The following information has been summarized and excerpted from the Friday, May 8, 1992 e
The following information has been summarized and excerpted from the
Friday, May 8, 1992 edition of The Houston Post with the permission
of the authors, Tom Curtis and Patricia Manson.
This article is not copyrighted.
DO COLD, HARD AIDS FACTS LIE IN FREEZER?
Researchers looking for clues in old vials of polio vaccine
Samples of a polio vaccine recently unearthed at a research institute on
the grounds of the University of Pennsylvania here may help solve the
mystery of how AIDS was unleashed on mankind.
The polio virus material -- which could be the vaccine tested in Africa
starting in the late 1950s and suspected of being contaminated -- was
discovered during a search at The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and
Biology, according to a statement released Thursday.
A special committee of five scientists will be informed of the
The old vaccine specimens were found among an estimated 500,0000 samples
in a hunt for vials of a polio vaccine that theorists speculate may have
been accidentally contaminated with an AIDS-causing monkey virus.
Finding and analyzing samples of those vaccine would be the first steps
toward testing the theory that modern medicine introduced AIDS into
About March 4, the Wistar Institute said, workers began combing through
about 100 biologicals freezers and two freezer rooms seeking vials of
the experimental vaccine tested on about 325,000 people in Rwanda,
Burundi and the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire).
The institute said in the statement faxed to The Houston Post that it is
"attempting to decode the labels of some samples found in the freezers
by examining records and documents and by conducting interviews."
Wistar said it doesn't know "at this stage" whether the samples of
"polio virus material" came from either the seed stocks used to make
vaccines for the Belgian Congo, Poland and other places or from he
vaccine lots used solely in the Belgian Congo trials.
The institute said it will present information it has collected to the
committee of outside scientists, which was formed two months ago by
Wistar director Giovannie Rovera and is meeting today in New York City.
Wistar spokeswoman Martha Phan said she was "not at liberty to reveal"
the number of samples of old polio vaccine uncovered in the search.
The possible role of Wistar in spawning AIDS among human beings is
largely shrouded in secrecy. The man who developed the vaccine in
question and the current director of the research institute both
declined to be interviewed for this article.
And members of the special committee charged with investigating the
matter have "taken a vow not to talk to the press until we finish
whatever we come up with," according to a committee co-chairman.
The samples sought at Wistar were of a live oral polio vaccine developed
by Dr. Hilary Koprowski.
Koprowski is the former director of Wistar, the oldest private non-
profit biomedical research and training institute in the nation.
He supervised the vaccine's manufacture and its experimental use in
central equatorial Africa starting 35 years ago. It was the first live
oral polio vaccine mass-tested on human beings.
If the sample found proved to be Koprowski's Congo vaccine, the special
committee will be under pressure to determine whether that vaccine was
contaminated with the AIDS virus or a precursor virus.
Scientists most likely would use a sophisticated test called the
polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to try to verify whether the AIDS
virus or a related virus was present. The test looks at minute portions
of genetic material.
A co-chairman of the committee, Dr. Claudio Basilico, chairman of the
Department of Microbiology at New York University School of Medicine
declined to answer most questions.
Basilico said the committee will attempt to find out whether
contaminated polio vaccines introduced AIDS into humans "if the truth
can be determined."
The committee anticipates issuing a report, he said, probably "in less
than a year."
In a recent interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of
Pennsylvania's student newspaper, Koprowski denounced the idea that his
vaccine unintentionally may have sparked the AIDS epidemic in people.
He reportedly complained the theory was based on wholly circumstantial
evidence and arguments from non-scientists.
Likewise, Wistar officials in a press release described the idea as "a
highly speculative theory." But the acknowledged that it has "generated
a great deal of public interest and controversy."
In an interview in the March 19 issue of Rolling Stone magazine,
Koprowski said the vaccine samples in question were maintained in
freezers at Wistar. According to Dr. Warren Cheston, Wistar's vice
president for external affairs, Koprowski now says he was misquoted or
Soon after the Rolling Stone issue was mailed to the magazine's
subscribers in February, Cheston said, he received a phone call from the
public relations manager of Lederle Laboratories.
Lederle is the nation's sole maker of polio vaccines and Koprowski's
former employer. Among the projects Koprowski worked on at Lederle
before leaving in 1957 to join Wistar was the development of live oral
The company's PR manager, Craig Engesser, asked whether Wistar had the
vaccine samples and if so, what it planned to do with them, Cheston
Cheston said he told Engesser that Wistar officials didn't know whether
they had the samples but assumed they would test them if they did.
He said the PR man thanked him and did not speak to him again.
Engesser declined to discuss the conversation or even confirm that it
Koprowski's lawyer, Richard Sprague of Philadelphia, said he would not
allow his client to be interviewed for this article.
In March, Koprowski told reporters that samples of his vaccine could be
obtained from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a tissue
culture repository in Bethesda, Md.
However, ATCC director Dr. Robert E. Stevenson told The Post it was
impossible to determine whether samples at the collection were actually
from Koprowski's African vaccine or from vaccines used elsewhere because
the material was constantly being "exhausted and replenished" as it was
distributed to various places at Koprowski's direction.
Stevenson said Koprowski's "production batch stuff (vaccine) from Africa
should have been archived (stored) somewhere."
Both Stevenson and Dr. Albert B. Sabin -- the developer of the oral
polio vaccine chosen for use in the United States and most of the world
-- agreed that samples from lots of Koprowski's vaccine actually used in
Africa would provide the most conclusive evidence for or against the
theory that the vaccine spawned AIDS.
Sabin said he does not believe Koprowski's vaccine sparked AIDS. And he
adamantly disputed a parallel theory recently published in the medical
journal Lancet suggesting that retrovirus contaminants in his vaccine,
which was used as a herpes treatment in the mid-1970s, may have ignited
the AIDS epidemic in New York and California.
Sabin said that "even if the impossible occurred and you found HIV
(human immunodeficiency virus, the virus believed to cause AIDS) in the
lot that was used" in Africa, "it would mean nothing."
The AIDS virus could not be introduced into the bloodstream through an
oral polio vaccine because it does not survive digestion, Sabin said.
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