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Scientists Refute Theory About the Origin of HIV

WebMD Health News

April 25, 2001 -- The life history of a virus, like that of a family or group of people, is the stuff of epic storytelling: how it emerges somewhere in the mists of time, travels across borders and species, awaiting the proper setting and circumstances to blossom into an epidemic wreaking havoc on the health of whole nations.

The HIV virus, and the epidemic of AIDS it has unleashed in the world in the last two decades, has prompted a strenuous scientific effort at stopping the organism and treating the devastating disease that results. But it has also been the source of speculation about the history of the virus itself: Where did it come from? How did it come to reside in humans? And what happened to transform it from a relative innocuous organism into a worldwide killer?

The spectacular nature of the epidemic has prompted some to suggest that the virus could not have naturally become so deadly without some human intervention -- some tragic mistake that lifted it out of benign obscurity.

One such provocative theory has suggested that the HIV virus, originally residing in chimpanzees, was accidentally transferred to humans in the late 1950s during a polio vaccine campaign in Africa. According to the theory, first put forward by a journalist named Edward Hooper, public health workers may have used infected cells from chimpanzee kidneys to culture the polio virus; when millions of people were vaccinated during the worldwide campaign to eradicate that disease -- so the theory assumes -- the virus began its insidious spread in the human race.

The theory has sparked fiery debate among virologists, the experts who study the origin and spread of viral organisms. And this week, three separate reports in the journal Nature appear to have routed the theory, proving all but conclusively that the HIV virus could not have had its origin in the polio vaccine campaign.

Edward C. Holmes, PhD, author of one of the reports, says the new research shows that the spread of HIV virus occurred naturally the way any organism does, and not through human error.

That's important, Holmes says, because the awesome consequences of AIDS -- like epidemics of bubonic plague in the medieval times -- have led some to try to assign "blame" for the disease. But Holmes says people need to know that viruses have a life of their own, flourishing at certain times and places for reasons that cannot be controlled -- and others are likely to do so again in the future.

"Implicit in the polio vaccine theory is the sentiment that someone is to blame for HIV," Holmes tells WebMD. "The idea is that HIV is so completely unique that it could never have occurred without some human intervention. That scares me, and I categorically refute it. No one is to blame for this."

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