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The Cell That Started a Pandemic

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Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green) from cultured lymphocyte. This image has been colored to highlight important features. Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green) from cultured lymphocyte. This image has been colored to highlight important features. (CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus/Wikipedia Commons)

In the early 1980s, epidemiologists were racing to understand a mysterious disease that was killing young men in California. As we now know, that disease was AIDS. And it soon grew into one of the biggest global pandemics in human history. But back in 1984, no one knew what it was, or how it was spreading. So the CDC commissioned a study (abstract here) to look at whether it might be sexually transmitted. And the results were startling--the data seemed to point to a figure at the center of the outbreak from which all the other cases radiated. A few years later, Randy Shilts published a formative book on AIDS called And the Band Played On, which, along with documenting the early history of AIDS in the US, revealed the name of the man at the center of that CDC study: Gaetan Dugas. Dugas was soon dubbed Patient Zero, and labeled by the media as the cause of the AIDS epidemic. But as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen explain, Dugas was absolutely not Patient Zero. Not by a long shot. Michael Worobey and Beatrice Hahn help us search for a much earlier Patient Zero, by taking us to Africa, and turning back the clock on a series of virus mutations and pinpointing one fateful moment of cross-species spillover in a jungle in Cameroon. And virus hunter Nathan Wolfe takes us back even farther, to an intracellular instant that created a chimp Patient Zero hundreds of thousands of years ago.

You can listen to Carl Zimmer's full conversation with Michael Worobey on the podcast "Meet the Scientist" here.

Read More:

Nathan Wolfe, The Viral Storm

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On


Beatrice Hahn, M.D., David Quammen, Dr. Michael Worobey and Carl Zimmer

Comments [40]

Janet from South Africa

Dr.Walanta God will continue to bless you more abundantly, for the good works you are doing in people's life, I will keep on testifying about your good work. I was CURED from HIV-virus through the help of Dr Walanta. I saw a blog on how this great herbalist cured people with his herbal treatment, i did not believe but i just decided to give him a try, I contacted him and he prepare the herbs for me which i took, after taking it, he told me to go for check up, could you believe that i was confirm HIV negative after the test, and i went to a different hospital and it was also negative, i am so happy. If you have any problem or you are also infected with any disease, kindly contact him now with his Email: or

Dec. 05 2015 12:19 AM
JB from Colo

Your show re: HIV, whether intentional or not, is another attempt in a long line of mis-informed reporting using disinformation and omissions about AIDS. HIV started in the lab with Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute. The CDC storytellers needed a myth to sell the public to explain AIDS in Africa but also to confuse the issue after they abandoned the original correct diagnosis of the first gay men showing up in L.A. and NYC hospitals, as GRID.

HIV is a retrovirus!!!!! It is not a cytotoxic virus. Gallo knew this. Montagnier knew this. Retroviruses are 1000's of times smaller than cytotoxic viruses. Thy do not, I repeat they do not kill the cells they enter. And they enter cells RNA first (as opposed to infect them) to pass codes/information. This is why they earned the name retro. They are well known in virology as passenger or associated viruses and the body produces millions of them daily.

The only, I repeat the only reason they were pursued by viral researchers was because they caused tumors in some chickens (Rous sarcoma virus), and were because of this studied as a possible catalyst in cancer cell mutation in humans during Nixons, Virus Cancer Program. The program failed to show this true or possible for humans.

There is no monkey connection. AIDS in Africa is a lie. NO HIV TEST REQUIRED IN AFRICA!! Only observation of symptoms whose real causes are poverty...i.e.: malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, overcrowded living conditions, dirty water, open sewers etc. BUT match symptomatically the CDC's list of AIDS diseases.

Retroviruses are harmless. It is the tests that are erroneous and false. None of the proteins in the tests are specific to LAV (Montagniers name) HTLV-1 then HIV (Gallos names). None. These non-specific proteins cross react with some 70 different conditions (sickness, flu, pregnancy, herpes on and on..... or other antibodies in our blood. All the results of these tests are false positives or false negatives. Test every month and you'll find this out. They are worthless! The test kits themselves proclaim that they cannot detect the HIV virus! ASK YOUR DOC OR CLINIC TO LET YOU SEE THE TEST INSERT!!!!

Start here:
The whistleblower who questioned AIDS seriously in 1986 before anyone else. Why? Because he was the first molecular cell biologist who mapped the DNA/RNA of retroviruses studying them for cancer causation.
His book: "Inventing the AIDS Virus" Buy it. Read it. Of course Peter was immediately excommunicated by his colleges, and his career was purposely destroyed by the NIH, CDC and everyone else whose interests in the boogieman virus HIV were of research $$$ and the pharma corps. immune killing drug AZT.

BTW, there are no Patient Zeros!!!! They made this mistake with Typhoid Mary as we know now many of us carry bacteria or other pathogens that can errupt ONLY when our immune systems are weak or compromised.

Nov. 30 2015 12:44 AM

Here's the public version of article published in Science in 2006 by Brandon Keele, et al., on the Origin of HIV-1 from SIVcpz from chimps in Cameroon:

The hypothesis of HIV origin form polio vaccine production has been refuted:

Nov. 28 2015 04:27 PM
Jen from Oklahoma City, OK

As always, a great telling of such an intriguing topic. I was literally just looking through an blog called "HIV Then and Now" It is so amazing how far we've come.

Feb. 20 2015 03:09 PM
David Foster from San Diego, CA

In one word, no.

This account is accurate only in that the origins of the AIDS epidemic can be traced back to Africa, not to Cameroon but to the colonial era city Leopoldville, now called Kinshasa. And the virus did transfer from chimps to humans, but most likely not according to the "cut hunter" theory.

The likely source was an experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV), created using local chimp kidneys and fed to thousands of locals in the very same places where the first cases of AIDS are documented. Want to learn more about the truth here?

Here is a good summary from the author of The River, Edward Hooper:

Here is a 2003 documentary which covers this quite well. There has been more evidence that the OPV was made using chimpanzee kidneys that has come out sine then.

Nov. 13 2014 12:49 AM
Jay from Brighton, UK

Loved this. How come it doesn't show up in the podcast feed? Is this something else?

Jul. 30 2014 07:17 AM
Janet Hammond from Kingman AZ

Hey, what's with the grammar persnicketiness? This is a show with an informal tone, and people speak differently in causal conversation than in more formal settings. Its called social register. The inflexibility to adjust to social register is considered the deficit. Relax and enjoy!

Jun. 18 2014 02:56 AM
john brown from usa

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May. 23 2014 03:58 AM
Jeff from Baltimore

I just listened to this fascinating story for the second time, and a question came to mind. I'm not a skeptic, I'm just wanting more information. If the "spillover event" happened around 1908, when the hypothetical blood hunter moved to an urban environment and started spreading the virus, why didn't we become aware of the epidemic in Africa *before* North America (or anywhere else?) I can come up with hypotheses: With global travel, do epidemics show up everywhere all at once? Due to life-style and economic differences, did the disease spread more quickly in the West, catching up with a slower spread in Africa? Did nobody notice or care about the disease in Africa until it started affecting affluent people in the West? I'm interested in evidence-based answers, like those presented on the show. Thanks.

May. 10 2014 02:30 PM
Science Librarian from Bryan, OH

The genesis of HIV has been well-documented in books & scientific papers over the past 10 years. My question is this. When do we get an apology from Maxine Waters for her claims that white men created the virus to infect black men? Politicians are as ignorant re science as the mainstream media.

May. 10 2014 12:53 PM
Alexis Danzig from New York, silly

Patient Zero is a ploy, and a dangerous one at that. "Though it had been discredited by the medical community, Shilts and Denneny succeeded in creating one of the most culturally divisive, politically damaging and scientifically fallacious mistruths of the latter half of the 20th century. In so doing, they unwittingly gave ammunition to politicians such as U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who sought to pass discriminatory legislation targeting those with HIV and limiting critical funding for treatment. The damage done to the cause of AIDS activists - who, after years of struggling, had finally begun making strides in the public arena at the time of the book's publication - was immense."

Mar. 05 2014 05:58 PM
gaetan from 24382

That so is true Gaetan yet I am wondering about our immune system that we carry on the outside. Related would be Wilkinson disease to this idea I have. The actual under arms of the human being are actually part of our immune system that we fully supply with aluminium everyday of our life. Since all immune systems are related in the human body. I know the monkey RNA does not wear the aluminium product. I read about the bonding process in a German science magazine and it seams to make sense. I was wondering about the aluminate particle in our immune system The German science magazine has anyone read that article?

Jan. 29 2014 03:15 AM
gaetan from 24382

The old HIV disease. If only a scientist could just block the receptor site of the T4 cell. To find a bonding material would be to understand why HIV bonds to our human cells. I am interested in reading the bonding process within the immune system itself. Some individuals are born without this bonding site so much information gets lost overtime.

Jan. 29 2014 02:55 AM
Skeptic from Chicago

While I believe most of what was said in this article, I do not believe that a Bhantu man at the turn of the century was entirely to blame for the spillover. Personally, haven read a great number of books on the HIV virus, the OPV/AIDS theory is the one that in my opinion has slightly higher credibility. Picture all that was said about Kinsasha but put it in a time not distant from 1908, rather during the polio epidemic. Where cells of the sooty mangabey, African green monkey, p.paniscus and p. Schweinenfurthi, as well as a few other monkeys were having their kidneys harvested for a substrate to grow a weakened polio virus in and -unknowingly- the transmission of the SIV virus into humans. It's a complex theory but here's where things get interesting. Science has a history of covering up or denying its mistakes and this appears to be the case here as well. Saulk wasn't the one who transmitted it, rather one of the competitors racing for the patent rights to the vaccine.
This is more eloquently detailed in Edward Hooper' s The River.

Oct. 15 2013 02:23 AM
Hanni Rose from Green Valley, AZ

I, too, would like to know where I can read a transcript of this program. I don't do podcasts or any of the other means of downloading a whole program, nor do I wish to listen to it again. I just need reminders of the most important points when trying to explain the story to others. It was just so fascinating to me to find my notions about the origin of the AIDS epidemic debunked. Great show!

Aug. 30 2013 07:50 PM

@ Skeptic from Massachusetts

Wait, so you are accusing the biologists and epidemiologists of basically racism for claiming that the disease comes from Africa - but you yourself are implying that the disease someone is a result of the homosexual "lifestyle"!? (As if such thing were...I would a disease arise in reply to a lifestyle!? Unless you are claiming that the disease is a punishment from God or the gods...but diseases are amoral and unconscious, and don't have motivations or make moral and ethical judgments...)

And the DNA history doesn't lie. The disease comes from monkeys, from Africa, and is related to SIV. This is no judgment on or slight of African people - and only the most simple-minded and ignorant bigots in America ("White-Power" racists as such) are implying as much - the scientists are NOT, they are just going where the science points. The disease *could* have easily arisen in South America, or India, or Australia, or Europe, or the middle of North America - but Africa is where the DNA trail leads. And that has nothing to do with politics or racism. But implying that the disease is a result of a certain "lifestyle", or is a "gay disease" is just as bad a implying that it's a "black diseases" or "African disease" - diseases do not know race or sexuality, and they don't discriminate. In fact, it's among *heterosexual African-American women* in poor black communities that the disease in now most prevalent in the US. But nobody but the most ignorant racists would imply that HIV/AIDS is somehow a "straight black female" disease - or a result of the "heterosexual African-American female inner-city lifestyle"...

Sure, lifestyle cane spread a disease like HIV/AIDS - but that's a lifestyle of un-protected sex and ignorance about sex-education and how the disease is spread. If you want to blame white society for anything - blame politicians and religious leaders who try to keep sex education and contraception - especially condoms and other "barrier" methods - out of public schools, and out of the hands or poor, inner-city women and men. If anything, that's almost a form of genocide against poor black women.

Aug. 25 2013 08:09 PM
Skeptic from Massachusetts

Since the discovery of this disease in white, homosexual males in 1980, there has been a concerted effort to look for black scapegoats. If the theory is true that AIDS originated in Africa, why was the disease not predominant among African immigrants in the US? No one has been able to explain how a virus that supposedly originated in Africa came to decimate predominantly white, homosexual communities. That's like saying even though SARS affected mostly people in Asia, it really originated in the United States. Let's stop looking for scapegoats for AIDS. Scientists have looked at Africa for the origin of HIV but I think they are looking in the wrong dark places. The origin of the disease may be closer to home, and this is an inconvenient truth. Is anyone looking at whether AIDS originated as a result of certain lifestyles?

Aug. 25 2013 11:32 AM
Editor from Rockland County

Great show but please please can we make sure to edit our grammar? "She and her colleagues..." not "Her and her colleagues..." Thanks

Aug. 24 2013 12:31 PM
Valerie from Brooklyn, NY

I am extremely obsessed with this episode. I loved the comprehensive tracing back to the origins of the disease, it was excellently executed! NICE JOB.

Mar. 20 2013 03:31 PM
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Mar. 06 2013 11:32 PM
KB from South Africa

This desease probbly has a cure! And the medical fraternity is making money from just making anti Retrovirals and many other depressants! A cure must exist!

Mar. 05 2013 03:46 AM
Richard from California

Interesting podcast but a lot of the things seems to based of speculation, which is disheartening and possible deceptive to others.

Feb. 27 2013 06:32 AM
Jussie Guzman from Los Angeles

When will a cure for AIDS be found? And who, in particular, is looking for a cure?

Jan. 25 2013 03:58 AM
Claudine from Philadelphia

This was my first time listening to radio lab, I never heard of it before I took this course on HIV/AIDS. It is so interesting and I didn't want to stop listening. I've learned so much and look forward to learning more.

Sep. 09 2012 02:30 PM
bk from texas

i only just began devouring radiolab a couple days ago but this is by far the most riveting story that i've heard so far. i must have spent the last hour or so (at work...) searching the internet for anything i could find on the history of AIDS.

Aug. 09 2012 01:34 PM
Aleksandr Pugachev from New York City

I heard a Radiolab that spoke of the origins of AIDS coming from an African man who might have contracted it from a monkey. It mentioned mutations that defied the odds. It was a lovely story. What I have issue with is that this story, which is total speculation, was presented as fact. I wish you wouldn't do that.



Jul. 21 2012 08:56 AM

I couldn't agree more with Lili Fuller from Milford, CT, who commented:

"I love Radio Lab, but I really wish that the narrators could pay attention to grammar. I winced when I heard the phrase, "Her and her colleagues (did)..." Please, this is as egregious as starting a sentence with, "Me and him..." Usage like this undermines the sense of intellectual discourse one associates with programming like this. Presentation is as important as content. Let me know if you need an editor."

The content on RadioLab is amazing. The grammar? Ain't so great.

Jun. 07 2012 02:41 PM
Josephus from Brooklynea

Actually, AIDS has never been definitively connected to any virus. And the alleged pandemic has never followed any known epidemiological pattern. The alleged HIV epidemic in Africa doesn't exist, and none other than Luc Montagnier, the man who won a Nobel Prize for his "discovery", has already publicly stated that if sanitation, nutrition and traditional diseases were addressed throughout Africa, the so-called HIV/AIDS pandemic would "disappear".

The false notion connecting AIDS - a syndrome - with a retrovirus, was propagated by a man who, years before, had failed in his efforts to find a viral cause to cancer. But any close examination of the numbers reveals that the HIV=AIDS link is a phantasm. It doesn't exist. The deaths attributed to AIDS in Africa are extrapolated from torturous mathematical models used by the World Health Organization - and have nothing to do with reality.

If anybody wishes to see the Luc Montagnier interview in its entirety, it can probably still be found on YouTube. And if people have more than a passing curiosity about the fallacy of HIV=AIDS, I'd recommend watching the award winning documentary "House of Numbers", released in 2009. In it, a young Canadian man goes through the process of trying to find out what the whole pandemic is about, only to discover that it never existed in the first place. And all of the root interviews with so-called experts - all of which contradict each other - are also available on-line if you bother to track them down.

Jun. 05 2012 05:57 PM
Lili Fuller from Milford, CT

I love Radio Lab, but I really wish that the narrators could pay attention to grammar. I winced when I heard the phrase, "Her and her colleagues (did)..." Please, this is as egregious as starting a sentence with, "Me and him..." Usage like this undermines the sense of intellectual discourse one associates with programming like this. Presentation is as important as content. Let me know if you need an editor.

May. 27 2012 02:37 PM
Dr. Alisha Thompson from Sydney

Dear Radio Lab,
Thank you for this wonderful broadcast. It was very timely when I stumbled across this story. I teach a lower level year 10 science class of all boys, of whom, for the past several days, have been obsessed with asking questions about AIDS/HIV. On a limb, I played this podcast for them and they loved it. It was one of the first time i had them fully engaged, just listening, even videos rarely hold their attention! They actually asked for more when the HIV segment was done so I play the Typhoid Mary segment too (they're Australian and had never heard of Typhoid Mary). Most of these boy come to class hating science so it was really rewarding to find something they could relate to and found interesting. I'm going to try to incorporate more of your segments into my classes.
Thanks again

May. 26 2012 10:30 PM
Rae from Hawaii

Fascinating broadcast. I just listened to it on a podcast and I,too, am wondering if there is a transcript of the show.

Apr. 03 2012 04:25 PM
Nicole J. from Philadelphia, PA

Anyone interested in the origins of HIV/AIDS should read Timberg and Halperin's new book Tinderbox : How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It.
It's a thought-provoking exploration of how the West's interference/colonization in Africa may have helped spawn and spread the AIDS epidemic.

Mar. 12 2012 09:02 AM

Hooper's book is 13 years old and has been thoroughly discredited. See Jacques Pepin's book The Origins of Aids.

Feb. 17 2012 03:13 PM
Sam from Canada

Stefan: That theory has already been thoroughly debunked by much more authoritative publications (Science, Nat Med, Nature)

Jan. 30 2012 10:19 AM

SV-40 is a polyomavirus, a DNA virus. HIV is a retrovirus, an RNA virus. These two viruses are completely unrelated. If polio vaccines were contaminated with this virus it would have nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic.

Jan. 30 2012 06:45 AM
Stefan from Miami, FL.

I appreciate Radiolab for presenting this story; When I first heard it, I had little knowledge of the AIDS epidemic other than the story of Gaeton Dugas. However, of all places, I read a small passage from material that was distributed during our Physics lab, discussing the theories of the beginning of HIV: it mentioned a possibility that Radio lab hasn't addressed, the distribution of polio vaccinations in West Africa during the late 1950s that contained SV-40. Polio vaccines were cultured in ape kidneys and I plead that Radio lab address this theory.

Jan. 29 2012 10:26 PM

If you go to Amazon's website and read the one star reviews for, The River, by Edward Hooper, you'll read why the book's theory has been debunked.

Jan. 29 2012 11:20 AM
Satya Byock

I'm distressed that the most tested and researched theory of the origin of AIDS is not mentioned in this story, despite the fact that 90% of the research reported comes to the same conclusions. Edward Hooper's book "The River" must be read. The much more recent research, as reported in this story, correlates with Hooper's research, except for the flimsy conjecture of the hunter which ends the story. If you read this masterful book, it becomes clear Hooper's theory is the most well defended and researched of all possibilities.

Jan. 08 2012 03:08 PM
Ari from Denver

Is there a transcript of this available anywhere?

Jan. 04 2012 05:45 PM

I am looking for electron micrograhy pics of HIV that show:

1. the source or nature of the material photographed
2. a size bar
3. if the pics have been changed in any way ie computer enhanced, generated, coloured etc.

thank you

Dec. 08 2011 08:08 AM

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