Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic

September 11-12, 2000, The Royal Society, London, United Kingdom

Jonathan Weber, FRCP, FRCPath, FmedSci, Keith Alcorn, Medical Writer

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All human viral infections were initially zoonotic in origin. Animals will always provide a reservoir for viruses that could threaten human populations in the future. The OPV, which has successfully controlled poliomyelitis worldwide, was propagated in monkey kidney cells potentially contaminated with SIV; yet by good fortune, the process failed to lead to human contamination. Although there is thankfully no evidence that OPV is the cause of the AIDS epidemic, we can see that this was a near-miss. As Professor Robin Weiss observed, there are many examples of transfer of other retroviruses from animals to humans, including iatrogenic transfer of retroviruses. The Royal Society meeting was a welcome opportunity to review concerns about the potential role of medical science in causing or amplifying the HIV epidemic. We must be constantly vigilant about our ability to inadvertently transmit infections through human interventions, as the BSE epidemic and threat of vCJD must constantly remind us. There are now compelling data to refute OPV as the cause of AIDS. However, there is still a myriad of currently unknown viruses in animal populations on land, sea, and air with the potential to cause human disease. It is a sobering thought by how little we may have avoided a major epidemic.

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