What is old is new: absurd reactions to the origins of HIV

Sequestered in Indonesia, I’ve let pass many interesting stories in the past week — I’ll get around to circumcision, Nobel prizes and pornography bills soon, really. One story I didn’t expect to revisit was the “news” that HIV has been with us for a century or more. But it has caused such a stir that I’m picking up the spoon. What amazes me is not the story, but some of the irrational “are-you-saying-I-have-sex-with-monkeys?” reactions to it.

The oldest know tissue sample containing HIV dates from 1959 — it comes from Congo and was described in (wicked, pay-per-view) Nature in 1998. Scientists have since compared different strains of the virus and guesstimated from the divergence between them (and from comparison with the related monkey-version of the virus SIV) when HIV first emerged. They put the date in the early 1930s. Now another sample has emerged, also from Congo, from a woman who died in 1960. Comparison between this and the 1959 sample has turned the clock back three decades. Analysts of the new old sample now say they think HIV emerged around 1900.

Should that change how we think about HIV? Not really. It is a virus that emerged in the forests of Congo at a time when Leopold, King of the Belgians, was wreaking his uber-hypocritical havoc in the region. (Anyone with the slightest interest in the cynical pursuit of personal enrichment would do well to read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. It turns out that political lobbying by foreign powers in Washington is as old as HIV.) Leopold’s oversized ego was blown up with rubber tapped from the forests — tappers were sent in large numbers into areas that had not previously been much visited, and it is probably this that allowed the virus to cross from simians to humans. They then carried their wares back to cities and had sex, and so began the spread of HIV. Belgians were not, however, very efficient colonists. Infrastructure in Congo remains poor to this day, population density is relatively low and travel is difficult. Not surprising then, that the virus was slow to emerge. Not surprising, either, that when it did filter out, it did not begin to spread in earnest until it found its way into pools of people who had a high turnover of partners and relatively risky sexual practices. In other words, gay men celebrating their sexual emancipation in the bars and bathhouses of the west.

No coincidence either that in the African epidemic, where HIV is spread largely in unprotected sex between men and women who each have more than one partner on the go in any two or three month period, the virus spread fastest in the countries with the best infrastructure — South Africa, Botswana and (until the recent meltdown) Zimbabwe. The possibility that HIV existed at low levels in other countries long before it reached a critical mass makes me think twice about early accounts of untreatable patients. Check out, for example, Paul Theroux’s account of his work in a leper colony in Malawi, published in Granta 48. If AIDS wasn’t described in Africa until it had been identified in San Francisco, it was probably because it went unnoticed against a background thick with mysterious bugs and early death.

How is it that people get so uptight about these simple facts? To judge from some of the early readers’ comments on the Nature news pages (now also disgracefully charging for content) scientists cannot describe infection in Africa without being called racist. Some samples:

“HIV is older than your great-grandparents, uh-huh! And I’ll bet that the US bio weapons effort is just ecstatic about this deflection. So now these members of science play to the bio-jackboot population controllers with this ‘revelation’ that those sex-crazed Africans of course just couldn’t stop themselves from pulling chimpanzees (I thought the original scientific theory was “green monkeys”) out of the trees for a quickie. ”

“This is one of the most stupid discovery I have ever heard. You will blame every single human plague on Africa, This is against all the Theories of evolutionary biology where The descents of the people that lived in the area might have developed a kind of resistance instead of being vulnerable to a new strain of the Virus. This is very disturbing, what about all the Slaves you moved around to the Western Hemisphere? What about all the sailors and rapist colonial administrator? How come they did not bring it back to Europe and spread it all over Europe? Please stop insulting our intelligence.”

All I can say is, with intelligence like that…

One of the interesting things about this paper was the forensic epidemiology work it describes. The sample was pretty mashed up, but new technology allowed useable bits of virus to be extracted from abused tissue locked up in paraffin. For those of you who can’t access the Nature story about the paper (beautifully written by Heidi Ledford) here’s a taste. It includes a quote from Mike Worobey, who led the research, which illustrates the mash-up nicely.

The samples had all been treated with harsh chemicals, embedded in paraffin wax and left at room temperature for decades. The acidic chemicals had broken the genome up into small fragments. Formalin, a chemical used to prepare samples for microscopy, had crosslinked nucleic acids with protein. “It’s as if you had a nice pearl necklace of DNA and RNA and protein and you clumped it together, drenched it in glue and then dried it out,” says Worobey.

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This post was published on 11/10/08 in Science.

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  1. Comment by Kevin, 11/10/08, 10:41:

    “allowed the virus to cross from simians to humans”
    Well I am curious, how precisely did it cross from simians to humans? Presumably as it wouldn’t be needle sharing it has to be sex, but this presents problems as due to the different distribution of muscle fibre types in simians and humans apes are far stronger than us (by 3 or 4 times) humans are built for stamina, apes for short intense activity – even a group of men holding down a chimp to rape it would be a challenge, especially in view of those long nasty canine teeth!
    The only option I can think of that seems remotely feasible is to shoot the ape then indulge with the dead body, but am I missing something or did the Belgians really leave a trail of dead abused chimps across the Congo?

  2. Comment by Roger, 11/10/08, 05:22:

    The way by which the virus crossed from simian to human is still unexplained, but after it did, the way (or at least one) it developped into a killer disease for human can be found in “The River”, a book that interestingly challenged the fact that HIV causes AIDS. For the author of the River (whose name I have forgotten) it was the vaccination campaign in Africa that created AIDS. He was not completely wrong… as vaccination campaign when done with a single needle used to inject hundred of people provide a perfect way to infect and reinfect a population…

    Another way is the rapid development or towns during the colonisation process that brough together a large number of people who whilst sexually mixing together provided a highway for HIV development.

  3. Comment by Michael Smith, 13/10/08, 01:00:

    Even today, monkeys are a major source of protein for under-nourished people in the Congo region. It’s an activity which gets the hunter (who is quite likely to have a sore festering, or some kind of untreated wound) more or less covered in blood.

  4. Comment by Roger, 18/10/08, 11:38:

    There is only one problem with the horizontal cross species transmission: Pygmies in central Africa have been killing and eating chimp that can be infected with a close relative of HIV for 5000 years and still do so and there has never been anything reported that would looks like AIDS until very recently. Beside, HIV prevalence in Pygmy community is very low, unless they are in contact with Town people.

    It may be that cross species contamination has occured and was followed by genetic changes leading to HIV, but that has yet to be proved. We might never know how it happened, and I am not sure it matters beyond the acadmic interest.

  5. Comment by Patrick, 22/10/08, 12:04:


    Further to Michael’s comments, the point is that you don’t have to have sex or share needles with a monkey for your bodily fluids to come into contact with theirs. Killing an infected simian (whether ape or monkey), slaughtering one, or even being bitten by one could all do that as well.


    The mainstream theory is that it was the formation of cities in the colonial era that allowed HIV to spread. Previously, if someone in a relatively isolated community, such as a group of pygmies in the foothills of the Rwenzori or on the banks of the Zaire, were to be infected, the disease wouldn’t have much chance of spreading beyond them and their immediate contacts, and would eventually die out. In latter days, cities, roads and the huge displacement of people that followed from colonialisation allowed the disease to spread into much larger communities. We even have two different types of HIV that are believed to have crossed at two different times from different ancestral simian viruses – HIV-1 and HIV-2. Of course, I would agree that the interest is largely academic; but many of the alternative theories are used to block vital medical interventions. (For instance, the polio vaccine theory has led to many people refusing vaccinations, mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases, and is a key factor in the stalling of the Polio Eradication effort in Africa).

  6. Comment by Amanda, 23/10/08, 06:55:

    As part of the generation taught that AIDS is a brand-new, mysterious super-disease, this information is incredibly fascinating to me. Though honestly I never spent much time thinking about its African origins as a ractist statement. Supposedly all life started there, why not disease too?

    Thanks Elizabeth, for this look into history of a major killer. Academic interest, maybe. Learning about the factors of the spread of disease IS interesting to me.


  7. Comment by Carl, 10/11/08, 07:27:

    Have you read the fascinating book “The River: A journey to the Source of HIV/AIDS” by Edward Hooper? The author eventually hypothesizes that an infected specific lot of polio vaccine may have transferred HIV from primates to humans. He was unable to either validate or invalidate this hypothesis, as a sample of that lot is held by the Wistar Institute, and it was not released for testing for the presence of HIV.

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