Is AIDS a Man-Made Plague?

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We need to know because we need to know: A new book hypothesizing that AIDS originated in a polio vaccine may reflect our discomfort with being unable to control our environment more than it provides any scientific breakthrough. British journalist Michael Hooper's "The River" amasses a wealth of circumstantial evidence supporting the theory that the HIV virus made the jump from animals to humans via an experimental batch of polio vaccine manufactured in part from chimpanzee tissue that may have been infected. "This theory is partially testable, because there are still some stocks of the oral polio vaccine in question" says TIME science correspondent Christine Gorman. "But some people may ask what the point of conducting such tests would be, since there's no question of malice and the answer has no implications for medicine and science today — you're talking about a technology of 50 years ago. Now, genetic engineering allows us to create in controlled laboratory conditions vaccines and drugs once made from animal tissue."

The issue of whether the HIV virus made the jump to humans via a vaccine, a direct blood infection from a monkey bite or any of the other hypotheses is of little scientific utility, and this area of inquiry is unlikely to draw research resources away from the more pressing search for a vaccine and a cure. But just as we're not satisfied with perennially checking the "don't know" box in explaining an air crash, we're burdened, as a culture, to find an explanation for a phenomenon that has killed 16 million people — and has infected 33 million more — in less than two decades. "The interesting thing is that in Hooper's explanation, as in all the plausible scenarios for how the virus made the jump to humans, the key element is a chance encounter," says Gorman. "In other words, in all of them there's a common element — bad luck."