Altman, Lawrence K. "Tests Fail to Support Theory on AIDS and Role of Chimpanzees and
Vaccine," New York Times, 12 September 2000, p. A12.
Tests have failed to support a theory that the worldwide AIDS epidemic was touched off because
an experimental oral polio vaccine used in Africa more than 40 years ago was made from
chimpanzee tissue, scientists reported yesterday in London.
The texts do not conclusively disprove that possibility, however, because other vaccines for
which samples were not kept could have been made from chimpanzee cells. The tests leave the
mystery of the origins of AIDS unsolved.
Last year, in his book "The River," a British journalist, Edward Hooper, advanced the
provocative theory that such a vaccine might have been made with chimpanzee tissue
contaminated with an ancestor of the virus that was to cause AIDS. The theory is based in part on
the general scientific belief that H.I.V.-1 derives from a simian virus in chimpanzees. H.I.V.- 1
has cause an overwhelming majority of the cases of AIDS and H.I.V. infection.
Mr. Hooper suggested that the contamination might have come from an experimental oral polio
vaccine prepared at the Wistar Institute, a research center in Philadelphia. Scientific papers
published at the time did not say what primate tissues were used to make the vaccine, Mr.
Hooper wrote. The institute has denied that its scientists used chimpanzee cells to prepare the
After the theory was raised in 1992 in an article in Rolling Stone, the institute appointed an
independent committee led by Dr. Claude Basilico, chairman of the microbiology department at
New York University, to look into the history. The panel recommended testing the remaining
vaccine stores. Wistar did not carry out the tests then, it has said, because of a lack of scientific
interest. Mr. Hooper's thesis was not widely accepted, but it led to calls for tests.
In February, Wistar provided the tiny quantities of remaining polio vaccine to Dr. Vincent
Racaniello at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. He divided and
coded the samples before delivering them to researchers at three independent laboratories, Dr.
Shirley Kwok at Roche Molecular Systems in Pleasanton, Calif.; Dr. Svante Paabo at the Max
Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany; and Dr. Simon Wain-Hobson at the Pasteur Institute in
Dr. Kwok tested the samples for the presence of H.I.V. and S.I.V., it simian cousin. Dr. Paabo
tested for the presence and species origin of two types of DNA. One comes from the nucleus, the
other from mitochondria, which generate energy in the cell and are specific to a given species.
Dr. Wain-Hobson did both.
The labs also tested samples from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Federal
agency in Atlanta prepared samples that included old vaccine that it had stored.
The tests identified DNA from one species of primate the Asian macaque monkey, not the
chimpanzee in the Wistar samples. Dr. Basilico told the meeting in London.
He said, "There is nothing in the results to support the theory that H.I.V. entered the human
population" during the polio clinical trials.
Even if the scientists had found evidence of a chimpanzee virus in the samples tested, that would
not have proved that the virus started the epidemic. One theory is that simian viruses passed to
humans in blood-to-blood contact like a cut during the killing of chimpanzees. But if so, it is not
known why widespread transmission apparently did not begin until the 1950s.