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Wistar Scientists Cleared of Hatching AIDS


After years of being dogged by accusations that its top scientists had unwittingly created the AIDS virus while preparing a vaccine against polio, the Wistar Institute—and specifically Dr. Hilary Koprowski, professor laureate and director of the institute from 1957-1991; and Dr. Stanley A. Plotkin, emeritus professor of pediatrics and microbiology—were exonerated by the findings of three independent laboratories. The results were announced by Dr. Claudio Basilico, chairman of microbiology at New York University Medical Center and head of Wistar’s external AIDS/Poliovirus Advisory Committee, at a September meeting of the Royal Society in London titled “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic.”

Dr. Hilary Koprowski

    According to the theory promulgated by British journalist Edward Hooper in his 1999 book The River, an oral polio vaccine prepared at Wistar and administered to people in the then-Belgian Congo in the late 1950s provided the route of transmission for HIV or HIV-related viruses from chimpanzees to humans. Much of Hooper’s thesis was based on the claim that chimpanzee cells were used in the preparation of the vaccine, and Hooper had demanded that the remaining samples of 1950s polio vaccines produced by the Wistar Institute be examined. (A similar theory involving the use of green-monkey kidneys was published in a 1992 article in Rolling Stone magazine by Tom Curtis, and later by the Associated Press; Koprowski sued Curtis and Rolling Stone, as well as AP, and won a monetary settlement and an apology.)
    Koprowski—now professor of microbiology and immunology at Jefferson Medical College and director of the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories and the Center for Neurovirology at Thomas Jefferson University—and Plotkin, now retired, have consistently maintained that no chimpanzee cells were used in the preparation of the vaccine. And the tests—conducted by Roche Molecular Systems in California, Max Planck Institute in Germany, and Institut Pasteur in France—failed to find any evidence to support Hooper’s theory.
    “There is nothing in the results from these tests to support the theory that HIV entered the human population during the late 1950s poliovirus clinical trials in Africa,” said Basilico. “The different tests performed by the three independent laboratories did not find any evidence of SIV [simian immunodeficiency virus] or HIV in the samples, nor did they find chimpanzee DNA.” In fact, he added, the laboratories were able to determine that “all of the Wistar samples were grown in monkey cell cultures rather than chimpanzee cell cultures.”
    “We now know categorically that the events postulated by Mr. Hooper did not happen,” Plotkin concluded, adding: “I’m sure Mr. Hooper will be disappointed by the results of this meeting, but it is now time for all of the scientists present to reassure the public about the safety of vaccination in general and to move on to the important issues of how to prevent AIDS through vaccine development.”
    Despite the new evidence and the fact that a number of the researchers whom he had quoted in support of his theory have since said they were misquoted, Hooper was undeterred, saying: “I feel more confident now about the [oral polio vaccine] theory of AIDS than I ever had.”
    In a joint paper titled “Untruths and Consequences: The False Hypothesis Linking CHAT Type 1 Polio Vaccination to the Origin of HIV,” Plotkin and Koprowsi concluded: “The River is a house of cards built on a swamp of conspiracy theory, unsubstantiated insinuations, and character assassination.”
    Koprowski, noting bitterly that he has been “held out before the world as the father of AIDS and a murderer,” added: “I find it most disturbing that stories about my polio vaccine may threaten the very elimination of this terrible disease. I hope that by the end of this conference I will be acknowledged for my achievements for developing the oral polio vaccine which has saved millions of lives and which has absolutely nothing to do with the dissemination of AIDS.”
    The year 2000, he added, was “supposed to be the year when polio is completely eradicated from this globe”—provided that vaccination in India and Africa could be carried out. “But then enter The River with its tale that vaccination against polio may bring the deadly gift of another disease such as AIDS,” he said, and the result is that “the Catholic Church in Kenya, over the objection of medical authorities, [has] advised mothers not to take their children for polio vaccination as it was contaminated by HIV.”
    “We trust that these results will put to rest any remaining concerns of a link between a Wistar-produced oral polio vaccine and AIDS,” said Dr. Clayton Buck, Wistar’s acting director. “The findings should also serve to restore public confidence in the production and administration of vaccines and in the response of science to public inquiry.”

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