Excerpted from the book AIDS and Africa: A Case of Racism vs. Science?
AIDS and Africa: Racism vs. Science
By Rosalind Harrison-Chirimuuta and Richard Chirimuuta*

“The possibility of a monkey origin of the AIDS virus cohabits easily with racist notions that Africans are evolutionarily closer to sub-human primates.”


Researchers had originally proposed that AIDS was an "old disease of Africa" that had reached the West via recent intercontinental travel(3), a rather curious notion given the forced intercontinental travel of up to 100 million African slaves in previous centuries(32).

As this hypothesis become increasingly untenable, attention was diverted to the possibility of a monkey origin of the AIDS virus. Such ideas cohabit easily with racist notions that Africans are evolutionarily closer to sub-human primates. Dr. Robert Gallo and his co-workers were among the pioneers of this line of research, both for HTLV-I and HTLV-III, which were later, renamed HIV(5,33,34). Two of Gallo's colleagues, Kanki and Essex, reported the isolation of a virus similar to HIV in macaque monkeys who were suffering from an AIDS-like illness, and labeled it simian T-lymphotropic virus type III (STLV-III) of macaques. (35) For those arguing an African origin of the AIDS virus, an Asian monkey like the macaque was not a suitable source, but less than six months later the same researchers reported finding the virus in "wild-caught" African green monkeys from Kenya and Ethiopia. (36)

This research, like most other research on AIDS in Africa, was motivated only by desire to prove an African origin of the disease, and was greeted with enthusiasm by the Western scientific community. Discussion quickly
moved on to the question of how the virus crossed the species barrier. Two AIDS experts from St Mary's Hospital in London even offered this explanation:

"Monkeys are often hunted for food in Africa. It may be that a hunting accident of some sort, or an accident in preparation for cooking, brought people in contact with infected blood. Once caught, monkeys are often kept
in huts for some time before they are eaten. Dead monkeys are sometimes used as toys by African children." (37)

Are we seriously to believe that African parents are so desperate for toys they give their children putrefying carcasses of dead animals? More fantastic suggestions were published in The Lancet:

"The isolation from monkeys of retroviruses closely related to HIV strongly suggests a simian origin for this virus... Several unlikely hypotheses have been put forward... In his book on the sexual life of people of the Great Lakes area of Africa Kashamura writes: “To stimulate a man or a woman and induce them to intense sexual activity, monkey blood [for a man] or she-monkey blood [for a woman] was directly inoculated in the pubic area and also the thighs and back. These magic practices would therefore constitute an efficient experimental transmission model and could be responsible for the emergence of AIDS in man." (38)

This hypothesis inspired particular derision at the conference on AIDS in Africa held in Naples, Italy in October 1987:

"When queried regarding the plausibility of a premise put forth in a letter to The Lancet suggesting that a bizarre tribal ritual of injecting monkey blood into the pubic region of young African men and women to stimulate intense sexual activity could be responsible for the emergence of AIDS in man, researchers from Zaire, Congo and Belgium were unanimous in declaring it to be preposterous..."(39)

Most Africans, in fact, have little contact with monkeys, (40) and amongst those who regularly hunt monkeys, such as the pygmies of the equatorial rainforests, AIDS is notable for its absence. (41) On the other hand, in recent years there has been a marked increase in contact between man and monkeys not in Africa, but in the West. In the 1920's, the transplantation of monkey testes to humans was widely practiced, and many thousands of men in Europe, America and Australia received this operation that promised to restore their youth and vigor. (42)

Monkeys have been used widely for scientific research, and with the discovery that their kidneys provide excellent tissue culture material for virus isolation, propagation and vaccine production, hundreds of thousands have been caught and transported from their native haunts. (43) If there is any truth in the hypothesis that HIV originated in monkeys (and African monkeys are not the only candidates) it would seem more appropriate to investigate modern medical research than speculate about the customs and behavior of Africans.

Although the African green monkey hypothesis was widely accepted, it came under increasing scientific challenge. Attempts to repeat the Essex and Kanki experiments on other wild African green monkeys were unsuccessful (44) and the genetic sequences of the virus isolated from laboratory macaque monkeys, the virus Essex and Kanki claimed to have isolated from "wild-caught" green monkeys and another supposedly human virus called HTLV-IV, were found to be identical. (45) Essex and Kanki were then obliged to admit that their green monkey virus was a laboratory contaminant. (46)

A retrovirus was eventually isolated from African green monkeys, but it bore little resemblance either to the macaque virus or the human AIDS viruses, and could not have originated from African green monkeys in recent times. (47,48) It is difficult to understand why this virus has been called simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) as it does not cause immune deficiency.

In all this confusion of viruses one question surely needs to be asked: What is the origin of the virus that caused AIDS-like illnesses in laboratory macaque monkeys? This virus does not occur in wild macaque monkeys, but does have some similarity with the human AIDS viruses. Had these monkeys been subjected to experiments with retroviruses, and did the appearance of AIDS-like illnesses in the monkeys predate the human AIDS epidemic?

It is instructive for anyone who still has illusions in the objectivity of science or the integrity of some AIDS researchers to read the October 1988 edition of Scientific American. The issue was devoted to AIDS, and the section titled "The Origins of the AIDS Virus" was written by Essex and Kanki and was illustrated by a full-page color picture of an African green monkey. Eight months after admitting that the African green monkey virus was a laboratory contaminant, Essex and Kanki have the audacity to state:

"Why SIV is endemic in these wild African monkeys but seems to do them no harm, and is also found in the captive Asian macaques, where it causes disease, was (and still is) an enigma..."(49)

Other attempts to implicate Africa in the AIDS epidemic also came to grief. Dr. Anthony Pinching and his team from St Mary's Hospital, London, claimed that a particular genetic variant, the Gc1f allele, predisposed the person
to infection with HIV, and that this variant was common in central Africa. (50)

The Gc1f allele had, in fact, been found to be common in the Bi Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic and the Peuhl Fula of Senegal, ethnically distinct groups in whom AIDS was either rare or notable for its absence, (41) but it would seem to European minds all Africans are the same. This research was reported in the media as a major breakthrough in the search for a cure for AIDS, (41) but a year later, after a number of other laboratories failed to confirm the findings, Dr Pinching admitted that their original data was erroneous. (51) At least Dr Pinching, unlike Dr Bygbjerg and so many other AIDS researchers, had the courtesy to admit his error publicly and apologize to his fellow scientists for the extra work he had caused, although his apologies were not extended to the many Africans whom he had offended.

Although many AIDS researchers now appreciate that they have offended and angered many black people, they remain ignorant of their unconscious racism and continue to give offence. The September 1988 edition of Medicine International was devoted to the subject of AIDS, and as usual there was an article on AIDS in Africa, but no similar discussion about AIDS in any other continent. The authors commented on the problems created by earlier AIDS research in Africa:

"Initial claims that the disease had been present in Africa for long enough for widespread immunity to have developed in exposed populations were false; epidemics of AIDS were as new in Africa as elsewhere. Considerable damage has been done to international research collaboration as a result of these claims." (52)

But later in the same article:

"The scale of the African AIDS epidemic has led to speculation that heterosexual transmission is more efficient in Africa than elsewhere... social and cultural factors, such as the African tradition of male sexual freedom, may also play a part. The circulation of myths such as the only cure for AIDS being to have sex with a virgin is likely to have a greater effect on transmission in Africa than in developed countries." (52)

What do the authors of this paper know about African traditions of male sexual freedom, and does no such “tradition” exist in the West? And on what evidence are we to believe that a significant number of African men are having sex with virgins to cure themselves of AIDS? But then if you already believe that Africans are more primitive and superstitious, no evidence is required.

Other AIDS researchers have recognized that their past activities have caused problems. The British Medical Bulletin of January 1988, titled "AIDS and HIV infection: the wider perspective," was edited by three notable exponents of the African connection, Anthony Pinching, Robin Weiss and David Miller. They provide a classic example of muddled racist thinking:

"In the case of some early studies in Africa, techniques were used that had not been sufficiently well validated for African sera, given the prevalent hypergammaglobulinaemia and a notorious tendency to "stickiness" and false positive reactions in antiglobulin assays i.e., false positives on HIV
antibody tests]. The observations derived from these studies have led to some confusion and have also tended to damage the credibility of foreign scientists working in Africa -- especially among local leaders."(53)

"Additional problems have been created when investigators have spent a short time collecting sera and basic data in a developing country, often with little guidance from local investigators, and then published the data without reference to the original context. This has tended to produce scientific data that has not been adequately placed in an anthropological perspective." (53)

In other words data collection was biased or inadequate, and this led to a misinterpretation of results. The racism responsible for this is charmingly described as an inadequate "anthropological perspective!" But worse is to come:

"Even worse, it has led to denial and resentment, jeopardizing essential and potentially fruitful collaboration between investigators in the developed and developing world in a study of an issue of mutual concern. This has been particularly damaging when the pursuit has apparently been the origin of AIDS and HIV, an essentially academic question, however interesting. Such investigations have often been taken to imply blame on the region that appears to be the source. Although they were certainly never intended to impugn any community in this way, it is not difficult to see how such perceptions arose."(53)

Recognition that the faulty techniques described at the beginning of the paragraph provided the "evidence" for an African origin for HIV is beyond the wit of these clever scientists, who then accuse Africans of "denial and resentment" when they refuse to accept their findings! Let us gratefully accept their condolences for the injuries they have inflicted, and put aside our resentments, so that we can leave ourselves open to more of the same, to be found later in the Bulletin:

"HIV infection appears to have spread over much of the world during the decade 1976-1986, mirroring on a large scale the spread of its most obvious predecessor, syphilis, in Europe in the 1490's. As with early syphilis, the international spread of AIDS has led to a process of attribution and denial about the origin of the disease. However, it seems most likely that HIV spread to the United States from Africa, perhaps via Haiti, in the mid 1970's and from the United States to many western countries in the late 1970's and early 1980's."(54)

Others are not so confident, at least when they address Africans at AIDS and Africa conferences:

"Luc Montaigner, the first scientist to isolate the virus that causes AIDS, agrees that if an isolated population in Africa existed as a reservoir for the virus, researchers would have found it by now. The data suggesting that the virus comes from Africa are weak, Montaigner said. "Maybe we should look to another part of the world."(55)

Jonathan Mann, then the director of WHO's AIDS program, also felt obliged to distance himself from an African origin:

"The World Health Organization's position is that there is not yet enough information about the origin of the virus. There are absolutely no data to support any hypothesis... "The more information that emerges, the less we know about where this virus came from, how long it has been in the world, and how it grew to become the problem that it is today," he said. The syndrome has too often unveiled thinly disguised prejudices about race, religion, sex, social class, and nationality, and the Africans properly resent that Africa has been singled out, Dr Mann said. If San Francisco was accused of being the original source of HIV with no more proof than there is that Africa is the source, special interest groups would be up in arms, he said. Dr Mann stated that nothing will keep people from coming up with "cheap hypotheses" about the origin of AIDS. "They die a natural death when no subsequent evidence develops to take then seriously. But perhaps journals should have a special page for them labeled 'fuzzy ideas'. The real danger is that future authors might use such discredited, but published, hypotheses as scientific references for future articles, he said. (39)

*Thanks to Professor Andrew Maniotis for providing the electronic version of these informative excerpts

References for the above follow.
5. Gallo R.C. The AIDS virus. Sci. Am. 256(1): 39-48, 1987. 32. Davidson B. Africa in History, p207. Granada Publishing Ltd, London, 1978.
33. Gallo R.C., Sliski A., Wong-Staal F. Origin of T-cell leukaemia-lymphoma virus. Lancet (ii): 962-963, 1983.
34. Gallo R.C. The first human retrovirus. Sci. Am. 255: 78-88, 1986.
35. Daniel M.D., Letvin N.L., Kanki P.J. et al. Isolation of T-cell trophic HTLV-III-like retrovirus from Macaques. Science 228: 1201-1204, 1985.
36. Kanki P.J., Alroy J., Essex M. Isolation of T-lymphotropic retrovirus related to HTLV-III/LAV from wild caught African green monkeys. Science 230: 951-954, 1985.
37. Green J., Miller D. AIDS The story of a disease, p66. Grafton Books, London 1986.
38. Noireau F. HIV transmission from monkey to man. Lancet (i): 1498-1499, 1987. "Pour stimuler intense, on leur inocule dans les cuisses, la region du pubis et le dos du sang preleve sur un singe, pour un homme, sur une guenon,pour ne femme."
39. HIV origin a continuing mystery: Green monkey theory disputed. Skin and Allergy News January 28, 1988.
40. Biggar R.J. The AIDS problem in Africa. Lancet (i): 72 82, 1986.
41. Konotey-Ahulu F.I.D. Group specific component and HIV infection. Lancet (i): 1267, 1987.
42. Hamilton D. The Monkey Gland Affair. London. Chatto and Windus, 1986.
43. Vella E.E. Marburg virus disease. Hospital Update : 35-41, January 1977.
44. Mulder C . A case of mistaken non-identity. Nature 331: 562-563, 1988.
45. Kestler H.W., Li Y., Naidu Y.M. et al. Comparison of simian immunodeficiency virus isolates. Nature 331: 619-621, 1988.
46. Essex M., Kanki P. Reply to Kestler et al. Nature 331: 621-622, 1988.
47. Mulder C. Human virus not from monkeys. Nature 333: 396, 1988.
48. Fukasawa M., Miura T., Hasegawa A. et al. Sequence of simian immunodeficiency virus from African green monkey, a new member of HIV/SIV group. Nature 333: 457-461, 1988.
49. Essex M., Kanki P. The origins of the AIDS virus. Sci. Am. 259: 44-51, 1988.
50. Eales L.-J., Parkin J.M., Pinching A.J. et al. Association of different allelic forms of group specific component with susceptibility to and clinical manifestations of human immunodeficiency virus infection. Lancet (i): 999-1002, 1987.
51. Eales L.-J., Nye K.E., Pinching A.J. Group-specific component and AIDS: Erroneous data. Lancet (i): 936, 1988.
52. Nunn P., McAdam K.P. AIDS in Africa. Medicine International. September 23, 1988, 57-60
53. Piot P., Caraël M. Epidemiological and sociological aspects of HIV infection in developing countries. In AIDS and HIV infection: The Wider Perspective. Br. Med. Bull. 44(1): 68-88, Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 1988.
54. Moss A.R. Epidemiology of AIDS in developed countries. In AIDS and HIV infection: The Wider Perspective. Br. Med. Bull. 44(1): 68-88, Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 1988.
55. Evidence for origin is weak. [Editorial] New Scientist 118 (15):27.



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