When Did AIDS Begin?
Reprinted from Times Magazine,
By Christine Gorman
A new study of the oldest known HIV suggests the virus jumped from animals to humans in the 1940s.
The year was 1959, location: The central African city of Leopoldville, now called Kinshasa, shortly before the waves of violent rebellion that followed the liberation of the Belgian Congo. A seemingly healthy man walked into a hospital clinic to give blood for a Western backed study of blood diseases. He walked away and was never heard from again. Doctors analyzed his sample, froze it in a test tube and forgot about it. A quarter-century later, in the mid-1980s, researchers studying the growing AIDS epidemic took a second look at the blood and discovered that it contained HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
And not just any HIV. The Leopoldville sample is the oldest specimen of the AIDS virus ever isolated and may now help solve the mystery of how and when the virus made the leap from animals (monkeys or chimpanzees) to humans, according to a report published last week in Nature. Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City and one of the study's authors, says a careful genetic analysis of the sample's DNA pushes the origin of the AIDS epidemic back at least a decade, to the early '50s or even the '40s.
Over the past 15 years, scientists have identified at least 10 subtypes of the virus. But they couldn't tell whether they were seeing variations on one changeable virus or the handiwork of several different viruses that had made the jump from primates to man. A look at the genetic mutations in the Leopoldville sample strongly suggests that all it took to launch the epidemic was one unlucky turn of events.
By comparing the DNA of the 1959 virus with that of samples taken from the '80s and '90s. Ho and his colleagues constructed a viral family tree in which the Leopoldville isolate sits right at the juncture where three subtypes branch out. The 39-year-old specimen is also strikingly similar to the other seven subtypes. The clear implication: all the viral strains can be traced back to a single event or a closely related group of events. One theory is that AIDS started through contact with infected monkeys in a remote area and spread to the rest of the population through urbanization and mass inoculations.
The findings underscore how rapidly HIV can adapt to its surroundings, making it difficult to develop effective vaccines. No one knows how many more subtypes of HIV will sprout in the next 40 years, but chances are they will be every bit as lethal as the ones we see today, if not more so.