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.

Advocates of the OPV theory mock what they call the trucker-meets-prostitute theory and question to what extent newfound sexual freedoms were sweeping the rural African countryside in the late 1950s.

The OPV theory, they say, though admittedly unproved, seems to fit the epidemiology, and, well, what if?

It's that implied "what if" that made so many scientists initially so defensive. A Harvard pathology professor told Curtis that "it's over, it's done with, it's very, very, very unlikely it happened that way." Curtis quoted a doctor with the World Health Organization's AIDS program as saying that "the origin of the AIDS virus is of no importance to science today. Any speculation on how it arose is of no importance."

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."

Science magazine dismissively lumped Curtis's article with previous "wild speculations, many of them heavy with the odor of conspiracy," about the origin of AIDS, going out of its way to color Rolling Stone as a mere "rock-and-roll magazine" and quoting one of Curtis's sources as being unhappy at having been used to serve Curtis's conclusion.

Lost in the smear was the fact that Curtis's article had concluded nothing about the theory other than that it could, conceivably, have happened that way -- a conclusion explicitly, if hesitantly, endorsed in quotes from America's preeminent AIDS researcher at the time, Dr. Robert Gallo.

A panel of scientists convened by Philadelphia's Wistar Institute, employer of Dr. Hilary Koprowski and onetime manufacturer of the vaccine in question, proclaimed the theory's likelihood exceedingly small, and at the same time recommended, in seeming contradiction to its own sense of probability, that polio vaccines should henceforth be grown on human cell lines instead of on monkey kidney, because of the risk of transmitting unknown monkey viruses to humans.

The theory's implications -- however small its likelihood -- were huge. If the OPV-AIDS theory were proved, or even widely accepted, it could seriously dent the public's confidence in medical science's widely assumed infallibility. That same public might begin to question, or even, perhaps tragically, to refuse polio vaccinations under a mistaken impression of risk, and this just as medical science is on the verge of eradicating polio from the planet, like smallpox before it, the second major viral threat to be erased in the 20th century.

What of the geopolitical ramifications, if a naturalized American doctor born in Poland were found to have squirted the AIDS virus, however unwittingly, into the mouths of close to a million Africans, many of them children, with nothing but the permission of a Belgian colonial government and his own place in the race to eradicate polio justifying his actions?

What of the question of legal and moral responsibility toward the infected?

And what of the reputation of Dr. Hilary Koprowski himself, described in Curtis's 1992 article as a "charming, deep-voiced man of seventy-five," alive today and employed as a professor of microbiology and immunology at Thomas Jefferson University? Koprowski is one of the pioneers and heroes of science's victory over polio, undoubtedly one of medicine's most shining moments. By quirks of bureaucracy, luck and fate, doctors Sabin and especially Salk had become household names for their roles in developing the polio vaccine, while Hilary Koprowski was mostly forgotten outside of scientific circles.

He quite reasonably did not want his name revived and remembered as the man who gave the world AIDS.

He didn't want that so very much that Koprowski, a scientist who had helped eradicate polio, sued Tom Curtis, a journalist who had written about an unproved theory, for libel.

It just so happens that Tom Curtis's older brother, Michael Kent Curtis, had become, after an early career as a civil rights lawyer, a professor of constitutional law and free speech issues at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Professor Curtis ended up publishing a paper about his brother's case, titled "Monkey Trials: Science, Defamation, and the Suppression of Dissent," in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal.

Boiled down, the paper's 85 pages convey the elder Curtis's opinion, recently restated, that "the idea of suing people for propounding a scientific hypothesis -- saying, 'This might have happened and it warrants further investigation' -- it's a very disturbing idea, because it has the potential to chill discussion and learning. I'm not an expert in this field, I'm not a biologist, but my horseback opinion, for what it's worth, is nobody knows exactly where AIDS came from, and nobody knows with certainty whether something like what is propounded in this theory might be right or not. But at a minimum, you ought to be able to talk about these things. When you're dealing with things like theories in the natural sciences or theories about how society works, there ought to be very broad protection for such discussion."

The elder Curtis's hunch was never tested, because Koprowski's suit, which also named Rolling Stone as a defendant, was settled out of court for a reported $1 and a "clarification" published in Rolling Stone that bowed and scraped before Koprowski's reputation, reiterated that the article had reported a hypothesis, not a finding, and retracted not a single thing from the text of Curtis's article.

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