Study Claims to Confirm:
AIDS Came from Eating Monkeys

Scientists from the University of Nottingham found that two strains of an HIV-like disease, SIV, has been discovered dormant in chimpanzees. Humans later caught the disease after hunting and eating the infected chimps. In humans, the disease morphed into HIV-AIDS, which reportedly has killed over 20 million people, mostly in Africa where eating monkey flesh often practiced.

Experts have wondered about the origin of HIV ever since the epidemic emerged almost two decades ago. The uncertainty launched a variety of conspiracy theories, some even suggesting that AIDS was a government plot.

Now, new research has provided what scientists say is convincing proof that the virus got its start in the forests of Africa when humans caught the disease from chimpanzees. In fact, they say the virus has spread at least three different times from chimps to humans.

Previous studies have established that SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) is found in African monkeys and apes. They have also placed the disease somewhere in or near the West African country of Guinea-Bissau.

"This is absolutely evidence to put (conspiracy theories) to rest," Dr. Constance Benson of the University of Colorado said.

Even scientists who scorned those theories have been unsure where AIDS actually arose. Some suspected chimps, while others thought monkeys or other primates could have been the source.

The latest discovery was made by Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who tracked HIV's ancestor to a virus that has long infected one of the four subspecies of chimp that live in Africa.

She said, "We conclude that this subspecies is the source of the human AIDS virus," which now infects about 35 million people worldwide.

Experts believe that HIV - the virus that causes AIDS - is a recent affliction of people. At a Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Dr. David Ho and others from the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Rockefeller University presented evidence that the virus probably first infected humans in the 1940s or early '50s.

At the opening of the meeting, Hahn made the case that this event almost certainly occurred in west equatorial Africa. It could have happened when someone ate infected chimp meat, or a hunter was exposed to contaminated blood while field dressing an animal.

Hahn said her team nailed down the connection by analyzing frozen tissue saved from a chimp named Marilyn that died from complications of childbirth at a U.S. Air Force primate center in New Mexico 14 years ago.

Hahn's discovery began when a colleague cleaning out a lab freezer ran across Marilyn's specimens and sent them to her. The researchers performed various kinds of genetic analyses that were unavailable at the time the chimp died.

Marilyn's tissue was found to harbor SIVcpz. The Alabama team used molecular analysis techniques to study Marilyn's virus plus the other three examples discovered earlier.

They found that three of the four are about as genetically similar to the human AIDS virus as they are to each other. They include one gene, called vpu, that is also part of HIV but not the other AIDS-like viruses that infect monkeys. All three samples were found to have come from Pan troglodytes troglodytes, which is one of the four subspecies of chimp in Africa. These animals lives in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo and Central African Republic, the region where AIDS is thought to have started.

The fourth sample was much less like HIV, and it came from another subspecies of chimp that is native to East Africa.

There are three major groups of HIV in people, code-named M, N and O. M is the variety that has spread around the world, while N and O are seen only in west-central Africa.

The natural habitat of Pan troglodytes troglodytes perfectly overlaps the area where these three groups were first recognized. The researchers believe that each group arose from a separate chimp-to-human transmission of SIVcpz.

Hahn said a French team, headed by Dr. Phillippe Mauclere of the Pasteur Institute, recently found three more chimps infected with SIVcpz at a game sanctuary in Cameroon. One sample has been genetically analyzed, and it too closely resembles HIV.

Chimps, which have probably carried the virus for hundreds of thousands of years, apparently do not get sick from it. It takes a long time for a relationship between the virus and its new host to stabilize. But that's what the virus wants. It doesn't want to kill the host, because then it's finished, too. It can take a couple of hundred years for the virus and host to get into balance so that both survive. Researchers say that figuring out why could offer clues for helping people fight HIV.

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AIDS came from monkeys