How old is HIV? The United Kingdom and HIV/AIDS research

Photo Credit: NIAID via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of a viral cause for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1983 by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi at the Pasteur Institute in Paris marked a major achievement in scientific and LGBTQ+ history. In May 1986, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses gave it its current name: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

HIV/AIDS ravaged the gay community of the United States throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s and the epidemic rapidly spread. The first AIDS related death in the United Kingdom was in 1981. Today it is well understood that HIV can be transmitted by a variety of routes: sexual contact, blood transfusion, sharing needles, during childbirth and even through breast milk. However, during the peak of the epidemic, it was widely associated with gay men, which significantly slowed scientific research into the epidemic and had deadly ramifications for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

While the United Kingdom is not always considered a major player in HIV/AIDS history during the time of the epidemic, the UK, and Scotland in particular, has played a major role in identifying the origins of the virus. For while the epidemic in the United States started in the early 1980’s, scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Philadelphia proposed in 2011 that HIV was first transmitted to humans in the early 1900’s. The original carrier: primates. The link has to do with the type of virus that causes chronic diseases like HIV.

HIV and SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) are both lentiviruses. This is a genus of virus that have long incubation periods in mammals. This is why an individual can contract HIV and not immediately show symptoms of AIDS. In 1999, researchers found a strain of SIV (called SIVcpz) in a chimpanzee that was almost identical to HIV in humans. SIVcpz was formed by two separate SIV strains joining together when chimps hunted and ate smaller species of money. The new strain could be transmitted between different species of chimpanzee and is thought to have jumped from chimpanzees to humans and mutated into HIV.

[…] the UK, and Scotland in particular, has played a major role in identifying the origins of the virus

In 2014, an international study that included researchers from University of Edinburgh and University of Oxford finally concluded that the first transmission of SIVcpz to human occurred in 1920 in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  However, researches at Nottingham University traced the origin even further back to a colony of chimpanzees in Cameroon, who to this day have a version of SIV strikingly similar to HIV.

The question of how the virus jumped from chimpanzees to humans is far more complicated. While established theories state that the virus moved from primates to humans by bushmeat hunting, these support colonialist stereotypes of tribal cultures and ignore the complexities of African life during the height of colonialism. For example, while some Bantu groups practice bushmeat hunting, many other ethnic groups have strong cultural taboos against hunting primates. Further, colonialist rule in sub-Saharan Africa made it very difficult for the native population to acquire weapons powerful enough to hunt great apes at all. Jacques Pepin explores these issues in depth in his 2011 book The Origins of AIDS.

Ultimately, we may never know the precise event that triggered the spread of HIV from chimps to humans. However, we do know that once this event occurred, HIV spread like wildfire through the African continent and later the Western world. While at present there is no reliable cure, scientists may be coming close. Researchers from University College London’s Division of Infection and Immunity have reported that one of their patients has experienced sustained remission from the virus after undergoing a novel new therapy utilizing stem cells from donors with a rare genetic immunity to HIV. This is the second documented case where HIV has been ‘cured.’ The first was in Berlin in 2007.  

While established theories state that the virus moved from primates to humans by bushmeat hunting, these support colonialist stereotypes of tribal cultures and ignore the complexities of African life during the height of colonialism

At the University of Edinburgh, the Leigh Brown research group are still investigating the epidemiology and virulence of HIV. These are questions are critical for preventing another large-scale epidemic if another deadly virus emerges. So, while the history of HIV/AIDS is dominated by North America and Africa, The UK may indeed have a key role to play in ensuring our future global health.

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Karolina Zieba.

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