AIDS likely made the leap from chimpanzees to humans because of a starving World War I soldier who was forced to hunt the animals for food, according to a new book.
The unknown “Patient Zero” was part of an invasion force of 1,600 Belgian and French troops who, along with 4,000 African aides, had traveled from Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo to a remote outpost in Cameroon, says Canadian microbiologist Jacques Pepin, who once worked as a bush doctor in central Africa in the 1980s.
Pepin, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Universite de Sherbrooke in Quebec, makes the intriguing hypothesis the focus of a new edition of his famed book, “Origins of AIDS.”
“Patient Zero” was likely injured after killing a subspecies of chimp — Pan troglodytes troglodytes — infected with a simian virus that was a precursor to HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the virus which causes AIDS, Pepin writes in the tome recently published by Cambridge University Press.
In a 2011 edition of the seminal book, Pepin originally posited HIV leapt from chimps to humans after an injured African hunter killed one of the beasts in 1921, becoming infected in the process. Pepin then chronicles how the virus’ spread was fueled throughout the world by colonization, prostitution, and “well-meaning” public health campaigns which lacked what are now common safety protocols, such as barring the sharing of needles.
In the second edition, released this month, Pepin draws on research in medical archives in Africa and Europe suggesting ‘Patient Zero’ was not a native hunter, but instead a starving World War One soldier forced to hunt chimps for food when his regiment got stuck in the remote forest around Moloundou, Cameroon and ran out of food supplies.
Most books about AIDS begin in 1981, when a group of gay men in the US began to die after contracting a virulent pneumonia. Since then, HIV has gone on to kill 33 million and infect nearly 76 million people around the world.
“Some may say that understanding the past is irrelevant,” writes Pepin in the introduction to the new edition of his book. “We have a moral obligation to the millions of human beings who have died, or will die, from this infection. Second, this tragedy was facilitated (or even caused) by human interventions: colonization, urbanizations and probably well-intentioned public health campaigns.”