The Man Who Knew Too Soon?

Eight years ago Tom Curtis reported that AIDS could have been spread by an experimental polio vaccine grown on monkey kidneys. Scientists sniffed. Journalists scoffed. The story died. Now, a new book says the theory wasn't so stupid after all.

It was a very Tom Curtis sort of story: hidden, mysterious, well beneath the radar of the national press corps, not a little bit hard to believe, and gravid with implication.

On the plane Curtis found himself sitting next to a man wearing a Rice University graduation ring, and Curtis, whose Texas Monthly editors were Rice men, struck up a conversation. The man turned out to be a scientist, and he validated, in theory, some of the biological foundations of the subject for a skeptical and "science-averse" Curtis.

As the flight wore on and the conversation ranged to other topics, the stranger referred Curtis to a California AIDS activist by the name of Blaine Elswood, who was said to have knowledge of an effective and unreported AIDS treatment.

Tom Curtis on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston.
Tom Curtis on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston.
The River author Edward Hooper  -  "97 percent persuaded."
John Wolstenholme
The River author Edward Hooper - "97 percent persuaded."

Curtis later contacted Elswood in San Francisco, where he was working as an administrative assistant -- "basically just a secretary," Elswood says now -- at the University of California/San Francisco Medical School, and helping set up guerrilla AIDS self-treatment clinics on the side.

Elswood told Curtis about his AIDS treatment story, but Curtis, still at Texas Monthly, couldn't find a regional hook for that tale. The two stayed in touch, though, and in the fall of 1991 Elswood tipped Curtis to another possible story that he had uncovered in his library research.

"I was living in Houston at the time," Curtis recalls, "and I had a mail slot in the door, and there was sort of a loud crash through the mail slot, and a heavy envelope fell out, and what was in the envelope was a series of journal articles with this note pinned on top that said, 'Tom, this is a bombshell story just waiting for an investigative reporter.' "

If, up to that point, Curtis had been surfing the crest of a creative flow, the envelope from Elswood set in motion the first eddies of an equally forceful undertow.

The oral polio vaccine, or OPV, theory of AIDS origin is unproved, perhaps unprovable, only one of multiple competing theories, and contrary to the partisan nit-picking and obfuscation its existence has inspired, actually very simple. Its basic premise is this: One or several batches of an early, experimental polio vaccine, which is grown on minced monkey kidney, may have been infected with a then-unknown simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, that survived the vaccine manufacturing process and entered the human population through the inoculation of close to a million Africans in what was the Belgian Congo region between 1957 and 1960, evolving as it crossed the species barrier into human immunodeficiency syndrome, or HIV, which may have infected a large enough percentage of vaccinees to seed the epidemic.

In favor of the theory's legitimacy are a number of known facts and suggestive coincidences.

One: Scientists have long agreed that HIV is a relative of some of the multiple retroviruses known to be present -- for the most part harmlessly -- in nonhuman primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees. The so-called missing link -- the SIV identical to HIV that some scientists suspect is out there -- has yet to be identified, but in February 1999 a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported isolating an SIV in a chimpanzee subspecies native to West Africa that can be closely linked to three major strains of HIV.

Two: The precedent for cross-species transmission of simian viruses to human hosts is long established. Monkey B, a herpes virus expressing only minor symptoms in its monkey hosts, leads to paralysis and often death in humans unfortunate enough to be bitten by a carrier.

Three: The precedent for cross-species transmission of simian viruses to human hosts via polio vaccine is equally well established. The injected vaccine of Dr. Jonas Salk and the sugar-cube vaccine of Dr. Albert Sabin were delivered to an estimated tens of millions of Americans between 1954 and 1963 before it was discovered that a monkey virus named SV-40 had piggybacked its way into the human population in the vaccine. SV-40 has been shown to cause cancer in hamsters, but relatively few studies have been done on the virus's effect on human health. Now that scientists are aware of the existence of SV-40, of course, it is tested for and screened out in the manufacturing process.

Four: As Curtis demonstrated in his article and Hooper expands upon in The River, there exists a remarkable coincidence of both time and place between the estimated origin of the first recorded AIDS outbreaks and the administration of an experimental polio vaccine created by a Dr. Hilary Koprowski, a contemporary and rival of Sabin's and Salk's.

Attached to this basic theory are side issues and blind alleys and tangential evidence and disputed details and clashing interpretations till Tuesday, but these have thus far been unequal to the task of proving the hypothesis as fact, or disproving it as possibility.

Detractors dismiss the OPV-AIDS theory as a whole bunch of maybes. They generally hew to the more widely accepted, but equally unprovable, theory that HIV had for thousands of years jumped the species barrier, now and then, on a small scale, occasionally being transmitted in isolated incidents when maybe a hunter nicked himself while skinning a monkey for food -- the Cut Hunter theory -- but reached epidemic levels only in modern times, when increased travel, urbanization and sexual freedom sparked its spread.

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