Book Review

Florian Fisch

Dorothy H. Crawford:
Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV.

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (August 1, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0199641145
ISBN-13: 978-0199641147
Price: 16.95 EUR

The History of HIV

“Early in 1981, doctors in Los Angeles reported a completely new disease”, Dorothy H. Crawford, a Scottish virologist, describes the event that spurred panic in western countries and instigated many research projects. A strange immunodeficiency caused patients to develop rare types of pneumonias and skin tumours. The press soon called it the ‘gay plague’, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially coined it, incorrectly, as, ‘the 4H disease’ (Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts).

In her book, Virus Hunt: the search for the origin of HIV, Crawford skilfully tells the story of how doctors and biologists slowly unravelled the path to the virus that causes AIDS. Note: do not confuse the author, Dorothy Crawford, with the deceased British Nobel Prize laureate, Dorothy Mary Hodgkin née Crowfoot, who advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography in the 1940s and 1950s!

Although it was wrongly thought that the novel disease would exclusively infect the ‘4-H Club’, the routes of infection were soon found: sexual intercourse, blood transfusion and the dirty syringes of both drug addicts and aid workers. After realising that the disease was not restricted to homosexuals, the term ‘AIDS’ (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was introduced in 1982.

Bad colonisation

Many different immunodeficiency viruses have jumped from monkeys and apes to humans throughout history. Only one of them, HIV-1 group M, started the pandemic that we are now experiencing. The latest data suggest that it probably stems from the single infection of a chimpanzee hunter in the rainforest of South-western Cameroon.

The emergence of massive colonial cities like Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo) helped HIV to establish itself in the human population. This was due to increasing trade, lonely migrant workers visiting prostitutes, the chaos of independence wars and unsterile needles in humanitarian vaccination campaigns.

HIV has now infected 60 million people and caused 25 million deaths worldwide. When AIDS was discovered in the USA, Africa had long been heavily affected by it. In Uganda’s capital, Kampala, nearly 20 percent of the population were HIV-positive in the 80’s. Only, there, infectious diseases were nothing too unusual.

Virulent controversies

By carefully studying patients, captive monkeys and apes and the faeces of wild chimpanzees in the rainforest it was possible to slowly establish how simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIV) transformed into HIV. “Scientists have worked in a spirit of amicable scientific collaboration”, remarks Crawford, before suddenly changing direction completely and describing the formidable conflicts amongst HIV researchers.

This conflict’s highlight, featured prominently in the media, is the ‘great Franco-American virus war’ between groups headed by Luc Montagnier from the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Robert Gallo from the National Cancer Institute in the USA. It’s a conflict about who discovered HIV first and can profit from patents. Although presidents Reagan and Chirac officially ended the dispute in 1987, the Nobel committee decided in favour of Montagnier in 2008.

Rather more serious was the controversy about the oral polio vaccine campaign. The British science journalist Edward Hooper investigated the hypothesis that HIV could have jumped from chimpanzees to humans via infected polio vaccines produced with chimpanzee kidney cells. Although convincingly refuted, Hooper still maintains his accusations on his website today.

The most lethal conflict was caused by Peter Duesberg. The virologist from the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the book Inventing the AIDS Virus. Duesberg claims that HIV is a harmless virus coinciding with AIDS. The former South African President Tabo Mbeki went along with Duesberg’s advice and refused to take measures against HIV, thereby causing over 300,000 unnecessary deaths and infecting over 30,000 babies.

Prime Anglo-Saxon science writing

Virus Hunt is a prime example of Anglo-Saxon science writing: a brilliant overview for experts and a good read for the interested public. However, for laypeople its chapters become overly detailed towards the end. There are so many viruses subtypes, primate species and African countries included that even your Lab Times reviewer, who is familiar with the book’s territory, lost the overview here and there. Thankfully, Crawford always introduces the next chapter in perfect detail.

She concludes that the battle against HIV has just begun, “With well over two million people still becoming infected with HIV annually, those of us alive today will probably never know just how devastating the final outcome and global impact of the pandemic will be because we will not live to see it. But by understanding where, how, when, and why the virus evolved and spread among us, we can surely work to prevent the next one.”

Letzte Änderungen: 26.11.2013