More untruths, more misrepresentation: the phoney science that underpins the latest "refutation" of the OPV/AIDS theory

Edward Hooper


This item 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.


In essence, the OPV/AIDS theory proposes that an experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV) called CHAT, which was given to a million Africans in the late 1950s, spawned HIV-1 and gave birth to the AIDS pandemic

Fearful of the growing evidence that some batches of CHAT were prepared locally in Africa (in Stanleyville, Belgian Congo), and in the cells of the common chimpanzee (an animal that is host to the direct ancestor of the pandemic AIDS virus, HIV-1), some of the pillars of the scientific establishment are now falsely claiming - yet again - that the OPV/AIDS theory has been "refuted".

These are only the latest in a long line of unscientific claims about the origins of AIDS that have appeared in articles in the pages of such august journals as Nature and Science. Most of these articles have been blatantly biased against OPV/AIDS.

Neither of these journals has ever published any article supporting, or expounding, the OPV/AIDS theory. Yet since 1992 they have published a series of flawed refutations, including a set of co-ordinated articles published in April 2001 which asserted that the OPV theory was "dead", and had been "destroyed". Three years later, it is apparent that those claims were erroneous.

In private, some of the leading OPV sceptics admit that the theory is plausible and possible, but add that they will never state this publicly unless there is incontrovertible evidence to support it. What they actually do in public, however, is rather different, and deeply cynical. They assert that the theory has been refuted, even when they know there is no evidence to support this.

The latest alleged refutation is flawed on several counts. But it is based on the claim that there were no chimpanzees from the subspecies Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) present at Lindi camp, near Stanleyville, where hundreds of chimps were used in the polio vaccine experiments in the late 1950s.

In fact, there is substantial evidence, both testimonial and documentary, indicating the strong probability that some Ptt chimps were present at Lindi. In particular, one of the few documented Lindi chimps is recorded as having come from Coquilhatville (now Mbandaka), a territoire in western DRC which faces the range of both major central African chimp subspecies. There is thus a 50/50 chance that this documented chimp was a Pan troglodytes troglodytes.

Back in 2001, at a meal attended by several scientists, I outlined the latter evidence to Professor Robin Weiss, who has been the most prominent advocate of the anti-OPV campaign. Weiss may be deeply biased on this subject, but he is none the less a good scientist, and he knew better than to deny the force of the argument in front of eminent peers. He acknowledged that if there was evidence of even a single troglodytes chimp having been present at Lindi, then this "disposed of" the subspecies argument as a disproof of the OPV theory.

Yet this same phoney argument is now being spun again in the pages of Nature. The very title of the article, "Contaminated polio vaccine theory refuted" gives a strong indication that this is no longer about elucidating the early history of HIV-1, but instead about disposing of an uncomfortable theory.

This is yet another desperate attempt to convince the middle-ground of scientists, the press, and thereby Joe Public, that medical science is not responsible for creating the worst infectious disease epidemic in recorded history.

A major cover-up is taking place. This is the "WMD in Iraq" debate all over again - and like that debate, it is not going to go away.

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The origins of AIDS controversy

There is little doubt that the latest attack on the OPV/AIDS theory has been triggered by the successful showing of the MFP/Galafilm documentary "The Origins of AIDS" in different countries around the world.

"Contaminated polio vaccine theory refuted", a single page "brief communication" by Worobey et al., was published in Nature on April 22nd, 2004, just one day before "The Origins of AIDS" was due to broadcast in France on the government network, France2. But the short paper was given huge advance publicity, having been promoted on the Nature web-site throughout the preceding week.

"The Origin of AIDS" is a 90-minute documentary, and although the France2 broadcast lasted until after midnight, it was seen by well over a million people. Audience reactions (both in France and elsewhere) suggest that the film has had a profound impact.

Those who are familiar with the latest research into this issue (only a small part of which features in "The Origins of AIDS") believe it demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that it was experimentation by American and Belgian scientists in central Africa in the 1950s that sparked the AIDS pandemic which has to date killed over 26 million people.

The film does not deal with any of the scientific arguments, which is a shame. However, it does achieve several things. It shows that several of the CHAT vaccinators have been lying about what they did in Africa in the fifties.

It also reveals a crucial new detail. By means of a series of interviews with Congolese and Belgian lab workers and chimp handlers, it demonstrates that the CHAT oral polio vaccine (OPV) that was fed to nearly a million persons in the Belgian Congo, Burundi and Rwanda in that era was prepared locally. This happened in the medical laboratory of Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo - now Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This African-made version of CHAT vaccine was unique, in that it was prepared in a substrate of chimpanzee cells and chimpanzee sera. As the film shows, these were obtained from some of the 600-odd chimpanzees that were held at Lindi camp, situated in the rain forest ten miles from Stanleyville. [In fact, Lindi housed approximately 500 common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and over 80 pygmy chimpanzees or bonobos (Pan paniscus).]

Lindi camp witnessed the greatest mass-killing of chimpanzees in recorded history.

All but 60 of the 600-odd chimpanzees were "sacrificed" in the course of the experimentation that took place at Lindi between 1956 and 1960, and some 400 of these were killed in the course of the polio research. We know that less than 10% of these 400 animals were used for the safety testing of polio vaccines, which was the official reason given for the existence of Lindi camp.

The best indications to date are that roughly 13% of common chimpanzees in the wild are infected by a simian immunodeficiency virus, SIVcpz, that is the closest relative to the human pandemic AIDS virus, HIV-1.

This helps explain why the first places in the world to witness HIV-1 and AIDS were the African towns and villages where this experimental version of CHAT vaccine was administered to the population.

The correlations between CHAT vaccination and early HIV-1 infection in central Africa as a whole, and in the small country of Burundi in particular, have been found to be "highly significant". This means that in studies of two distinct areas in Africa CHAT and HIV-1 were found to be linked, and in each case there was a less than 1 in 1,000 chance that the correlations were the result of coincidence.

Using misinformation

Faced with this mounting evidence against CHAT, the committed opponents of the OPV theory have employed techniques of which the CIA itself would be proud.

Using a mixture of misinformation, spin, and downright untruth, they have tried to pre-empt the debate by announcing that the OPV theory had been "refuted".

This claim was heavily promoted on Nature’s web-site in the week preceding the French broadcast of "The Origin of AIDS", and to some extent the ploy was successful, in that it largely moved the debate in the French press away from the dramatic revelations in the film about how the African version of CHAT was made.

Instead, most of the reporters (who by and large are not sufficiently well-versed on this issue to be able to smell a rat) ended up focusing on the old and unsubstantiated claim that the Lindi experimentation had involved "the wrong chimpanzee".

Nature magazine has never published anything positive or explicatory about the OPV/AIDS theory. But it has published several alleged "refutations", many of which were written by British retrovirologist Robin Weiss, a man who has played a leading role in trying to dispose of the theory. These refutations have used a mixture of inaccurate information and flawed analysis to discredit the theory, and the latest article is cut from the same cloth.

Back in April 2001, similarly flawed claims that the OPV theory was "dead", or had been "destroyed", were published simultaneously in Nature, and in the world’s other leading natural science magazine, Science.

That the two great pillars of science journalism are repeatedly using flawed science in an attempt to disprove the OPV/AIDS theory is a concept that many scientists and journalists find difficult to accept - even though it is true.

These latest claims in Nature are an indication of how desperate certain scientists have become in recent years. This involves not only those who were involved with making the original vaccine, but also doctors involved in contemporary public health programmes. Because such programmes are based around vaccination, there is considerable fear about the potential consequences, should it become widely accepted that the AIDS epidemic was created in the course of irresponsible vaccine experiments by Western scientists.

Perhaps understandably, many scientists find it easier to hide their heads in the sand, and accept the comforting assurance in the pages of Nature that the theory has been refuted.

What is the basis for the latest "refuting" of the OPV theory?

Lead author of the Nature article "Contaminated polio vaccine theory refuted" [Nature; 204; 428; 820], is a young Canadian geneticist who has just been appointed head of a new laboratory in Tucson, Arizona: Michael Worobey. The final author (of eleven!) is Beatrice Hahn, for long one of the most vocal and intransigent opponents of the OPV/AIDS theory.

On the basis of one new partial sequence of SIV from a chimpanzee from the Parisi forest, 130 kilometres south-east of Kisangani, Worobey and Hahn claim that the SIV from chimps found around Kisangani is less closely related to the AIDS virus, HIV-1, than is the SIV of chimps from west central Africa (Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville and Gabon). On this basis, they declare the OPV theory refuted.

But the alleged refutation is based on a series of misrepresentations.

According to Worobey and Hahn, the OPV/AIDS theory states that chimpanzees from the vicinity of Kisangani/Stanleyville were the source of the AIDS epidemic.

This claim, which underpins their entire article, is false. And the analysis that follows is therefore inherently flawed.

The true situation is well documented, and is as follows. The Lindi chimps, the ones used in the OPV experiments, were collected from an area of over 300,000 square miles of rain forest and savannah. (It is not, by the way, recorded that any of them originated from the Parisi forest area.)

Apart from the 80-odd bonobos (Pan paniscus), the great majority of the Lindi chimps were from the Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (Pts) subspecies that is found widely in the north of the DRC.

However, it is highly likely that Lindi camp also held a number of chimps from the Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) subspecies that is found further west, mainly in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville.

Hahn and Worobey insist that the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) of Ptt (and not Pts) is the one true ancestor of HIV-1.

It is therefore crucial to Hahn and Worobey’s argument against the OPV/AIDS theory that there were no Pan troglodytes troglodytes present at Lindi camp. If even one such animal was present, then their argument is effectively destroyed.

Below, I shall present the evidence underpinning my claim that there is a strong possibility that (in contrast to the official account) Pan troglodytes troglodytes chimps were held at Lindi. But before I do so, let me briefly deal with some of the other alleged disproofs of the OPV/AIDS theory which have been referred to by the OPV sceptics in recent interviews.

The other alleged disproofs

Both Michael Worobey and Simon Wain-Hobson (from the Pasteur Institute) have recently given interviews about this subject, and both have claimed to journalists that the OPV/AIDS theory is also disproved for other reasons. The two "disproofs" they have mentioned are the phylogenetic dating argument (which calculates that HIV-1 must have existed in around 1931, before the OPV trials in Africa), and the fact that samples of CHAT vaccine have been tested, and found to be clean (ie free of HIV-1, SIV, and chimpanzee DNA).

It is frankly shameful that these scientists should seek to invoke these arguments as additional disproofs of OPV without further comment, for both men are well aware that over the last four years these arguments have been effectively disproved.

(a) Phylogenetic dating is not an accurate tool to use for viruses like HIV-1 and SIV, which evolve mainly through recombination, and which therefore cannot be dated by a method which seeks only to evaluate the rate of mutation - a completely different mode of evolution. (It should be noted that when challenged by a journalist about the value of phylogenetic dating for HIV-1, a subject on which he has written extensively in recent years, Wain-Hobson partially backed down.)

(b) The CHAT samples that were tested (in year 2000) originated from the Wistar Institute in the US, and had never been anywhere near Africa. These were not samples of the CHAT vaccine that was given to one million persons in Africa in the late fifties, and are therefore entirely irrelevant to this debate.

At the very least, the recent claims made by these two scientists that these are additional disproofs of OPV raise questions about their integrity.

However, their involvement in attempting to spin the arguments against OPV/AIDS is perhaps not entirely surprising, for both have played shameful roles in this debate in the past.

Worobey (who accompanied Bill Hamilton on his second trip to the Congo in January 2000) has always promised that he would share portions of all the samples from Hamilton’s two expeditions to Africa (one with me in July 1999, and the other with Worobey in January 2000) with scientists from both camps, and not only those from the anti-OPV lobby.

Worobey was effectively the custodian of these samples, but he has not kept his promise. In 2001 he shared the samples with Beatrice Hahn, but after this he began to balk at the prospect of sharing them with a neutral scientist nominated by me and by Bill Hamilton’s ex-partner, Luisa Bozzi. After several reminders, he did finally (in late 2003) send some 15 samples to this other scientist (a molecular biologist), but these were only a small subset of samples from Hamilton’s first Congo expedition, and most of them are believed to contain no viable DNA or RNA to test.

Wain-Hobson, for his part, had offered back in 1999 to collaborate with Hamilton and me by testing aliquots of the Congo chimp samples, which were subsequently delivered to him. However, he backtracked and lost his nerve after Hamilton’s untimely death in March 2000.

It is not known whether Wain-Hobson ever completed the testing, but certainly he has never formally reported on what he found. Furthermore, he has refused to give any sensible answer to my several e-mail requests to him to either announce the results, or else give the samples to someone who would be willing to do the testing. In May 2002, in answer to my fifth such e-mail, in which I asked when I could expect a response from him, he responded with: "You know about blue moons? So there we are."

In different ways, therefore, both Worobey and Wain-Hobson have broken their word with regard to these samples. And both men have betrayed the spirit of their mooted collaborations with the late Bill Hamilton.

Is the OPV/AIDS theory refuted?

Scientists have now publicly announced that the OPV/AIDS theory is "dead" or "destroyed" on at least four separate occasions (October 1992, September 2000, April 2001 and April 2004).

This latest announcement of the demise of the OPV theory is as scientifically unsound as each of the previous three.

But let us assume for a moment that Hahn and Worobey are right, and that Ptt SIV is the only true parent of HIV-1. Even then, their claim that OPV is refuted is false.

This is because according to observers both in the 1950s and today, Pan troglodytes troglodytes (Ptt) chimps were almost certainly present at Lindi camp in the 1950s.

Lindi was a chimpanzee holding camp situated in an isolated spot in the rain forest, some ten miles (16 kilometres) from Stanleyville. It was in operation between the years of 1956 and 1960. The CHAT vaccine researchers were based at the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville (LMS) during the same years.

The only official records of the Lindi chimps that have been released are those which were shown me in 1996 by Dr Jean Deinhardt, widow of the German virologist Fritz Deinhardt, who worked at Lindi and Stanleyville between February and April, 1958. Some time later, Dr Deinhardt allowed me to copy the entire databook on her husband’s work with the Lindi chimps.

Just 54 chimps (less than 10% of the total used in the Lindi experiments) are documented, but one of these 54 is listed as coming from Coquilhatville territoire (now Mbandaka) in the Belgian Congo (now DRC). Two others came from Stanleyville Zoo; their original source is unknown.

Unusually, the Coquilhatville chimp (No. 98) stayed alive at Lindi for at least two years (from April 1957 to April 1959). It was therefore a common chimp, for it is documented in several places that all the pygmy chimps (which were present at Lindi in the early days) had been "used up" before 1959.

Coquilhatville territoire was situated on the south bank of the Congo River, opposite roughly equal stretches of the range of both Ptt and Pts chimps. There is therefore a 50/50 chance that chimp No. 98 was a Pan troglodytes troglodytes.

At Lindi camp, chimps were routinely placed two to a cage, and sometimes placed in a group-cage with up to ten chimps inside. Thus any SIV infecting chimp No. 98 would very possibly have been transmitted onwards to members of the Pts fraternity (and perhaps even to some of the pygmy chimps too).

At a luncheon at the end of the Lindi conference in September 2001 which was attended by about a dozen different scientists, I explained in detail about chimp No. 98 to Robin Weiss, who has played such a leading role in opposing the OPV theory.

Rather to my surprise, Weiss told me that if there was indeed evidence that at least one of the Lindi chimps was a Pan troglodytes troglodytes, then I had effectively "disposed of" the troglodytes/schweinfurthii argument against the OPV theory. This comment must have been heard by several, if not all, of the scientists present.

At that time, Weiss was convinced that the phylogenetic dating argument had disproved the OPV theory. Maybe this is why he was willing to concede that the Ptt/Pts argument against OPV had been dashed. The presence of several of his peers may also have been a factor.

Recently, two additional new pieces of information have come to light, which offer support to my claim that there were Ptt chimps at Lindi.

In March 2004 I interviewed a Belgian man who had worked in Stanleyville throughout the 1950s, and who had been a regular visitor to Lindi camp. He told me that he had "many, many times" seen Africans transporting young chimps up and down the Congo River by pirogue (canoe) and on the great ferries, in order to sell them in towns like Stanleyville. He said that this proved that "chimps coming from anywhere could land in Stanleyville in the laboratory". When I asked him specifically whether this would have included chimps that had originated from Coquilhatville territoire, he replied: "I think that some came from Coquilhatville"

More recently, in April 2004, I received the following statement in an e-mail from Karl Ammann, the Africa-based conservationist and chimpanzee expert. This was an unsolicited message he sent me, after I had sent him a copy of an earlier piece responding to Worobey’s article.

Ammann wrote: "I have done the [Congo] river trip two times and on each occasion there were chimps which came on [the ferry] around Mbandaka and Bumba, and there is no reason why chimps would not come on board from the other side of the river, the other Congo [Congo Brazzaville], which of course would be Ptt. Each time chimps got sold in Kisangani, and each time new chimps were collected on the way back to Kinshasa."

What this proves is that in the 1950s, as in more recent times, chimps from the Ptt region have been brought up the river Congo and sold in Stanleyville/Kisangani. In the late 1950s, it was well known that the European scientists from the LMS were buying chimps (and were presumably paying the best prices), so it is highly probable that at least some Ptt chimps (like No. 98, perhaps) ended up at Lindi camp.

Soup or chowder? Other arguments against Hahn and Worobey’s claims

There are also several other good reasons for rejecting the claims by Worobey and Hahn that they have refuted the OPV theory.

Many virologists and geneticists believe that there is nowhere near sufficient evidence to make the sweeping claim that the SIV of Pan troglodytes troglodytes is the only direct ancestor of HIV-1. The SIV sequences from Ptt chimps from Cameroon and Gabon are indeed the nearest ancestors to HIV-1 discovered to date, but they are only about 80% similar to the human virus. (The Pts SIV sequences obtained to date are the next closest ancestors to HIV-1, and have about 70% homology.) What this means is that the direct ancestor of HIV-1 was almost certainly a chimpanzee SIV. But it does not mean that HIV-1 originated in Cameroon or Gabon, as Hahn and company like to claim. It is much more likely to mean that the group of chimps which gave birth to pandemic HIV-1 has not yet been sampled. That group of direct ancestors could be from Ptt, certainly, but it could also be from Pts.

The Lindi chimps were collected from many regions, and from an area of well over 300,000 square miles of rain forest and savannah. So until chimps from representative parts of the Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii range (and from other parts of the Ptt range, too) have been sampled, nobody can make any confident claims about the true ancestry of HIV-1.

At the Royal Society meeting on the origins of AIDS in September 2000, primatologist Pascal Gagneux demonstrated that the mitochondrial DNA of one group of Pts chimps (from Bondo in the northern DRC) was strikingly similar to that of Ptt chimps from Cameroon and Gabon. Many Bondo chimps were present at Lindi camp, and they therefore provide one example of a possible alternative ancestor. Gagneux, however, believes that the putative HIV-1 ancestor may exist in an isolated chimp population that will never be found (or may have existed in one which has since become extinct).

The second reason for rejecting the Hahn/Worobey claims is far more basic, and far more crucial. There is likely to have been recombination between different SIVs, either in the group cages at Lindi, or in the tissue cultures in which CHAT vaccine was prepared in Stanleyville. It would only have required two slightly different SIVs to have met in the same chimp, or the same culture, for an HIV-1-like virus to have been spawned. In this instance, all the arguments about Ptt or Pts become irrelevant. For HIV-1 could have been created from a Pts SIV soup just as easily as from a Ptt SIV chowder.


The main purpose of this article has been to demonstrate that even if Hahn and Worobey are right, and even if the SIV of Pan troglodytes troglodytes is the only true ancestor of HIV-1, this still does not refute the OPV theory.

That scientists such as these continue to make such extravagant claims based on such flimsy evidence not only raises questions about scientific integrity. It also suggests that they are becoming quite desperate to disprove the OPV theory by hook or by crook.

Having ridden the anti-OPV bandwagon for six years or more, such scientists are now perhaps locked into a position of trying to preserve their reputations (and in turn their grants and funding) at all costs.

Edward Hooper. 30 April 2004