The Origin of AIDS

David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
From left: David Niesel and Norbert Herzog

Feb. 14, 2014 - Do an Internet search on the origins of the AIDS and about 40 percent of the results are wrong—and some are just ridiculous, says Norbert Herzog, professor of medical sciences in the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine.

Since the Internet is where people turn to for information, Herzog and David Niesel '75, chair of the microbiology and immunology department at the University of Texas Medical Branch, attempted to sift out the fallacies and discuss the facts in their presentation, "The Origin of the AIDS Virus: Rantings, Conspiracy and Theory." The February 2014 discussion was part of the University's Campus Cross Talk series, which this year has health literacy as its theme.

The duo hosts the syndicated radio show, "Medical Discoveries," which airs on Quinnipiac's AM 1220 WQUN, where they present the complexities of science in an easy-to-understand conversation, such as the origins of the HIV virus.

One theory claimed that the HIV virus arrived from space on the tail of a comet. Since the virus can't survive two hours on a park bench, it has zero chance of surviving in space or entering into Earth's atmosphere, where the temperature on a comet's tail could reach 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Herzog explained.

Other theories claimed the CIA or the former Soviet Union's KGB created the virus in secret labs. These organizations didn't have the technology to create this virus, Niesel said. The HIV virus was found in blood sample taken in 1959 in the Belgium Congo.

"The sample predated anything we could do with molecular biology in terms of creating a virus," Niesel said. "You can't create a virus that has these properties, even now, and not from scratch."

The strains of the HIV virus that caused the human outbreak likely originated in the southeastern region of Cameroon, near the Sanaga River. The virus jumped from chimp to humans who came in contact with the animal's blood, such as hunters. These transmissions probably happened many years before the global epidemic that began in the 1980s, but the virus didn't have the opportunity to spread.

After Cameroon was colonized, roads were built, commerce increased and the population grew and people traveled more, he explained. When you colonize a country, "you actually enhance the ability for infectious diseases to spread."

Western medicine also brought needles, which were in short supply and reused without sterilization. "All of this contributed to an environment where a virus could take hold and begin to blossom," Herzog said of the virus that has flourished because of its ability to mutate.

To date, 36 million people worldwide have died from HIV-related causes. More than 35 million are living with the virus, but many are living longer thanks to new medications.

"AIDS is no longer a death sentence," Herzog said.