Sunday, February 06, 2005

Science transparency and the origins of aids

Yesterday at Göteborg Film Festival, I saw an interesting and controversial documentary suggesting that someone else than God or homosexuals is the originator of aids, namely the West. The movie "The origins of AIDS" pictures the 1950's, when there was a race going on in the laboratories in Western countries. Many doctors and researchers wanted to find a cure for the disease that affected millions of people at the time, the polio. With the purpose to develop medicine with the help of tissues from chimpanzee kidneys, a laboratory is built in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo. The vaccine against polio that is developed here, 10A11, was distributed to hundreds of thousands of people in the region. Shortly after this, in 1959, the first cases of HIV and aids are found in these exact regions. This could imply that HIV and aids is the result of the human being's fight against another disease, the polio.

As I'm no virologist, I can't say whether this hypothesis – that the origin of aids is mass vaccination - is likely to be true or not. But being fond of conspiracy theories, I like the message in the movie. The idea that it was Western doctors that transplanted HIV from monkeys to human beings is not new though. Journalists have written about it before, for instance in the Rolling Stone. But their findings and hypothesises were dismissed by scientists. They didn't take the theories very seriously and thus, the Rolling Stone was made to publish an excuse for including the article in one of their issues.

This troubles one of the directors of the documentary, Catherine Peix, who stopped by for a short Q & A session after the film. According to her, the science society dismissed the book containing this theory and upon which the documentary lies (The River by Ed Hooper) in 3 minutes. Researchers didn't even bother to look at it, let alone to challenge the notion that the polio vaccine that was given to people in large scale had its origin in chimpanzee tissues, and thus being a possible carrier of HIV. Neither did the minister of public health in France when the documentary was about to be broadcast on national television. 2 hours before the documentary was to be aired, the minister called the head of the broadcasting channel to stop it, according to Peix.

The obvious ”backing each other up” among researchers bothers Peix. So does the hush-hush around the research for a polio vaccine and the insufficient procedures. An obvious way of testing the hypothesis of the film would be to analyze the vaccine, 10A11, to see if there are traces of SIV and S40 that chimpanzees carry. But, according to Peix, there were no notes taken at all at the laboratory in Leopoldville. Nor are there any samples left of the oral polio vaccine. What is left however is the testimony of villagers that worked in the lab. In the documentary, several former employees say that the vaccine was made out of monkey kidney tissues and thus being a possible carrier of SIV and HIV. But the doctors and researchers from the West who worked there deny this. That's why the director Peix states "Science needs to be transparent. We need to think for our selves, and be careful." She's worried that these same non-transparent procedures, with risk taking, no note-taking and sneaking around, may be employed again, when it comes to organ transplantation to human beings from pigs, for example.

Unfortunately, I missed the debate with Ed Hooper, Catherine Peix and a professor in virology yesterday. I heard that it was far from a dull one.

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