HIV from polio vaccine?

There is a theory that HIV first infected humans through contaminated polio vaccine. This theory has recently had a new surge of interest with the publication of The River : A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS. It seems like the attention from this book will result in a definitive examination of this theory soon.

The following information is somewhat out of date, but may still be useful.

                   Michael Howe, MSLS, Editor
                     AIDS Information Center
                VA Medical Center, San Francisco
                     (415) 221-4810 ext 3305
                          July 17, 1992
                      DEBATE ON AIDS ORIGIN
     An article featured in Rolling Stone magazine (March 19, 1992)
that addresses the origin of AIDS has prompted a lot of
controversy.  Tom Curtis' article, "The Origin of AIDS,"
hypothesizes that HIV first entered humans in Africa via an oral
polio vaccine widely administered in the late 1950s.  Some
researchers argue that the article's hypothesis is not impossible
because simian viruses were found to taint some early polio
vaccines.  However, most AIDS researchers believe the hypothesis
is inaccurate.  The article explains how Hilary Koprowski, former
director of Philadelphia's Wistar Institute and one of the pioneers
of the polio vaccine, may have administered an HIV-contaminated
oral vaccine which was used to control polio epidemics in the
Belgian Congo--now comprised of Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi--and
later used widely in Poland and Switzerland. Curtis indicates that
HIV infection may have transpired via mucosal cells, lesions in the
mouth, or through aerosolized virus trickling into the lungs. 
Curtis also suggests Kaprowski believed that uninfected macaques
from India and the Philippine were used, but the macaques may have
contracted SIV while caged with other infected animals. (Science.
1992 Mar 20;255(5051):1505).
   PHILADELPHIA (UPI) -- The Wistar Institute, an independent
research facility on the University of Pennsylvania campus, is
assembling a research team to test a theory that AIDS originated
more than 30 years ago.  Wistar Director Giovanni Rovera said he
is in the process of assembling a team of researchers to evaluate
the theory which was presented in a Rolling Stone article.  The
article speculates that HIV may have been present in tissue from
a monkey kidney used by Dr. Hilary Koprowski to grow a polio
vaccine distributed in the Belgian Congo.
    Koprowski is quoted in the article as saying that samples of
the original vaccine are still preserved in freezers at Wistar.
Lisa Dominici, a Wistar spokeswoman, said if the specimens are
located, scientists should be able to determine if they contain
HIV. But she said most experts agree it is highly unlikely that the
current AIDS epidemic originated from a contaminated monkey kidney.
"The article is highly speculative and the overwhelming reaction
from the scientific community is that it's totally unreasonable,"
Dominici said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to dismiss it.
We plan to handle this in a responsible way." 
(UPI, March 19, 1992).
   A blue-ribbon panel of six scientists has been appointed to
evaluate a theory that AIDS originated in a batch of polio vaccine
prepared at the Wistar Institute and distributed in Africa. Wistar
Director Giovanni Rovera said he appointed the panel "in the
interest of responsible scientific research and accurate
reporting," after the theory appeared in the March 19 issue of
Rolling Stone magazine. 
   The committee is co-chaired by Dr. Claudio Basilico, chairman
of the microbiology department at New York University's School of
Medicine and Frank Lilly, a molecular genetics professor at Albert
Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The other committee
members include Ronald Desrosiers, professor of microbiology and
molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School; David Ho, director
of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and a microbiology
professor at New York University Medical Center; Eckard Wimmer,
chairman of the microbiology department of the School of Medicine
of State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Clayton Buck,
professor and director of scientific development at the Wistar
Institute. (UPI, April 13, 1992).
 From the Food and Drug Administration:
    Recently several stories have appeared in the media linking
early polio vaccine trials to the origin or spread of the AIDS
virus.  The Public Health Service has seen no convincing evidence
to support this alleged connection or even indicates that it is
remotely possible.  On the contrary, PHS, the World Health
Organization and all other leading medical authorities who have
evaluated this question have concluded that the polio vaccine does
not and has never posed a risk of transmitting the AIDS virus or
any related virus. 
    The theory which alleges that polio vaccine is linked to the
spread of AIDS, postulates that kidneys from monkeys infected with
various retroviruses are, or were, used in the production of polio
vaccine.  According to the theory, this rendered the vaccine
capable of infecting humans with the AIDS virus.
    There are several factors which refute the credibility of this
    -  Monkey kidneys are used as cultures for producing polio
vaccine, but these monkeys are not infected with the simian
immunodeficiency virus (SIV)---a retrovirus which affects monkeys. 
The absence of this retrovirus in these monkeys in the United
States is assured, in that only monkeys from SIV-free colonies are
used.  Every monkey is tested for antibodies to SIV.
    -  Even with regard to older polio vaccines produced in kidney
cells from monkeys that may have been infected (before modern
screening tests were available), extensive evidence indicates that
these vaccines did not contain or transmit SIV. Such vaccines were
tested by various laboratory techniques, and no SIV was detected.
Individuals vaccinated with such vaccines have been tested and
found not to have antibodies to SIV.  In addition, multiple efforts
to recover SIV from kidney cells have failed, and  attempts to get
SIV to replicate in monkey kidney cells exposed to a highly
infectious inoculum have also failed.
     -  There are no reliable scientific data which indicate that
the AIDS virus originated from monkey retroviruses. 
    -  The World Health Organization has stated that there is no
evidence of transmission of SIV to humans via polio vaccine. 
    In summary, several avenues of research show that the theory
that links the polio vaccine to the origin or spread of AIDS does
not make much sense from a virologic standpoint.  Additionally, the
theory does nothing to explain the known epidemiology of the AIDS
pandemic, and therefore provides no substantive insight into the
real origin or nature of AIDS. 
    The existence of this unsubstantiated theory should not deter
people from receiving needed polio vaccinations.  Polio is a very
real infectious disease which has killed and crippled millions
throughout the world.  Global  polio vaccine immunization efforts
have saved literally millions of lives, particularly in the Third
World, and should not be undermined by sensationalized speculation.
(FDA Release, April 6, 1992).
"Origins of HIV" 
Lancet (07/04/92) Vol. 340, No. 8810, P. 58  (Neal, Keith)  
     The urbanization of Africa may explain how two sexually
transmitted strains of HIV suddenly appeared and quickly prompted
an epidemic, writes Keith Neal of the Westbrook House in Sheffield,
U.K.  Neal disputes Professor Lecatsas's and Professor Alexander's
conclusion that the simultaneous incidence of HIV-1 and HIV-2 is
proof that the contamination of poliovirus vaccine was the origin
of AIDS.  Neal argues that changes that occurred in Africa since
the end of colonialism have affected the HIV epidemic, especially
rapid urbanization across the continent and a mass movement of
people due to civil war and starvation.  HIV-1 and HIV-2 were
brought into the cities and towns through the erosion of tribal
traditions and the resulting increase in sexual freedom, the
encouragement of multiple sex partners, the rise in poverty among
women leading to increasing numbers turning to prostitution, and
the rising demand for prostitution spurred by the migrant worker
system.  In addition, the developing road system transported the
virus across the continent as indicated by high rates of infection
among truck drivers.
"Origins of HIV"
Lancet (06/06/92) Vol339, No.8806, P.1427 (Lecatsas, G. and
Alexander, J.J.)
      Due to the circumstantial evidence regarding the possibility
that the poliovirus vaccine could have been the origin of AIDS, to
ignore it would be ethically and scientifically wrong, write G.
Lecatsas and J.J. Alexander of the Medical University of Southern
Africa in Medunsa, South Africa.  In the March 7 edition of the
Lancet, Kyle discussed the possibility of HIV's origin lying in
poliovaccines, an idea that was proposed in 1989 and again at the
International Congress of Virology in Berlin, in August, 1990.
Lecatsas and Alexander have tested a healthy vervet monkey for
major HIV-1 antigens and the results were positive.  Using this
animal's tissue for human vaccine production would be unethical. 
But this could have happened several times because monkey kidney
tissue was first used in poliovaccine production in the 1950s. 
These cultures could boost the growth of retroviruses.  HIV can
infect certain CD4 cells and there is evidence that some mouse and
simian fibroblast cultures encompass the CD4 antigen.  A man with
the simultaneous occurrence within the past 30 years of HIV-1 and
HIV-2, which are distantly related in evolutionary-terms, indicates
contamination since closer relatives to the human strains exist in
non-human primates, the authors conclude.
"Possible Origins of AIDS" 
Science (05/29/92) Vol. 256, No. 5061, P. 1259  (Fox, Cecil H.)  
    Jon Cohen's article on "the origin of AIDS from polio vaccine"
did not consider more complex alternative theories, writes Cecil
H. Fox in a letter to Science.  One explanation could be that rural
Africans supplement their diet by hunting and eating small wild
animals, frequently simians who carry simian immunodeficiency virus
(SIV).  Those Africans who hunt these animals occasionally injure
themselves while preparing the carcasses, and animal blood has
possibly entered human tissues through inadvertent cuts.  If a
villager was infected with an animal virus in the years before the
1960s, others in the village could have also acquired the
infection, which translates to HIV.  Another hypothesis involves
the parental or mucosal exposure of up to 400 million people to
vaccines made from crude extracts of primary cultures of monkey
tissues from 1952-1982.  There is evidence that either HIV or SIV
can grow in cultured lymphocytes  or macrophages that may accompany
industrial cultures of epithelium taken from wild monkeys and used
in polio vaccines, concludes Fox.
"The Source of HIV?" 
Advocate (05/05/92) No. 602, P. 33  (Delaney, Martin) 
     All of the speculation over whether or not HIV originated from
polio vaccines of the 1950s is just a distraction from the real
issues of AIDS, writes Martin Delaney of Project Inform, a
nonprofit gay foundation that supplies AIDS treatments worldwide.
Researchers have considered that a similar strain of HIV from
monkeys somehow jumped species.  The new theory states that the
virus could have made its way into polio vaccines tested in central
Africa in the late 1950s, a time when there was no means to screen
for HIV.  Researchers are arguing over whether to test the
remaining samples of the vaccines for traces of HIV-like virus. If
the vaccines are found to be tainted it would not alter the AIDS
epidemic or improve precautions in future vaccines development.
However, it would impose a burden of remorse on people in the '50s
who wished to save the world from polio.  Testing the vaccines
might be the only way to end speculation, but is not worth the
negative impact it could have,  Delaney concludes. 
"Origin of AIDS" 
Lancet (04/04/92) Vol. 339, No. 8797, P. 867  (Schulz, Thomas F.)
     The implication that poliovirus vaccine lots were the source
of the AIDS epidemic at present lacks any factual basis, writes
Thomas F. Schulz of the Institute of Cancer Research in London,
U.K.  In the March 7 Lancet, Kyle hypothesized that retrovirus
particles were present in some lots of oral poliovirus vaccine
grown on African green monkey cells and that there may be a link
to the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) isolated from these
monkeys.  While this SIV (agm) is a lentivirus like HIV-1 and HIV-2
it belongs to a different group.  SIV (cpz), isolated from
chimpanzees, is the closest primate relative of HIV-1 found in
free-living monkeys.  Viruses related to SIV (agm) have never been
found in humans.  Although the SIV (agm) isolates are more
divergent than isolates from the other lentivirus groups, they can
still be grouped separately and differ from the HIV-1/SIV (cpz).
If the retroviral particles observed in certain poliovirus vaccine
lots were SIV (agm) virions (not C-type viruses), they cannot be
the origin of HIV-1 and HIV-2, Schulz concludes. 
"Origins of a Plague" 
U.S. News + World Report (03/30/92) Vol.112, No.12, P.50 (Brownlee,
     Many theories exist as to how the AIDS epidemic originated.
The most recent, published in Rolling Stone magazine, involves a
polio vaccine that carried the simian version of HIV. The
controversial idea has been widely derided by most scientists as
simplistic and unprovable.  However, the hypothesis does reveal
one major point of consensus: African monkeys are almost  certainly
the source of the virus.  The Rolling Stone story told of Hilary
Kaprowski, former director of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia,
who was racing to develop the vaccine that would protect the world
against polio.  Kaprowski created his vaccine from an attenuated
strain of polio virus that could invoke immunity but was too weak
to cause disease.  He manufactured his vaccine by culturing this
weakened strain of polio virus on monkey kidneys, a fertile medium
for the microbe and supposedly the source of simian
immunodeficiency virus.  Kaprowski's vaccine was squirted into
people's mouths and given to at least 200,000 rural Africans in
"A Medical Accident?"
Time (03/16/92) Vol. 139, No., 11, P. 56
     An article published in a recent issue of Rolling Stone
speculates that an oral polio vaccine given to the people of the
Belgian Congo in 1957 may be responsible for the birth of HIV. The
vaccine, developed by Dr. Hilary Koprowski, was made from weakened
polio viruses grown in a culture of monkey kidney cells.
Koprowski's recent recollection that green monkeys--the species
which harbors a virus similar to HIV--were used for the culture,
as well as the coincidence that the Belgian Congo--now Zaire--is
thought to be the place of origin for HIV, led writer Tom Curtis
to hypothesize that the vaccine was contaminated with a virus which
later evolved into HIV.  Among the problems with Curtis' theory are
the time span between the use of the vaccine and the first
incidence of HIV, and the uncertainty over whether HIV can survive
oral ingestion. Testing of the original vaccine, which has been
kept at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute since, will begin shortly,
according to Wistar officials.
"Simian Retroviruses, Poliovaccine, and Origin of AIDS"
Lancet (03/07/92) Vol. 339, No. 8793, P. 600  (Kyle, Walter S.)
     AIDS may have stemmed from the unapproved use of poliovaccine,
contaminated with small numbers of type-C retrovirus, for the
treatment of herpetic lesions, a sexually transmitted condition
often noted in early case histories of homosexual men who died of
AIDS, writes Walter S. Kyle.  A decade ago, simultaneous outbreaks
of Kaposi's sarcoma and serious opportunistic infections were
reported among homosexual men, especially in New York City, San
Francisco, and Los Angeles.  In 1982, Centers for Disease Control
reported that the coincidence of Kaposi's sarcoma and Pneumocystis
carinii pneumonia "strongly suggests the occurrence of a single
epidemic of underlying immunosuppression in homosexual men." Essex
and colleagues reported that the African green monkey, the species
used in the production of most live poliovaccine in the United
States, was a reservoir of simian immunodeficiency virus. Whether
virus particles found in those vaccine lots were HIV or a variant
of HIV can be tested by using the polymerase chain reaction, Kyle
"Origin of AIDS"
Lancet (12/21-28/91) Vol. 338, No. 8782/8783, P. 1604  (Gebhardt,
     The November 28 edition of Nature's commentary entitled "AIDS,
monkeys, and malaria" indicated that primate retroviruses may have
been transmitted to a man or other monkeys as an outcome of
experiments with primate malarias, writes D.O.E. Gebhardt of the
Department of Clinical Chemistry at the University Hospital in
Liden, Netherlands.  The same week an editorial in the Lancet on
"New Glands for Old" appeared which referred to the work of Serge
Voronoff, who transplanted monkey glands into the scrota of
hypogonadal males.  These men could have contracted HIV.  Voronoff
described a 65-year-old man who needed a second graft as "having
been over-prodigal of the vital energy supplied him by the old
one." It would be catastrophic if this transplant were the origin
of the AIDS epidemic, Gebhardt concludes.
"Origin and Spread of AIDS"
Nature (12/13/91) Vol. 348, No. 6302, P. 578  (Karpas, A.)
     Human AIDS very likely began as a lentivirus that naturally
infected African monkeys until cross-species transfer occurred
through sexual practices involving human inoculation with monkey
blood for a supposed aphrodisiac effect, writes A. Kaspar of the
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.  HIV-2 shares roughly 75
percent homology with SIV, indicating simian immunodeficiency virus
(SIV) infections could have given rise to AIDS in West African men.
Furthermore, a lentivirus recently isolated from a chimp may be the
missing link between HIV-1 and SIV.  Hundreds of years of European
and Asian slave trade in Africa produced no evidence of HIV
infection, so the spread in Africa is a recent event. Epidemiologic
evidence indicates the disease has spread since World War II via
syringes and needles from the West and injectable antibiotics,
extensive migration in Africa, and sexual contacts overseas. More
than a dozen cases of other SIV infections of humans indicate the
possibility of trans-species infection, in which a virus benign in
monkeys becomes deadly in humans, Karpas writes.
"Origin of AIDS"
Nature (05/16/91) Vol. 351, No. 6323, P. 179  (Lecatsas, G.)
     In a letter to Nature, A. Karpas was premature in singling out
African tribal customs as the origin of AIDS in man, writes G.
Lecatsas of the Department of Microbiology, Medical University of
Southern Africa, South Africa.  African tribal customs are old and
the disease is new.  Karpas also fails to mention the use of
tissues from African monkeys carrying simian HIV counterparts in
vaccination programs in Africa after World War II, concomitant to
the introduction of syringes on the continent.  Karpas omits
documented evidence of poliovirus transmission to man via vaccine
preparations from monkey tissues, as well as the possibility of
recombinant simian viruses or endogenous human retroviruses.  Poor
health conditions in developing countries also make widespread
infection likely in Africa, as well as in Brazil and Thailand. "The
evidence pointing to Africa [as] the origin of AIDS is tenuous at
best," Lecatsas writes, and, because of social repercussions, it
is "biased" and imprudent to single out African peoples and customs
as the agents of a tragic pandemic. 
You may also want to examine:
Duh, Samuel V. Blacks and AIDS: Causes and Origins. Sage, 1991.
152p (Sage series on race and ethnic relations, 3). $19.95.
A review of this book appeared in the first transmission of
the "AIDS Book Review Journal" by H. Robert Malinowsky.  For a
different perspective, however, see my review of this book in
the January, 1992 edition of CHOICE magazine.

Ken Shirriff:
This page: Copyright 2000 Ken Shirriff.