- Published on 05 October 2014
- Written by Staff Reporter
The origin of the Aids pandemic has been traced to the 1920s in the city of Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, scientists say.
An international team of scientists say a "perfect storm" of population growth, sex and railways allowed HIV to spread.
A feat of viral archaeology was used to find the pandemic's origin, the team report in the journal Science. They used archived samples of HIV's genetic code to trace its source, with evidence pointing to 1920s Kinshasa. Their report says a roaring sex trade, rapid population growth and unsterilised needles used in health clinics probably spread the virus.
Meanwhile Belgium-backed railways had one million people flowing through the city each year, taking the virus to neighbouring regions. Experts said it was a fascinating insight into the start of the pandemic.
HIV came to global attention in the 1980s and has infected nearly 75 million people. It has a much longer history in Africa, but where the pandemic started has remained the source of considerable debate.
A team at the University of Oxford and the University of Leuven, in Belgium, tried to reconstruct HIV's "family tree" and find out where its oldest ancestors came from.
The research group analysed mutations in HIV's genetic code.
"You can see the footprints of history in today's genomes, it has left a record, a mutation mark in the HIV genome that can't be eradicated," Prof Oliver Pybus from the University of Oxford told the BBC.
By reading those mutational marks, the research team rebuilt the family tree and traced its roots.
HIV is a mutated version of a chimpanzee virus, known as simian immunodeficiency virus, which probably made the species-jump through contact with infected blood while handling bush meat.
The virus made the jump on multiple occasions. One event led to HIV-1 subgroup O which affects tens of thousands in Cameroon.
Yet only one cross-species jump, HIV-1 subgroup M, went on to infect millions of people across every country in the world.
The answer to why this happened lies in the era of black and white film and the tail-end of the European empires.
In the 1920s, Kinshasa (called Leopoldville until 1966) was part of the Belgian Congo.
Prof Oliver Pybus said: "It was a very large and very rapidly growing area and colonial medical records show there was a high incidence of various sexually transmitted diseases."
Sex and railways
Large numbers of male labourers were drawn to the city, distorting the gender balance until men outnumbered women two to one, eventually leading to a roaring sex trade.
Prof Pybus added: "There are two aspects of infrastructure that could have helped. Public health campaigns to treat people for various infectious diseases with injections seem a plausible route [for spreading the virus]. The second really interesting aspect is the transport networks that enabled people to move round a huge country."
Around one million people were using Kinshasa's railways by the end of the 1940s.
The virus spread, with neighbouring Brazzaville and the mining province, Katanga, rapidly hit.
However, a California a lawyer tried suing the U.S. government, claiming that the HIV-AIDS virus is a man made virus developed and manufactured in the United States with the knowledge of the U.S. government. Prominent lawyer and AIDS researcher, Dr. Boyd E Graves JD* appeared before Judge Jeffrey T. Miller in a San Diego court, claiming that the HIV virus, the virus that causes AIDS, is a virus that was manufactured in American laboratories between 1962 and 1978.
Jakob Segal (1911–1995), a professor at Humboldt University in then-East Germany, also proposed that HIV was engineered at a U.S. military laboratory at Fort Detrick, by splicing together two other viruses, Visna and HTLV-1.
According to his theory, the new virus, created between 1977 and 1978, was tested on prison inmates who had volunteered for the experiment in exchange for early release. He further suggested that it was through these prisoners that the virus was spread to the population at large. After the end of the cold war, however, the former KGB agents Wassili Nikititsch Mitrochin and Oleg Gordijewski revealed independently of each other that the Fort Detrick hypothesis was a propaganda operation devised by the KGB's First Chief Directorate under the codename "infektion".
Later it was also supported by the section X of East Germany's Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung as admitted by its officer Günther Bohnensack. It is not entirely clear whether Segal pursued the hypothesis independently on his own accord or whether he was simply following orders.
Segal himself always denied the latter and kept pursuing the hypothesis even after the operation had been canceled and the cold war had ended. It is known that Segal was in close contact with Russian KGB officers and Mitrochin mentioned him as a central asset of the operation. - BBC / MyZim