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.

"I certainly lost my momentum on that story," Curtis says now. "And maybe," he admits, "on some others."

Hooper, meanwhile, slowly gained momentum, spending holidays traveling to Africa, Europe and the United States, as Curtis had not been able to afford to do, spending years in medical libraries, where Curtis had spent months.

Hooper's book refines Curtis's theory with seven years of advances in AIDS research, adds to it hundreds of interviews with key and peripheral characters, and presents it behind a foreword by the respected Dr. William Hamilton, Royal Society professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford, who eight years before had written to Curtis praising his story as a "model of science writing" and offering to testify on his behalf in the suit against Koprowski.

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."

Even so buttressed, Hooper says, he received two threatening letters from Koprowski's lawyers in 1995. "And I do know that since the book appeared in Little, Brown's catalog, that the publishers and Time Life Inc. were approached by lawyers representing Koprowski on at least two occasions."

The theory, and its messengers, remain subject to violent disdain in some quarters, but by and large Hooper's book has gained a fairer hearing than Curtis's article. Perhaps that's because of the greater depth of Hooper's research. Perhaps it's because Curtis's article, appearing in a "rock-and-roll magazine," was an easy target for scientists' ridicule, and for Koprowski's suit.

Or perhaps the theory seems more conceivable now that it has been around a while with little or no scientific effort expended to disprove it. The Wistar Institute, since Tom Curtis first posed the question almost eight years ago, has never taken the initiative to test the vaccine stocks supposedly in its possession to try to determine what sort of primate kidney was used to make the vaccine in question, or even to see if the vaccine might contain any monkey viruses. Koprowski has claimed that all official records of the Congo vaccine trials -- records that might help disprove the theory -- were lost "in a move."

Now, though, in the wake of Hooper's book, the Koprowski camp claims to have recovered certain exculpatory documents regarding the Congo trials, excerpts of which it plans to release at some point as yet unspecified in the future. Likewise, it has agreed to make certain of its early vaccine samples available to certain independent researchers for the purpose of performing certain tests, though the particulars have not been announced.

But at this point in the saga, it seems almost not to matter what might be "discovered" in the future. The OPV-AIDS theory may well prove unprovable, but even if it is provable, it will likely never be the object of consensus. As Curtis's article proved, the mainstream scientific community is indisposed to allow the mere discussion of dissident theories, much less their adoption, especially if those theories implicate powerful men in potentially unflattering circumstance.

And as the suspicious passions of dissident theorists such as Blaine Elswood -- who first introduced Tom Curtis to the OPV-AIDS theory -- make clear, the scientific community's secretive and defensive response to challenge has earned the dissidents' lasting distrust.

Edward Hooper says he believes that the proper tests will be conducted and that scientists will gather to consider the issue in an atmosphere of fairness and discovery, that if the theory is provable, it will be proved, and that if it is disprovable, it will be disproved. Hooper is personally, at present, "97 percent persuaded" that the OPV-AIDS theory does in fact describe the mechanism by which HIV first entered the human population on a large scale.

Elswood, now teaching English at Snow College in Colorado, is at least equally certain, but less trusting.

"Do I believe the Wistar is suddenly -- after eight years of controversy and whispering and everything else -- suddenly going to cough up bona fide samples to have them impartially tested? No, of course not. There's an old saying in science: You don't publish your mistakes."

Much of the scientific establishment continues to regard the theory as at best an intriguing long shot.

Curtis, for his part, thinks that "Did it happen?" is less important a question than the growing consensus that it could have. The implications for the expanding medical field of xenotransplantation are daunting. Pigs, for instance, are being genetically engineered to provide replacement hearts for humans. A California man recently, and unsuccessfully, received a bone marrow transplant from a baboon. What sort of viruses, unrecognizable because they're unknown, might be lurking, harmlessly, in a natural host, waiting to wreak havoc when introduced to the human species?

In dealing with such questions, Curtis suspects, the science may be too important to leave to scientists alone. In questions pertaining to public health, the public should be made aware.

In 1994 Curtis and Sheehy moved to Galveston, partly to help care for Curtis's ailing mother. Effectively boxed out of the OPV-AIDS story, Curtis continued freelancing. He wrote a piece about the FDA approval process for Self and covered the Cheerleader Mom story for Redbook and The Washington Post. He wrote and read commentaries for National Public Radio's Marketplace program and worked on a few documentary film scripts for PBS.
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