Influential but shifty AIDS researcher Robert Gallo offered up the African green monkey theory back in the late 1980s, claiming a virus carried by those animals jumped species to infect humans. More sinister theories abound, especially on the Internet. Did HIV develop accidentally ... or was it created deliberately? Some people sincerely believe the virus is the result of biological experiments and created by cancer researchers under the auspices of a federally funded Special Cancer Virus Program (SCVP) -- yes, that actually existed back in the 1960s and '70s. Others contend HIV is a deadly germ that escaped from a secret CIA laboratory. And officials of the former Soviet Union once publicly claimed that Russian scientists had worked with a U.S. Army biological warfare unit to create the virus.
One theory links the origin of HIV to the 1970s, when government-sponsored hepatitis B vaccine experiments used thousands of gay men as guinea pigs in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- the same cities that became the first ones to report AIDS cases. Another theory suggests that HIV can be traced to the testing of an oral polio vaccine given to about a million people in two central African countries (the former Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi) in the late 1950s. Since the hepatitis B and oral polio vaccines were derived in some part from chimpanzee cell cultures, it's easy to see how and why people would leap to the conclusion that the vaccine batches were contaminated with a chimp form of HIV known as SIV that then simply evolved into the new human virus. Some theories, like these, live on long after they have been discredited.
It has been generally accepted for years that HIV is probably a descendant of SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) because certain strains of SIV resemble HIV-1 and HIV-2, the two types of HIV found in the world. Robert Gallo's African green monkey theory about HIV jumping species was the explanation embraced by people who like science, not conspiracies. Problem: There was never any science to substantiate Gallo's theory. Nevertheless, scores of people just assumed a green monkey bit some native on the ass in an African jungle and that's what got this party started.
Finally, in 1999, there was science. A research team led by Paul Sharp of the UK's Nottingham University and Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama in Birmingham made a dramatic discovery during the course of a ten-year-long study into the origins of the virus. They identified a strain of SIV nearly identical to HIV-1 in a frozen tissue specimen taken from a captive member of the sub-group of chimpanzees known as Pan troglodytes, common in west-central Africa. They believed the specimen -- from "Marilyn," a chimp who died at a U.S. Air Force primate center in 1984 -- proved chimpanzees were the source of HIV-1 and that the virus must have eventually crossed species from chimps to humans. Further research suggested wild chimps had been infected simultaneously with two different SIVs that merged to form a third virus that could be passed on to other chimps and was capable of infecting humans and causing AIDS. These two different viruses were traced back to SIVs that infected red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys. The mutation took place inside chimps that had become infected with both strains of SIV after they killed and ate the two smaller species of monkey. (Alternate conspiracy theory version: the U.S. Air Force created HIV in monkeys at a super-secret primate lab!)
Earlier this year, University of Alabama's Beatrice Hahn revealed that her international scientific research team had spent years engaged in dirty work -- collecting and testing 1,300 feces samples from wild apes in Africa and the dense jungles of southern Cameroon. Hahn and her colleagues were able to locate SIV antibodies in the feces and genetically trace the primate version of the virus right back to the Pan troglodytes of southern Cameroon. How it made the leap to humans is open to speculation. Maybe someone in rural Cameroon was bitten by a chimp or was cut while butchering one and became infected with the simian virus; that person passed it to someone else. (Alternate conspiracy theory version: Some sick, horny anthropologist had sex with a Pan troglodyte and then spread the new virus to thousands of unsuspecting sexual partners all over the world!)
"We're 25 years into this pandemic," said Beatrice Hahn in an interview with the Associated Press. "We don't have a cure. We don't have a vaccine. But we know where it came from. At least we can make a check mark on one of those." But the news didn't get a whole lot of media attention. Reaction was tepid at best. You would at least expect to hear from America's religious relics, like Pat Robertson, warning us that this whole SIV-HIV thing is what we get for dressing chimps up in little outfits and giving them featured roles in movies and TV shows; or Jerry Fallwell, railing against promiscuous homosexual African monkeys who must forsake their Godless ways, start reading the Bible and post copies of the Ten Commandments on jungle trees. And there were no surly talking heads either, like FOX News channel's resident windbag Bill O'Reilly, screeching -- like a howler monkey -- about how chimps are evil carriers of SIV, a biological weapon of mass destruction that might very well wipe us out unless will kill every last one of those damn dirty apes first!
And where is Hollywood? Surely someone in that business can see the big-screen or miniseries potential in this story. Meryl Streep as Dr. Beatrice Hahn, Professor of Medicine and Microbology -- can't you see that? Or maybe Charlize Theron; she already won an Oscar for portraying an unattractive lesbian serial killer, so she could probably handle the nuances of a role that has a lot to do with chimp poop. But maybe Hollywood is afraid to tell this story because they can't explain exactly how SIV got into a human and then became HIV. Well, they could just leave that part out the same way the people who gave us that big, loud remake of King Kong failed to show us how they got that enormous ape on a boat and safely back to New York.
But really, does anyone care about this story? Why, beyond curiosity, should it matter? Well, identifying the source of the HIV pandemic fills in a big piece of the puzzle. If researchers can figure out how the virus infects these chimpanzees and why it does not appear to cause disease in such a similar genetic species, those answers may be useful to humans. But then people don't like this complex science stuff much. We do love our conspiracy theories though. No matter what scientists discover about HIV, some will cling to the belief that it's a man-made virus designed to annihilate people of African descent, or gays ... or both. Ask around and you may even find someone who thinks the World Health Organization triggered the AIDS pandemic through a contaminated smallpox immunization program years ago. It's just no fun, maybe even a little disappointing, to have to hold a bunch of cute chimpanzees responsible for all this.
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads Conscious Sex presentations for men and women and has facilitated workshops for people living with HIV since 1994. firstname.lastname@example.org.