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.

In 1997 Curtis took the job with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston that he holds today: editor of the UTMB Quarterly, a position that calls for him to "translate science into English" in relating the school's achievements to a lay readership. It's an interesting job, he says, a "useful sojourn," with access to topflight scientists and a medical library. Curtis recently penned a brief article describing UTMB research into the HIV-destroying properties of human saliva, a detail of some importance within the OPV-AIDS theory.

The job also serves the more prosaic function of putting food on the table.

"They're hard to do," he says of the sort of time-consuming stories that were once Tom Curtis's specialty. "Nobody who's much of a businessman would do them."

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."

He has discovered, he likes to say, that "you can have two freelance writers and a mortgage in the same house, but not if one of them is writing a book."

Sheehy, most recently, has been the one writing the book, and since it's scheduled for publication in August, there are hints that Curtis may soon throw his journalistic hat back in the ring.

He has a "pile" of ideas for future magazine and/or book projects, including a possible revisitation of the still unreported AIDS treatment idea that initially brought him into Blaine Elswood's orbit, though he plays the details close to the vest. If his "Origin of AIDS" story has taught him anything, and it has, it's that some ideas are literally, not just metaphorically, dangerous.

And "it's true that once burned, twice shy," he says. "There are not all that many outlets out there willing to take on an edgy story. It's a hard thing to do, so you've got to be very strategic about it. Sometimes you can't tell a story until the public is ready to hear it, until the outlets are ready to hear it."

The reception to Hooper's book seems to indicate that now, eight years after Tom Curtis wrote his story, the public may finally be ready to hear about it. For Curtis, there's a certain vindication in that fact.

"It's not easy to be denounced. On the other hand, you've got to be fairly confident going in that you're right. I'm very glad that Edward Hooper wrote his book. He treats me very kindly, and I appreciate that. But I especially appreciate the fact that he demonstrated that you cannot permanently keep an important idea down."

Hooper, for his part, thinks "Tom deserves enormous credit for two things, apart from the original article. One is for keeping the issue on the boil in the American press for the remainder of 1992. And the second was in getting such a remarkable result -- it was largely his article that was responsible -- from the Wistar Institute panel when they made the conclusion that we should rethink the ways that monkey kidney tissue culture was used in human medical preparations."

Curtis downplays his contribution as "a small blip" on the national radar.

"I really feel," he says, "in some sense, that I failed."

After all, he says, regardless of the Wistar recommendation, polio vaccines are still manufactured using monkey kidney, just as they always were (though all recognized SIVs, to be sure, have been screened out for decades).

And while Edward Hooper may have introduced the OPV-AIDS theory to a broader audience and increased respectability, the debate his book engenders is still largely mired in the question of whether or not Dr. Hilary Koprowski's experimental vaccinations inadvertently sparked the epidemic. And in its specifics, Curtis thinks, the truth or falsity of that proposition, as he pointed out in his original article, is almost beside the point.

The point -- the proposition that Curtis has yet to see disproved -- is that accidental contamination of vaccines can and have introduced unknown nonhuman viruses into large human populations. And the moral of that story is that without a free and open discussion of how that happens, it could happen again.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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