14 April 2024 04:52:26 GMT

The Third Rock Forum - Health

Latest Article

Title : Was AIDS man-made?

Item is Approved.

Date Submitted : 08-04-2014 14:56
Author : Bomber


Was AIDS man-made?


Towards the end of 1979 Dr. Paul Volberding, who practiced in the Tenderloin neighbourhood of San Francisco, noticed that a range of unusual and debilitating conditions was beginning to affect the city’s gay population. This included candida (thrush) in mucous membranes; cytomegalovirus mononucleosis; a rare form of pneumonia caused by a protozoan called Pneumocystis carinii (PCP) and a malignant skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS).

In Greenwich Village, on the other side of the continent, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend observed a rise in sexually-transmitted diseases amongst gay New Yorkers, including hepatitis-B and Gay Bowel Syndrome (GBS): rare pathogens like amebiasis, shigella and gardia. Then people started dying from these exotic diseases unknown outside impoverished tropical countries.  What was going on?

 The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta noticed an increase in demand for the drug Pentamidine, used to treat PCP. On the 5th June 1981 in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report it listed five cases of PCP from October ‘80 to May ‘81. Since early ‘79 there had been twenty cases in New York and six in California.  Eight had died, only one non-white.  Their mean age was 39 and all were gay.

On the 3rd July ‘81 the New York Times  broke the story, on page 20. The AIDS pandemic had begun. Millions are now infected around the world. Most will die from one or other of the opportunistic infections or malignancies listed above, their immune systems ravaged by the action of a lethal pathogen. Two viruses are known to exist: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) 1 and 2. Nature does not do spares: it does not need to. Humans do.

Due to the way in which HIV operates it seems unlikely that a vaccine can be developed. Vaccines encourage the production of antibodies and the presence of antibodies to any other disease demonstrates immunity to that disease: not in AIDS. Treatment is possible in some cases, but it is expensive and ultimately unsuccessful. Where did this completely new disease come from and why has it spread inexorably across the planet?

The commonly accepted thesis is that HIV originated in Africa, HIV-1 in central Africa and HIV-2 in West Africa, sometime in the 1970s. Both types of HIV are related to simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) and HIV is now endemic across Africa. But there are problems with this thesis. Is it likely that two new viruses could have emerged simultaneously from isolated groups in central and western Africa? The haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Lassa, which are African, are fast viruses: they kill too quickly to spread effectively. HIV is a slow virus: it takes its time to kill, allowing plenty of opportunity for onward spread.

Secondly, although Kaposi’s sarcoma was endemic in central Africa before the AIDS epidemic in the US, AIDS itself was not. Studies of African plasma samples going back to 1959 have revealed individual HIV positives, but very few.  There was no AIDS epidemic in Africa before 1980.

Then there are the possible cases from Europe and the US that precede the epidemic. There was an English sailor who died in Manchester in 1959, displaying AIDS-like symptoms. His sexuality was unrecorded and no samples preserved. A Norwegian family was struck by an AIDS-like disease between ‘66 and ‘76. Margerethe Rask, a Danish physician who worked in Zaire from ‘72 to ‘77, died similarly in ‘79.

And there is the case usually avoided in American publications of Robert R., from St. Louis in ‘68. He was a gay black 15 year-old who died from a Chlamydia infection. His doctors were so disturbed by this (Chlamydia is rarely lethal) that they kept tissue samples. In 1987 these proved HIV-positive. This is the earliest confirmed case of HIV infection in the literature. If AIDS started in Africa in the 1970s, what was HIV doing in St. Louis in 1968?

“Patient zero” in the US epidemic has been identified as Gaeten Dugas, an Air Canada flight attendant. He infected at least 40 of the 248 US patients diagnosed before April ‘82. Dugas managed to obtain about 250 sexual partners a year. He refused to change his lifestyle after identification as an AIDS carrier in Nov. ‘82. “I’ve got gay cancer; I’m going to die and so are you”, he would cheerfully announce after the act. He died on the 30th March ‘84. The first UK case was identified at the Brompton Hospital in December ’81. He was 49 year-old gay man who regularly vacationed in Miami.

HIV may have existed for as long as humans have, its effects hidden by other infections. It may have evolved from SIV more recently and remained isolated and unknown until social changes in the US and Africa in the ‘70s offered new opportunities for it to spread. From ‘85 to ‘88 John Seale, an English virologist, and Zhores Medvedev, dissident Russian medical scientist, examined the possibility that HIV did not occur naturally. They suggested that it could have been synthesized and that the culprits were scientists in the Soviet Union. They published their findings in a series of papers in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Firstly, consider the spread of myxomatosis. This disease naturally occurs in the South American forest rabbit, causing minor illness. It is lethal in the European rabbit and in 1950 Australian scientists introduced it into the rabbit population at the River Murray. The intended trial to control rabbit infestation became a raging epidemic that spread across the continent. The scientists had not realized that the virus could be spread by winged insects - “flying needles” as they were later described.

On the 14th June 1952 Dr. Arnand Delille released two infected rabbits on his estate at Eure-et-Loire. He had obtained the virus from a laboratory in Switzerland. This one release caused the myxomatosis epidemic in Europe. It’s called a “virgin soil” epidemic: a lethal pathogen sweeps through a population that has no immunity to the infection. Only one introduction is required, anywhere, any time. All that is needed is a lethal new virus, a susceptible population and an effective means of transmission. For example, re-used disposable syringes caused the Ebola outbreak at the mission hospital in Yambuku, Zaire, in 1976. HIV is transmitted by sexual intercourse, infected hypodermic syringes, blood transfusions (and blood products) and from mothers to new-born babies.

Secondly, viruses can cross, or be made to cross, the species barrier from animals to people. Rabies, for example, can infect humans as well as animals like dogs and foxes. Thankfully, humans cannot spread it to each other, though humans can infect each other with rubella, influenza and the common cold, also originally animal viruses.

Finally, scientific advances in the field of vaccination made direct viral manipulation possible. Work to develop vaccines against viral infection has been a huge benefit for humanity. Viruses can only grow in living material. Pasteur cultivated rabies in a series of rabbit-brain cultures to produce a weakened (attenuated) strain for use as a vaccine. In 1935 F.M. Burnet grew several strains of influenza virus in fertile eggs, still used in the production of ‘flu vaccine. From the early ‘60s viruses could be selected to infect a new host via embryo cell cultures derived from that host. By 1966 the now Sir Macfarlane Burnet was having doubts about the potential consequences of these techniques.

Burnet published his concerns in an article in The Lancet. He accurately predicted the imminent possibility that viral genomes could be sequenced. This would enable the manipulation of virulence and antigenicity. Viruses could be developed in laboratories to be incorporated into human cell genomes. They could be programmed to cause death or malignant transformation (mutability). Burnet concluded that “There are dangers in knowing what should not be known”. He ruefully remarked that no-one ever listened to a Cassandra. It is a pity no-one did listen. HIV does incorporate itself into the human cell genome, it does alter its antigenicity and it causes death by destroying a vital part of the immune system, thereby rendering it vaccine-proof.

As if to confirm Burnet’s fears an accidental viral transfer to humans occurred in Marburg in the then West Germany in 1967. Thirty people in two laboratories were infected with an unknown virus from a Ugandan green monkey. Seven died. Marburg virus was also found as a contaminant in polio vaccines in 1967.

Zhores Medvedev established a reputation for rooting out unpleasant truths about the Soviet Union in 1979, when he proved that a massive nuclear explosion had occurred in the Urals in 1959. He did this by examining published Soviet science papers on the biological effects of large doses of radiation. His suspicions were aroused in 1986 when he heard Moscow’s English World Service accuse the US of the creation of the AIDS virus. The Soviets insisted that AIDS had not occurred in the Soviet Union until Prof. V.M. Zhadanov announced its existence publicly on the 7th December 1985. Medvedev had spotted that the publication in the Soviet Union of the number of KS sufferers, and their youth, in early ‘84 indicated otherwise. Hepatitis-B had already spread across the Soviet Union, largely due to a Soviet-style lack of disposable syringes.

John Seale suggested that HIV could have been man-made. The method would be to infect human tissue culture with a lethal animal retrovirus like visna virus (sheep) or equine infectious anaemia (horse). He cited a report that visna virus had been grown in human embryo cells in the USSR in 1961. The Soviets were suggesting that AIDS had been unleashed by incompetent Pentagon scientists on their own population. Why would the Americans want to develop a slow virus at such risk to themselves? And how did the Soviets know that such a virus could have been created artificially?

Seale suggests two possible locations for the fabrication of HIV: the Ivanovsky Institute in Moscow or laboratories in Novosibirsk in Siberia. Much later work by Christopher Wills suggests that HIV-1 is evolutionarily close to chimp SIV and HIV-2 to macaque and sooty mangabey SIV, though Wills himself adheres to the “out of Africa” thesis for the origin of AIDS. Due to the rapidity with which both strains of HIV alter their genetic make-up, it is unlikely that molecular biology will be able to settle whether the AIDS epidemic is purposefully man-made.

The former Soviet Union certainly had a record in the development of biological weapons. Evidence emerged as it started to disintegrate in the late 1980s. Vladimir Pasechnik, a leading Soviet biochemist and defector, was debriefed by MI6 in 1989. They called in the weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly to assist. Dr. Pasechnik's assertions that the Soviet Union had produced long-range missiles to deliver germs and had made a genetically modified version of plague that was impervious to vaccines and antibiotics stunned London and Washington.

British PM Margaret Thatcher confronted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with this evidence. Gorbachev denied any knowledge of such activities and suggested that the UN should inspect Soviet facilities to ascertain whether the allegations could be confirmed. Kelly was co-leader of a US/British delegation formed to inspect Russian sites. His sympathetic manner was an asset: at the Vektor laboratories in Novosibirsk, one of the scientists casually mentioned that the lab was studying the smallpox virus - in contravention of WHO regulations and the Biological Weapons Convention. This was a major discovery, which revealed the seriousness of the Soviet undertaking.

More revelations were to come when Kelly was part of the team sent to examine Russian production and weapons-filling capabilities in October 1993, the first time the West had been granted such access. Evidence suggested the potential to grow smallpox in massive quantities. It pointed to a continuation of an offensive capacity under Boris Yeltsin's post-Soviet regime. A second visit led by Kelly in January 1994 discovered that Russian work was dormant, rather than halted.

(Kelly himself died in circumstances that remain controversial in 2003, after falling foul of the Iraq “weapons of mass destruction” fantasy promulgated by the US and UK governments to justify their invasion of Iraq the previous year.)

Circumstantially we can speculate about how and why the AIDS pandemic was created and spread across the planet. Nuclear stalemate developed between the US and the USSR after the Cuban/Turkish missile crisis in 1962. At the time the Soviets anticipate that the US will be able to out-spend them to the point that their sphere of influence collapses, which did indeed happen. To safeguard the revolution they order the development of a slow virus that can be infiltrated into the US. Soviet scientists manage to develop two, but only one of them is introduced. The expected means of transmission will be blood transfusion or the rising use of blood products, for example Factor 8 for haemophiliacs. The disease may take 20-30 years to spread widely, but will cause such panic and economic dislocation that the US will no longer be a threat.

What the Soviets did not anticipate was the revolution in sexual mores that overtook the US during the ‘60s and ’70s. Homosexuals were no longer persecuted, at least openly, and the traditional effeminate/masculine division eroded as homosexual practice changed. Repeated passage of the virus through potential hosts increases its virulence. The increase in intravenous drug use with shared needles also contributed to the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile by accident the second strain contaminated a batch of vaccine fraternally supplied by the USSR to an impoverished West African state, possibly Guinea-Bissau, where the first case of HIV-2 originated. Vaccination campaigns by the WHO and other organizations in Africa introduced HIV-1 accidentally into central Africa from vaccines supplied in good faith by American labs. Infected re-used disposable syringes are the main vector of transmission there. Homosexual tourism to Haiti from the US started another AIDS hotspot. This corresponds to the chronology: the AIDS epidemic started in the US and then spread across the planet.

When the AIDS epidemic surfaces in concentrated gay populations in San Francisco and New York, the Soviets gather the plan has worked, though not as expected. From Africa they see that infected syringes act as a vector and realize with some horror that they have the same problem, due to their economic ineptitude. Hepatitis-B has already spread throughout the USSR in this way and it is only a matter of time before HIV does too, if it has not already. The biological weapon has back-fired. To forestall any accusation that it was created by the USSR, they claim to have no cases of AIDS and blame the Americans. The Americans in turn blame Africa and Haiti, unaware at least publicly of the true culprit.

Could AIDS be the lasting legacy of the Cold War? Not the space race, not the man who came in from the cold, not even nuclear weapons. Maybe T.S. Eliot was right: the world won’t end with a bang, but a whimper.



F.M. Burnet. Lancet.  vol. 1 for 1966.  pp 37 – 9.

Seale, J.R. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 78 (1985) pp. 613-615.

Medvedev letter to Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 79 (Aug. 86) p. 494.

Seale, J.R. & Medvedev, Z. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 80 (1987) pp. 301-304.

Seale, J.R. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 81: 537-539.

History of AIDS - Emergence and origin of a modern pandemic. Mirko D. Grmek, trans. R.C. Maulitz & J. Duffin. Princeton University Press, 1990.

When AIDS began: San Francisco and the making of an epidemic. Michelle Cochrane. Routledge, 2004.

Virus hunting.  AIDS, Cancer and the Human Retrovirus:  A story of scientific discovery.  Gallo, R.  NY Basic Books, 1991

The Natural History of human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV): The Cause of AIDS.  Mads Melbye, MD. Århus Universiteit, 1988.

A strange virus of unknown origin. Jacques Liebowitch. NY Ballantine Books, 1985 (trans.)