Was AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ a World War I soldier?

Jacques Pépin with his wife in Nioki, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout by Jacques Pépin

As World Health Organization scientists comb the Chinese city of Wuhan for the first cases of the coronavirus, a Canadian infectious disease expert believes he has found the source of another pandemic, HIV/AIDS, more than a century earlier.

In a revised edition of his 2011 book, ‘The Origin of AIDS’, published last month, Jacques Pépin questions the ‘cut hunter’ theory that the blood of a chimpanzee likely infected someone with the simian variant of HIV, in Cameroon in the early 20th century.

He now believes it is likely that the first instance of the zoonotic transmission of the virus – how it jumped from animals to humans – was a ‘cut soldier’; a starving First World War Franco-Belgian serviceman, injured while hunting chimps in remote forests in 1916.

According to UNAIDS, more than 32 million people have died from AIDS-related deaths, since the pandemic took hold in the early 1980s.

An estimated 32.7 million are still living with HIV, with an additional 1.7 million becoming newly infected in 2019 alone.

And it all began with a single case of transmission, more than 100 years ago, argues Pépin, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist, who lived and worked in Africa for many years.

“We know it was a case of a single episode of transmission from chimpanzees to humans, not a matter of 10 or 24 people infected”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via a video call.

“And from this very first patient, eventually 75 million around the world (would go on to be infected with HIV).”

‘The Origin of AIDS’, which also details Africa’s development and its colonial past, traces the virus back to its origins in the south-eastern part of the central African nation of Cameroon, somewhere close to the district of Moloundou.

Pépin had first presumed the spread of the virus had been facilitated by traders heading to the major trading hub of Leopoldville, then the capital of the Belgian Congo, under the ruling colonial power.

Now Kinshasha, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the sprawling megacity sits across the broad Congo River from long-time rival, Brazzaville, then the former capital of French Equatorial Africa, and now that of the Republic of the Congo.

Pépin was first alerted to the presence of First World War troops, by a few throwaway sentences in an article published in an academic journal.

When hostilities began, he read, there had been three German ships docked in Leopoldville, that had fled quickly to avoid capture.

Intrigued, Canada-based Pépin travelled to Europe to delve deeper into this military incursion, sifting through the archives at the AfricaMuseum near Brussels, and those held at Château de Vincennes, a French royal fortress east of Paris.

Further details emerged from a 107-volume history of the French army in the first world war, held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

“I went to some of the archives in Brussels, as Belgium had been involved,” said Pépin, who had worked in the Gambia in the 1980s.

“Then I went to Paris as most of soldiers were ‘French’ (or fighting under the French flag) and found some additional information from both archives and put it all together.”

Pépin’s detective work was paying off. A new theory of the first human to become infected, with what had previously been a simian-only virus, was beginning to emerge.

The soldiers had been starving, and had taken to hunting in the forests in search of food.

And instead of several hunters looking for food, suddenly the forests were awash with “1700 soldiers with rifles and plenty of ammunition”, Pépin said, picking up the trail.

“The likelihood that a chimpanzee had been killed and cut up and then a soldier had an injury was statistically very likely to have had happened,” he said.

-Hugo Greenhalgh – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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