Omar Bagasra, HIV and Molecular Immunity: Prospects for the AIDS Vaccine (BioTechniques Books, 1999); ISBN 1-881299-10-4

A commentary by Julian Cribb, May 1999

This commentary 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.

Bagasra is a distinguished Indian-born US scientist, whose main claim to fame - prior to this - was the invention of the in situ PCR technique, enabling single copies of a gene to be amplified inside a cell. This led to quite a few new insights into the behaviour of HIV.

In the book, most of which I won't comment on because it's pretty high science, he argues the case for a new form of immunity, molecular immunity, which he says has protected humans against retroviruses and lentiviruses for eons.

As I understand it, he argues there are "repertoires" of RNAs present in CD8 cells, which arose as a result of our long evolutionary symbiosis with retroviruses. When they encounter a retro, these RNAs link up to form a triple helix which blocks the entry of the retro to the cell nucleus. As soon as blocking takes place, millions more copies of RNAs are made throughout the body which block any other retros they can find. This is why, until HIV developed, retros made so little disease impact on humans

Bagasra says AIDS is the race between the ability of the retrovirus to slip past the RNAs and begin copying itself, and the ability of the RNAs to mass-copy and block it all round. In rapid-onset cases the virus gets on top first, in slow-onset cases the RNAs have got ahead of the game.

It's a provocative idea, and Luc Montagnier who wrote the foreward, was suitably cautious.

But more important even than this, Bagasra argues a vaccine against AIDS already exists.

He accepts that AIDS probably began in the CHAT-1 polio vaccine (because it would take a mass experiment like this to break down the long-established molecular immunity which kept humans comparatively safe from retroviral invasion).

He argues that monkey kidney cultures probably contained numerous strains of SIVs, and that during the vaccine process these were able to recombine with another - and maybe with native human retroviruses - to give rise to new kinds of deadly virus, the HIVs. "Therefore the introduction of recombinant SIVs, developed during the culture of different SIV strains or pre-HIVs, into humans could potentially have formed HIVs." (p27) He cites quite a lot of scientific evidence for so thinking.

Bagasra goes on: if a naive human population were exposed to these recombinants, the initial reaction would have been flu-like symptoms, but after some years the immune system would be undermined and destroyed. People would mostly die of lung and intestinal disorders which were then unremarkable in Africa.

However a proportion would have shown one of the unique symptoms of AIDS: skin lesions from Kaposi's sarcoma. And sure enough, there is evidence of a huge upsurge in KS cases in the Congo in the 1960s, radiating from the same region as the polio vaccine was used, and the same region which molecular phylogeny points to as the source of most of today's HIV strains.

Bagasra dismisses the monkey bite hypotheses, arguing there are many cases of monkey bites round the world every year, and these patently do not lead to AIDS.

He considers HIV-1 and HIV-2 were introduced to humans at the same time, probably stemming from different recombinants.

Bagasra presumes that around 3,100-15,500 of the original 310,000 recipients of CHAT-1 may have received recombinant SIVs, of whom a small percentage developed AIDS and gave rise to the epidemic.

But the OPV [oral polio vaccine] theory is less important than the conclusion he draws from it. The vaccine recipients would have been infected with recombinants of varying pathogenicity. The bad ones would have killed their hosts - and died with them. The more weakly pathogenic strains would have outlived their hosts and been passed on as HIV/AIDS. And the nonpathogenic ones would have immunised their recipients.

His punchline: "I believe that the live attenuated vaccine against HIV-1 already exists in the bloodstreams of those individuals who received CHAT-1 live polio vaccine in the Ruzizi valley, near Lake Tanganyika. These individuals carry the sort of viral particles that we can utilize for future AIDS vaccines. If these individuals have survived for over 50 years with a kind of attenuated lentivirus related to HIV-1, we should explore the possibility of using these lentiviruses for mass vaccination." (p161)

Bagasra also sounds a very strong warning against current AIDS vaccine projects, arguing that using bits of the really pathogenic virus will, owing to its powerful ability to recombine (as seen in the enormous array of HIV strains which have already emerged worldwide), give rise to fresh and maybe even deadlier strains of AIDS.

He also strongly opposes xenografts, pointing out that pigs (as a preferred donor animal) carry many retroviruses which currently do no harm to humans but if innoculated into us in this way could develop killer recombinants.

It's hot stuff. It's meticulously scientific, with no fewer than 855 scientific references cited. It is not a book for the general reader, but for virology and immunology specialists.

It demonstrates that there is a darn good reason to hope the OPV theory is correct - because it may also lead to a way to curb the pandemic.