extract from Fear of the Invisible
How Monkey Viruses got into the Polio Vaccine
‘The discovery in 1960 that a DNA tumour virus, designated simian virus 40 (SV40), was an inadvertent contaminant of rhesus monkey cells, and consequently of the poliovirus and adenovirus vaccines made in these cells, was a watershed event in vaccine development...' FDA 1997
All that I learnt about the contamination of the polio vaccine at the SV40 Workshop at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC, that had so shocked me, became no surprise when I learnt how the polio vaccines were manufactured. What I now discovered was a miserable story of negligent science, with risks to children knowingly ignored for commercial gain and to boost the reputations of governments.
It had all started, I learnt, when scientists decided in the early 1950s that they could take the risk of growing the virus needed for our polio and adenovirus vaccines on the extracted kidneys and testicles of tens of thousands of Indian, S.E. Asian, and African wild-caught monkeys even while knowing that they were full of monkey viruses.
The problem with vaccines is that they require the production of enormous numbers of viruses - and these are exclusively a product of cells. The poliovirus, for example, is normally produced by human cells, but also reportedly can be produced in the laboratory by bird or monkey cells, although any virus thus produced may well not be identical to that produced by human cells.
The manufacturers did not need to use wild-caught monkeys for the polio vaccine. The risk of monkey virus contamination was already well known - and leading scientists at the time said that it would be far safer to produce the polio vaccine virus from fertilised chicken eggs or human cells. In fact, Lederle, a major pharmaceutical company, was using bird embryos in fertilized eggs, thinking this safer method would give them a commercial advantage.
But other pharmaceutical companies were allied with scientists who preferred to use monkeys, since polio is a human disease and monkeys are the species most like us; despite the risk that monkeys might have viruses that could adapt to live in us. As far as I can judge, the final decision to authorise only polio vaccines grown on monkey cells for the US and UK was made partly because they feared that using human cells might pass on human cancers.
Since then, many tens of thousands of monkeys have been trapped in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, transported, anesthetised, operated on to remove their organs and then ‘sacrificed' (the vaccine industry's euphemism for ‘killed'). Their kidneys and testicles are then mashed to make a ‘substrate' from which can be produced the needed virus. These particular organs were selected because they are easy for amateur surgeons to find and remove.
The minced organs are then ‘seeded' by being mixed with a poliovirus-rich fluid developed by scientists (much more about this in next chapter). The seeded monkey meat is then kept for 3 days in ‘incubators' before a virus-rich fluid is filtered out for the vaccines.
For the first polio vaccine, the one commercially released in 1955 and invented by Dr Jonas Salk, the polioviruses in his suspension were ‘killed' with formaldehyde before being injected into children. Salk admitted to ‘sacrificing' 17,000 monkeys and chimpanzees in the course of developing his vaccine.
His principal rival was the white-bearded Albert Sabin in the race to develop a commercial polio vaccine. They knew using monkeys might be dangerous. In 1932 a monkey had bit a colleague of Sabin's at New York's Bellevue Hospital. He had developed paralysis and died. Sabin later reported: ‘At the autopsy I collected specimens and isolated a virus.' This would be labelled as the ‘Monkey B' virus. He admitted in the laboratories ‘often [safety] procedures were not followed.' In fact, there was a great deal of carelessness.
His vaccine nevertheless would be approved and released in 1960. In his vaccine the polioviruses were not killed nor administered by injection, as with the Salk vaccine, but weakened (‘attenuated') before being administered on a sugar cube. Both Salk and Sabin expected their killed or weakened monkey polioviruses would stimulate the immune systems of children into producing protective antibodies against human poliovirus. Neither of them looked to see if children were already immune - it was later found that most children were and thus did not need the vaccine.
Sabin set out to weaken his poliovirus to make it safe to use by forcing it to mutate. He thus passaged the fluid containing it rapidly though 51 cultures of mashed monkey kidneys. He tried to weaken it further by growing it on kidneys from two different species of monkeys, Indian Rhesus and African Greens. He surely must have realised that he had thus exposed his vaccine to contamination with incompatible viruses and cellular fragments from three continents, counting America. But he bottled filtered fluid from his final cultures and patented this as the commercial ‘Sabin Original Merck' poliovirus seed lot. In this process he admitted to ‘sacrificing' 9,000 monkeys, as well as chimpanzees.
Why chimpanzees? Because they are the most alike to humans. They are thus frequently used to safety test vaccines. Sabin tested his ‘Original Merck' polio seed by injecting it into the brains of living chimpanzees, and then by giving it to 133 young human inmates of an Ohio prison - and then to some tens of millions of Russian children. Sabin enjoyed during this the support of the pharmaceutical giant Merck, Sharp and Dohme, which produced for his Russian trials some 25 million doses of vaccine.
Most AIDS experts today say HIV-1 evolved from a mutated chimpanzee virus from Central Africa, and HIV-2 from the Sooty Manabrey monkey of West Africa. Originally, in the 1980s, HIV was thought to be from the African Green Monkey. Each of these is said to have a similar virus to HIV, called an SIV, but one that contradictorily does not damage their immune system. The similarity to HIV seems mostly to lie in their genetic codes.
It is thought that these SIVs evolved during the early 20th century into a form that can infect humans and which we now know of as HIV. Well, from what I was reading, there was at that time ample opportunity for any Chimpanzee virus to get into the polio vaccines. These animals were kept next to each other in small cages at the laboratories, with their carers using little hygiene.
One could say, with hindsight, that this process could not have been better designed to produce HIV if conventional theories about AIDS are correct! Passing a fluid processed through monkeys and chimps into humans would surely provide the monkey viruses present with all the challenge they required to force them to mutate into forms that could replicate in humans?
In an October 1967 Joshua Lederberg of the Department of Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine, warned in a letter to the editor of Science about the lack of safety involved in using live-virus vaccines; ‘In point of fact, we [are practicing] biological engineering on a rather large scale by use of live viruses in mass immunization campaigns...Crude virus preparations, such as some in common use at the present time, are also vulnerable to frightful mishaps of contamination and misidentification.'
When I read this warning, it sharply reminded me of what I was told in 1996 by Professor Michael Stewart, London University's top vaccine expert. ‘We know living virus vaccines are dangerous. That is why we are developing alternatives.' Had so little changed in all these years?
The experiments of Hilary Koprowski, another polio vaccine pioneer, were even more liable to create HIV. He was developing his vaccine along the same lines as Sabin. His experiments allegedly included passaging poliovirus vaccine through chimpanzee brains, meaning that he injected it into the living brain, left it there for some time, extracted some of the contaminated virus fluid from this brain and passed this into other living chimpanzee brains. He similarly injected it into the brains of other species- and it is entirely possible that other scientists did the same. This experiment was then commonly performed with chimps to safety test vaccines.
If HIV had come from an SIV found in chimpanzees, as is widely held today, surely such experiments must have provided an excellent opportunity for a chimpanzee virus to contaminate the polio vaccine?
Koprowski based his vaccine on a sample of ‘poliovirus' - which in fact was a ‘suspension of [ground up] backbone' from a polio victim. He presumed this would contain the virus. This sample is now known as the ‘Brockman poliovirus isolate' although it is anything but an isolate. He injected this backbone mash into the living brain of an albino mouse, waited some days, then took fluid from this brain and injected it into the living brain of another albino mouse. He repeated this until seven mice were thus ‘infected.' Then fluid taken from the final mouse was injected into the brains of monkeys. When the monkeys survived without apparent harm, he injected the mouse brain extract into a series of three cotton rats. The fluid extracted from the final rat brain was deemed to contain ‘attenuated poliovirus' safe enough to inject into humans. He named this vaccine ‘TN', and it is very likely it was then similarly safety tested by being ‘passaged' through the brains of chimpanzees.
The process of ‘attenuation,' of the weakening of a virus to make it suitable for a vaccine, is also a risk factor for HIV. ‘Attenuation' is really induced mutation. The monkey cells in the culture are subjected to enormous stresses in order to make them produce weakened viruses. What if the viruses they produce mutate to be more virulent, not less? If HIV thus evolved though these highly unnatural transplantations, it would not have been detected, for in those days HIV was not known, and thus could not be tested for. The same must be true for the many other viruses that would be present during this highly impure laboratory process.
On February 27, 1950, Koprowski tested his experimental polio vaccine on an eight year-old boy from Letchworth Village, New York. When he suffered no apparent ill effects, Koprowski enlarged his experiment to include 19 more children. He then decided to weaken his poliovirus some more by ‘passaging' it through 20 living mouse brains. In 1951 he safety tested the result on 61 ‘mentally retarded' children in the Sonoma State Home. It was apparently considered ethically fine to thus experiment on children.
Sabin and Koprowski, must have known of the risks they were taking, and exposing others to, by making and so testing "living virus' vaccines. They were all virologists, men who saw viruses as dangerous and as the cause of terrible epidemics. They believed monkey viruses had killed several scientists during these vaccine experiments.
The danger was acknowledged in the UK Parliament. On April 24th 1955 the UK Minister of Health, Mr Iain Macleod, told the House, as thousands of monkeys arrived from India at Heathrow Airport: ‘Perhaps it is as well to put the facts in plain words to the House. This new vaccine involves inoculating our children at repeated intervals with a preparation derived from the kidneys of dead monkeys. The House and the country will surely agree that we must carry out intensive tests as to the exact effects of this so we can eliminate any possible dangers from it.'
But despite the Health Minister's firm words, such intensive tests were not carried out before millions of UK children were injected with the vaccine. As I discovered when I made my film on SV40 - the government did not even charge a UK laboratory with the responsibility of monitoring the future health of these children for any slow-developing cancers or other ill effects.
But some scientists were very worried. They pointed out how unwise it was to use monkey kidneys, since this organ naturally collects toxins, and presumably viruses. Kidneys remove these by putting them into urine. They said this urine is certain to have gone with the kidneys into the vaccine cultures and thus into the unpurified vaccine doses.
But the release of the first of the polio vaccines, the Salk, might have been completely derailed - if a 1954 report by the scientist in charge of the US government safety-testing lab. Dr Bernice Eddy, had not been ignored.
While Salk was ‘safety trialling' his ‘killed virus' polio vaccine in 1954, by testing it on 2 million American children, with parents volunteering their children, so eager were they for their children to be protected; Eddy was still carrying out the necessary polio vaccine safety tests in her laboratory. This work should have been done beforehand, but the rush to get the vaccine out had left her behind. She was thus horrified when she discovered that monkeys were paralysed when she injected them with the polio vaccine. It was far too late to discover this. It had already been injected into hundreds of thousands of American children.
Dr Edward Shorter reported what happened in his 1987 work, The Health Century: ‘In 1954 the rush was on. Her lab had gotten samples of the inactivated polio vaccine to certify on a 'due-yesterday' basis. This was a product that had never been made before and they were going to use it right away.' She and her staff worked around the clock. 'We had eighteen monkeys. We inoculated these eighteen monkeys with each vaccine that came in. And we started getting paralyzed monkeys.'
She photographed the diseased monkeys and took these photos to her boss - but astonishingly he sharply reprimanded her for being alarmist. He ordered her to cease these tests -and to work instead on flu. No criticism of the polio vaccine was to be tolerated, for it was about to be endorsed as utterly ‘safe,' without further tests, in a major 1955 event organised by President Eisenhower's Administration.
She reported she was not sure what caused the paralysis. Something deadly was clearly in the vaccine culture. It was not necessarily a virus. She called it a toxic ‘substance.' Now at that time a cosmetic or a food would have been immediately withdrawn if just one or two hamsters died in such tests - so it was utterly outrageous that the polio vaccine was not then immediately withdrawn.
Lancet (1 8 April 1953; page 777) stated that monkeys' testicles as well as their kidneys were used as sources of the cells that form the culture-medium for the polio virus.
A later book ‘The River' by Edward Hooper (Allen Lane, Penguin 1999) focussed on the possibility that Congo polio vaccine laboratories run by Hilary Koprowski were implicated. What I have found is that there were ample other earlier opportunities for a chimp virus to get into the polio vaccine.
Edward Shorter, Ph.D., The Health Century, Doubleday, New York, 1987, p. 67.