Could an ancient sample of HIV-1 be faked?

A warning about possible malpractice involving ancient tissue samples from Africa.

 

Edward Hooper

 


This article is part of a collection of material on

Polio vaccines and the origin of AIDS

which in turn is part of Brian Martin's website on suppression of dissent.


Since November 2003, the MFP/Galafilm documentary entitled "The Origin of AIDS" has been showing on television stations in different countries, with further broadcasts planned in 2004.

I have recently seen an English language version of this film, which includes testimonial evidence from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Belgium that offers substantial support to the OPV hypothesis. Even if the documentary makes little attempt to discuss the scientific arguments for and against the OPV theory and the bushmeat/cut hunter theory, it provides another important service. For it reveals that many of those who have been most vociferous in their opposition to the OPV hypothesis have not been telling the truth about what happened in Stanleyville in the late 1950s. Some have claimed ignorance; some have told lies; while some have actively tried to persuade others to falsify their testimony.

The information that features in the present article is based on evidence gathered during the last four years, and raises the disturbing possibility that one, or some, of those involved in this debate might even attempt to falsify the date of a sample, in a desperate attempt to disprove the OPV theory.

Those who are desperate to exonerate CHAT vaccine have engaged in so many devious manoeuvres that the possibility that someone might attempt to misrepresent the date of an ancient sample of HIV-1, presenting it as coming from before the time of the OPV trials, now needs to be presented, and discussed, in a public forum.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In April 2001, I visited Kisangani with the MFP film crew. This was part of a seven-week period during which that crew, led by one of the film’s co-directors, Peter Chappell, filmed my researches in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. The fact that two of the film team had read The River, and spoke fluent French, meant that on many occasions during this period they were able to participate actively in these researches, for instance by conducting some of the interviews in French.

Soon after our arrival in Kisangani, we heard about a quantity of biopsy and autopsy materials from the period 1955-1958, which had apparently been discovered in the basement of the "new" Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville building, opened in 1957. Apparently this material consisted of a large number of anatamopathological slides, some tissue samples stored in paraffin blocks, and at least three large dossiers containing patient details, which were cross-referenced to some of the slides. In one conversation, the figure of "over 2,000" slides was mentioned.

We also heard a strange story concerning a Belgian professor, an agronomist named Hugo Gevaerts, who in his spare time cowrites articles about Dicroglossus occipitalis, the giant swamp frog. Professor Gevaerts was born in the Belgian Congo, and has maintained links with that country (now the DRC), and especially Kisangani, throughout his adult life. I first heard about this man in 1993, when Professor Dirk Thys van den Audenaerde, director of the Tervuren Museum of Central Africa near Brussels, mentioned his name to me, and said that in the 1980s Gevaerts had brought a number of ape skulls from the bush to Kisangani. Thys van den Audenaerde told me that the CITES treaty for the protection of wildlife prevented their being exported from there to Belgium, and added that Gevaerts had instead left them with the University of Kisangani.

For many years Professor Gevaerts has enjoyed a close association with the University of Kisangani, which he visits roughly annually, and where he was an emeritus professor until his recent retirement from that post (believed to have been in 2002). For many years, he was directly involved with the organisation of aid packages to the University from both the Belgian government, and from private and parastatal institutions in Belgium. These have included the provision of much-needed items such as computers and bicycles. As a result, he is an enormously influential figure in the city.

Other emeritus professors from Belgium, such as Jozef Vandepitte (Jan Desmyter’s predecessor as head of the virology department at the Catholic University of Leuven), and Paul Gigase (from the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Antwerp), have also paid visits to Kisangani in recent years, and Gigase, at least, has played an active role in the OPV debate [see below]. But it seems that it is Gevaerts who has been most directly involved in assisting the cause of Stanley Plotkin’s support group (Plotkin plus Jan Desmyter, Abel Prinzie and Dirk Teuwen) in Kisangani.

Hugo Gevaerts apparently arrived in Kisangani a week or two before our own arrival in early April 2001; and (although we did not then know it) he was still there in the city when we flew in. We subsequently heard that he had visited the site of Lindi camp, together with a group of Africans, and at least two wazungu ("Europeans"). We were told that a day or two after that visit, some of the visitors returned and spoke with the chief of the local village, after which they removed a large metal sign that had overlaid the concrete lid of the water and sewerage system since the camp was built in 1956. What was written on the sign is not known.

We also learned that Professor Gevaerts had become involved with the slides, blocks and dossiers which had been discovered in the basement of the LMS. We first heard about the existence of these items when we went to the University of Kisangani to speak with the Rector, Professor A. M. Abibi. Also present at the meeting were two other professors, who, like the Rector, seemed unremittingly hostile. The rector told us of the discovery of the slides, blocks and dossiers, but then explained that he would not allow us access to them. Indeed, he refused us permission even to go inside the old Laboratoire Medicale de Stanleyville (LMS) buildings (now part of the medical school of the university).

Abibi revealed that he and his colleagues had recently been approached by scientists from several European organisations, some of whom had informed him that I was a dangerous person, and that The River was "a very bad book". I was not surprised to learn that two of the three organisations which had made approaches were the Pasteur (it was not clear whether this was the Pasteur Institute in Paris, or the Pasteur Aventis vaccine house, then headed by Stanley Plotkin) and the Catholic University of Leuven (CUL) in Belgium, because both these institutions have a vested interest in this debate.

The CUL was interested because Jan Desmyter (who is head of virology at both the University and at its biomedical research arm, the Rega Institute) has been an active member of Plotkin’s support team since 2000, and because a version of CHAT vaccine fed in Burundi in December 1959 to March 1960 had been prepared at RIT. (RIT was a Belgian vaccine house that opened in 1957, and which also enjoyed close links with the CUL; it has recently been absorbed into the Glaxo Smith Kline Beecham group.) At the time of the Congo vaccinations, RIT was jointly owned by Desmyter’s predecessor as head of virology, and the later Rector of the CUL, Pieter De Somer. (However, in contrast to the CHAT vaccine that was prepared in the Congo, and which was used in the CHAT vaccinations elsewhere in Africa, there was no epidemiological association between this Belgian version of the vaccine, made at RIT, and the later emergence of HIV-1.)

As for the Pasteur, it was presumably interested because of Stanley Plotkin’s position as right-hand man to Hilary Koprowski at the Wistar Institute at the time of the Congolese CHAT trials, and because Pierre Lepine, the former head of virology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, had also developed an experimental OPV in around 1956-7, a version of which was apparently propagated in the tissues of local African primates and field-tested in France’s African colonies. It appears that the French were staging their own field-trials in their colonies at the same time that the Belgians and Americans were doing so in the Belgian Congo. (Also in 1957, the South Africans began preparing their own locally-made versions of the Sabin OPVs, which they field-tested in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1959-60.)

But back to our meeting with the Rector. Dr Abibi went on to explain that he and his colleagues were only interested in working with bona fide scientists, and the fact that I had previously visited with Professor Bill Hamilton, the evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, apparently counted for nought, since Hamilton was now dead. On one level, Abibi’s stance was fair enough. It was, after all, his right to determine whether or not we could visit any department of his university. What seemed less fair was that he and his friends had clearly already taken sides in the debate, favouring (for whatever reason) those who had prepared and fed CHAT vaccine in the fifties. For my part, I was keen to see these ancient samples tested, and was distraught to realise that no part of the samples was about to be released to me (or to a scientist nominated by me).

Later, in the Royal Society volume on "Origins of HIV and the AIDS epidemic", Stanley Plotkin’s "Postscript" article revealed that he and his support team had already established contacts with the University of Kisangani by November 2000, at the latest [Plotkin et al., 2001]. The dean of the science faculty, Dudu Akaibe, met that month with Paul Gigase (who had been asked by Jan Desmyter to do some research for him during his visit to the city, and who later interviewed Baelo Alukelo, one of the Lindi caretakers, on Desmyter’s behalf). Later, in March 2001, one month before we arrived in Kisangani, Akaibe wrote Plotkin a letter, presumably answering questions which Plotkin had sent him. I remembered Professor Akaibe vaguely from my July 1999 visit with Bill Hamilton, when he had been one of a group of Congolese professors whom Bill had met informally on a couple of occasions.

[An aside about Paul Gigase. Having interviewed Professor Gigase a couple of times in the 1990s, I decided that I should seek him out again, to discuss what happened during his November 2000 visit to Kisangani. To this end, I visited him in May 2003, and Gigase agreed to our interview being filmed by the MFP crew (who were again filming me for a few days, just as they had done in March and April 2001). In this interview, Gigase was rather unclear about the details of exactly whom he had interviewed and what they had said, but in a subsequent e-mail he became more specific. He claimed that Baelo Alukelo had told him that kidneys had indeed been taken from the chimps, but that they had only been taken from animals that had already died from natural causes, meaning that they could not have been used for tissue culture. None of the chimps had been sacrificed, he claimed. These claims directly conflicted with what Alukelo told me in two recorded interviews, conducted in July 1999 and April 2001 (ie before and after Gigase’s visit). On both those occasions Alukelo explained to me, in some detail, that chimps were frequently sacrificed, sometimes several on the same day, and that organs were routinely removed from animals that were anaesthetised, but still alive. It was only after my return from the Congo in July 1999 that I discovered that this is the classic technique for obtaining organs "under sterile precautions", which can then be used to make tissue culture (for instance for preparing polio vaccines). Alukelo’s account has also been supported by other ex-workers at the camp, and by two Belgian sources, who insist that apart from 60 chimps that were transferred to Stanleyville in January 1960, all the other Lindi chimpanzees were sacrificed. I am satisfied that the claims made by Professor Gigase about the Lindi chimps are unreliable. This is only the latest in a long line of misrepresentations and untruths that have been disseminated by the Plotkin/Desmyter/Prinzie/Teuwen group, or their associates, in their vain attempt to disprove the OPV hypothesis at all costs. There is firm evidence (which will be released in due course) that these men have pressurised other witnesses to modify their stories (although not all have agreed to do so), and have made false assertions about me personally. At some point in 2004, I shall be demonstrating just how much of what Plotkin and his team have written about the OPV theory is nonsense, and how much is fabricated.]

Soon after this unedifying meeting with the Rector of the University of Kisangani and his colleagues, we were approached by the assistant to the Congolese professor who had originally located the slides and paraffin blocks in the LMS basement. (For reasons that should be obvious, I prefer not to identify either this man, or his boss.) He told us that a few days earlier, while his boss was out of town, he (the assistant) had been visited by the Rector, accompanied by Hugo Gevaerts. The Rector had ordered him to open the locked cupboard where the slides, blocks and dossiers were kept, and to hand some of them over to Gevaerts. Apparently Gevaerts signed a paper indicating that he had taken them. When the man’s boss returned the following day, he was furious about the episode, and complained directly to the Rector. As a result, Gevaerts was asked to return the materials he had taken, which he duly did. However (the assistant told us), it appeared that a few of the slides might not have been returned. In addition, there had clearly been enough time for Gevaerts to have photocopied the dossiers. The major details of the story were later confirmed by the professor who had located the slides in the first place, who provided the additional information that Gevaerts had come armed with letters from both "Belgium and the Pasteur" urging the Rector to hand over the samples to him. The professor added that he feels he is involved in a Mafia story, and expects a gun to be put to his head.

Much of this testimonial evidence was recorded on film. I should stress, however, that we were never ourselves shown the slides, blocks or dossiers - apparently at the behest of Professor Abibi.

When phoned about these events by a member of the MFP film crew soon after our return from the Congo, Professor Gevaerts became upset. He apparently said that he was not personally involved in these matters, but that others had asked him to help. Two years later, in November 2003, I myself phoned him, and asked him to clarify exactly what had happened. Gevaerts explained that he had got involved at the request of Professor Desmyter. But the rest of his answers were strange, and sometimes contradictory. First he denied that he had ever been to Lindi camp, or the nearby village of Yelenge; then he said that he might have visited the village with some Congolese professors, during his agronomic outreach programme. But he insisted that he had never visited the site of Lindi camp.

As for the slides, he acknowledged that he had seen them, but denied that he had ever had any of them in his possession, or that he had ever attempted to leave the country with some of them. And he denied knowledge of any paraffin blocks, or registers. On each of these issues, Gevaerts’s account differed from those of at least two Congolese witnesses, whose stories were internally consistent with each other.

This story is of considerable concern, partly because there is now evidence of a substantial cover-up having been staged in the last five years. This cover-up has involved a number of scientists, both those who were originally involved with the CHAT vaccinations, and those who are innately opposed to the OPV theory (perhaps because they believe it to be a threat to public health initiatives such as vaccination campaigns). The confirmed existence of these materials from the crucial 1955-1958 period, and the various attempts made to gain possession of them, raise clear questions about possible malpractice.

THE SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND

Why are these biomedical samples potentially so significant? The background is as follows. Klebsiella pneumoniae was infecting chimps at Lindi camp from the time it opened in 1956, and by July 1958 at latest, a number of fatal human Klebsiella infections had occurred among patients at Stanleyville’s Hopital des Noirs (as revealed by an article submitted that month to a Belgian medical journal by Paul Osterreith). Yet fatal Klebsiella infections in humans are extremely rare. Indeed, Professor Jack Davies told me he had only seen only one Klebsiella fatality during his two decades in charge of the pathology department at Mulago Medical School in Kampala, Uganda.

At this point, one potentially significant detail needs to be highlighted. Klebsiella pneumoniae is an opportunistic infection of both human AIDS and simian AIDS.

Some might consider that the most plausible link between a pathogen found in an isolated chimpanzee camp in the bush, and in fatal infections of urban adults, could be a biomedical product such as a human vaccine that had been prepared in the cells of the chimpanzees. Back in the fifties, several of the Stanleyville doctors suspected that the chimps had also been weakened by an underlying viral infection, so one now has to consider the possibility that both the Klebsiella organism and chimpanzee SIV could have been acquired from chimpanzees via the vaccine or "biomedical product". If such a hypothesis is correct, then those early Klebsiella fatalities may represent some of the very first examples of human AIDS.

The obvious corollary is that some of the recently-discovered blocks and slides may contain samples of HIV-1 that would predate even the famous "L70" sample, allegedly taken in Leopoldville in 1959.

In the light of the history of events in Stanleyville, it might be that the May 2000 publication of the paperback version of The River (in which I first mentioned my search for archival materials in the LMS basement) sparked a race with the members of the Plotkin group, and with other Belgian scientists co-opted by members of that group, notably by Jan Desmyter.

Our further enquiries about these ancient slides, paraffin blocks and dossiers have proved fruitless, and it is not clear whether they are still in the Congo, or if they have been moved elsewhere, perhaps to Belgium or the USA. But the fact that contacts already exist between the University of Kisangani hierarchy and both the Pasteur (either the Pasteur Institute or the Pasteur Aventis vaccine house) and the CUL should be borne in mind.

The existence of these materials (which Professor Gevaerts has confirmed) and the knowledge that certain interested parties are making considerable efforts to obtain them, raises two major concerns about possible malpractice:

  1.  
  2. that genuine early evidence of HIV-1 from Stanleyville from this period may be destroyed, just as other key evidence relevant to this subject seems to have been destroyed (or to have "disappeared") from the 1950s onwards; and/or…
  3. that material from Stanleyville containing a genuine early sample of HIV-1 might be relabelled as material from another series, for instance pathology or biopsy samples dating from 1950, or 1931 (ie before the CHAT vaccine trials). As far as I know, it would not be easy to genetically engineer a convincing early HIV-1 sample, and as for deliberately contaminating an ancient sample with a slightly more modern HIV-1 isolate, the potential exists for getting caught out by evidence of DNA from two different sources (as may have happened in the famous "Manchester sailor" case). But the possibility of taking a genuine sample of HIV-1 from, say, 1957, and claiming that it originated from an earlier date would be an easier trick to pull off, especially if such evidence were quietly introduced into a series of samples that genuinely predated the OPV trials, a series that might then be tested in good faith by another scientist. (One possibility, of course, would be to slip such a sample from 1957 or 1958 into an earlier part of the Stanleyville series, claiming that it dates from a time before the start of the CHAT trials.)

For the record, I believe there is now overwhelming scientific and historical evidence that the AIDS pandemic started via experimental vaccinations with CHAT vaccine prepared in chimpanzee cells and fed in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in the late 1950s.

It may be that chimpanzee SIV has occasionally transferred into humans via a chimpanzee hunter or bushmeat-seller before the 1950s. But if that has happened, I believe that such a virus would not be a likely ancestor to the pandemic AIDS virus, HIV-1 Group M. (There are models for such a dead-end virus, such as HIV-2 Groups C to G, all five of which are represented by single isolates that appear to have transferred to humans from the ancestral host, the sooty mangabey, but not to have spread further. All five such strains "are weakly pathogenic, [and] replicate poorly in infected humans". In fact, they are probably not transmissible from human to human. As Preston Marx and his colleagues state, this suggests that the bushmeat, or cut hunter, scenario does not by itself produce epidemic strains of HIV, or outbreaks of AIDS.) [Apetrei et al, 2004]

Whether Marx’s theory of reused needles is right, or whether the OPV theory is right, it is increasingly clear that it is the Hand of Man (almost certainly of Modern Medical Man) that has played the key role in the birth of AIDS in the latter half of the twentieth century. (The arguments between the reused needles and OPV hypotheses of origin represent a separate subject, one that I have discussed in detail in past papers, and may return to in future.)

CONCLUSION

For the last seventeen years, nobody has discovered a sample of HIV-1 that predates "ZR59", the vestigial HIV-1 sequence found in the L70 sample that allegedly dates from 1959. Will an earlier sample of HIV-1 ever be found?

What we know for certain is that biomedical samples dating from 1955 to 1958 have been located in Kisangani, DRC, and that there are good reasons for believing that some of them may contain traces of HIV-1. What is also known is that I have been refused access to them by the University of Kisangani, but that institutions and individuals which have a vested interest in these samples have made great efforts to procure them - efforts which may already have been successful. The only satisfactory way to test such samples impartially is to have them split between two or three labs, and I would like to propose an independent laboratory which could participate in any such testing that takes place.

What this story demonstrates is how high the stakes have now become. Until recently, I continued to believe that no sensible scientist would risk ruining his or her career by attempting to falsify data in a bid to disprove the OPV theory. However, so many of those who are directly involved in the origins debate have behaved dishonourably, and seem to be determined to sink the OPV theory at all costs, that I no longer retain that degree of confidence.

The strange tale of the ancient Stanleyville samples means that the opportunity for falsification exists, and the sad truth is that someone just might be desperate enough to try it.

I therefore feel that I need to repeat the warning that I first issued in September 2001, in the printed version of my Lincei speech, as posted on Brian Martin’s web-site.

If an isolate of HIV-1 Group M which apparently dates from 1950, or 1940, should suddenly be discovered, I would advise that very careful attention be paid to the provenance of the parent sample. Given the past history, the ugly possibility that a 1957 or 1958 sample from Stanleyville might be passed off as a sample from before the OPV trials must be borne in mind.

EH December 1st, 2003; updated February 11th, 2004; posted 26 February 2004

References

Apetrei C., Robertson DL and Marx PA, "The history of SIVs and AIDS: epidemiology, phylogeny and biology of isolates from naturally SIV-infected non-human primates (NHP) in Africa"; Frontiers in Bioscience; 2004; 9; 225-254.

Plotkin SA, Teuwen DE, Prinzie A and Desmyter J, "Postscript relating to new allegations made by Edward Hooper at the Royal Society Discussion Meeting on 11 September 2000"; Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (London) B; 2001; 356; 825-830.