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HIV & AIDS Health Center

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'Molecular Clock' Moves Origin of AIDS Epidemic to 1930


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.

An analysis of a vaccination sample from that '50s experiment is currently underway in an effort to resolve the controversy in time for another scientific meeting in May. Scientists now believe that the HIV epidemic was likely born in Africa, where primates harboring SIVs, viruses similar to HIV, live in close proximity to man.

Beatrice Hahn, MD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, writes in the current issue of the journal Science that the most common strain of HIV developed from transmission between a chimp subspeciesand man. Hahn, who has reviewed Korber's work, says that primates have infected man on at least seven occasions with HIV-like viruses.

But why HIV in Africa, and why the early 20th century? Besides a readily available viral pool, Hahn attributes the epidemic, at least in part, to "social disruption, enslavement, urbanization, prostitution, and other socio-behavioral changes not yet fully understood." Another possibility is the extensive use of unsterilized needles.

Hahn tells WebMD that it's critical to follow-up on Korber's studies on the epidemic's origins because there are 24 other primate species that also could harbor deadly but as yet unknown viruses like HIV.

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