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'Molecular Clock' Moves Origin of AIDS Epidemic to 1930

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 1, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have used a unique computer model to demonstrate that the crucial event or chain of events starting the AIDS epidemic probably occurred early in the 20th century, possibly around 1930. This challenges a new account suggesting that an HIV-contaminated batch of polio vaccine may have been the trigger in the 1950s.

Bette Korber, PhD, presented her data on the origins of HIV to scientists here attending the 7th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. From ground zero just decades ago, the AIDS epidemic has already killed 16 million people worldwide, and Korber says that determining the chronological start is more than just an academic exercise -- some of the analytical techniques she used might lead to vaccines or better drugs for the disease.

"I'm excited about the application, and I think the tools are fundamental tools to say, look at evolution [of the virus] within an individual, look at evolution in the context of therapy," says Korber. In a very real sense, what Korber did was build family trees of HIV with the help of a supercomputer capable of doing a trillion calculations per second.

Using 160 strains of the virus, Korber created what she calls a "molecular clock" to see how the viral mutations developed over time from a "common ancestor."

The staggering number of combinations sprouted into statistical "trees" with intertwined branches or viral subgroups. All this led her back decades before the epidemic was discovered.

Ultimately, Korber came up to what she describes as an "evolutionary bottleneck" in her model, somewhere between 1910 and 1950, when the infection made a dramatic leap, either from primate to man, or from people at low risk to those at high risk.

"It doesn't necessarily mark the point where a chimp bit a man," Korber says, but it does suggest that the epidemic predates the first known cases in the '70s. And it debunks the theory that contaminated polio vaccine accidentally infected people in Africa during a test in the '50s. The earliest known HIV-infected blood sample was traced to 1959. As many as 1 million people may have been given the suspect vaccine.

Science writer Edward Hooper is advancing the controversial vaccine idea in his recent book The River. Korber, however, considers it unlikely that a diverse virus could have been spawned by this one event, and she has considerable support for that view.

"If [the epidemic's start] had occurred in the '50s, then that would have presupposed the simultaneous introduction of 10 separate sources. ... It's more likely that something happened in the '30s ... and then branched out," Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells WebMD. Fauci describes Korber's work as important.

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