it to these Africans, a couple hundred thousand in the test,” Robertson said.
“This is the first time when monkey diseases crossed into the human condition and out of that has come this terrible thing. It seems to be transmitted so often through sexual contact and it was rife in the homosexual community but has then jumped into the heterosexual community.”
However, David Oshinsky writes in Polio: An American Story:
The charge that humans acquired HIV from these [polio] trials remains, for most experts, an empty accusation, made more improbably by recent studies that found no detectable traces of chimpanzee DNA in frozen stocks of [Hilary] Koprowski’s vaccine. The results, said one group of researchers, “should finally lay the OPV/AIDS theory to rest.”
A report published in Nature, cited by Slate’s Juliet Lapidos, also refuted the allegation:
Edward Hooper, a British journalist, argued in his 1999 book, The River, that Dr. Hilary Koprowski of the Wistar Research Institute unintentionally caused the AIDS epidemic by using chimp kidneys to produce an oral polio vaccine. The chimps, says Hooper, were infected with SIV (the simian precursor to AIDS). Then, via an experimental mass-vaccination program in the Belgian Congo, SIV made the jump from monkey to man.
Hooper's contaminated polio vaccine thesis sounds less wacky than most conspiracy theories and has attracted support from a few notable academics—including late Oxford professor W.D. Hamilton. But it's definitely wrong. Hooper says Koprowski got his kidney samples from chimps in the Congo. The problem is that the SIV strain endemic to chimps from that region is phylogenetically distinct from HIV. The offending chimps probably came from Cameroon.
Thomas Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times wrote back in 2001 that four separate research groups found no evidence to back up the conspiracy theory:
The controversial idea that a contaminated polio vaccine was responsible for the spread of AIDS in Africa has been discredited by new research released today.
"The new data may not convince the hardened conspiracy theorist who thinks that contamination of [the vaccine] was subsequently and deliberately covered up," he said. "But those of us who were formerly willing to give some credence to the . . . hypothesis will now consider that the matter has been laid to rest." Dr. Hilary Koprowski, who conducted the tests on behalf of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, said he was very happy with the findings.
"I never believed one word of the accusations because there were no facts," he said. "What bothered me was that somehow this may have created a difficulty in eradicating polio" because some people would refuse to be immunized for fear of contracting AIDS.
"With these articles putting an end to any possibility that vaccination had anything to do with AIDS, I hope that the [polio] eradication campaign will be [successfully completed] in two to three years."
Koprowski and others have said all along that the vaccines were prepared using only the cells of monkeys, which do not carry HIV, and that chimpanzee cells were not used. The new findings, appearing in today's Nature and Friday's Science, confirm their claim.
The new studies show that "all the viruses were grown on monkey cells, which is what was claimed initially," said Clayton Buck, chief executive and acting director of Wistar. "As far as I am concerned, the issue is really put to rest for all practical purposes."
Four separate groups in England, France, Germany and Sweden have now examined vaccine samples removed from freezers at Wistar, looking at the DNA of the viruses and the cells in which they were grown. In all cases, the cells were found to be only from rhesus or macaque monkeys and the only virus present was the polio virus.
Wistar no longer had samples of one vaccine preparation, called CHAT 10A-11 that Hooper thought to be the most suspect. But an original vial of the batch was found at Britain's National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. It too was found to contain only monkey cells and polio virus.