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February 3, 1998

Scientist Find 1959 AIDS Case


Filed at 2:45 p.m. EST

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- Scientists have pinpointed what is believed to be the earliest known case of AIDS -- an African man who died in 1959 -- and say the discovery suggests the virus first infected people in the 1940s or early '50s.

Where AIDS came from is still a mystery, although experts assume an ancestor of the virus crossed from monkeys or other primates into people at some point. However, whether this occurred in recent decades or centuries ago is a matter of debate.

Now, researchers say they have conducted genetic analysis of an HIV sample that appears to date from early in the epidemic. They believe it is an ancestor of the viruses that have infected more than 40 million people worldwide, most of them since the early 1980s.

Dr. Toufu Zhu of the University of Washington in Seattle presented the findings Tuesday at the Fifth Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. They will also be published this week in the journal Nature.

``This is to date the oldest known HIV case,'' said Dr. David Ho, head of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Rockefeller University and a co-author of the study.

Until now, the earliest, undisputed cases of AIDS were from the late 1960s and involved members of a family in Norway, Ho said.

In the new study, scientists looked for signs of HIV in 1,213 blood samples that were gathered in Africa between 1959 and 1982. They found clear signs of the virus in one taken from a Bantu man who lived in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo -- what is now Kinshasa, Congo -- in 1959.

The virus in the sample had degraded, but the scientists were able to isolate four small fragments of two viral genes. One gene holds instructions for assembling the outer coat of the virus, while the other is code for one of the proteins the virus needs to reproduce.

HIV mutates quickly. About 1 percent of its genetic material changes each year. So the scientists compared the genes from the 39-year-old sample of HIV with those carried by current versions of HIV.

``We realized that if we had an old sequence'' of HIV genes, ``it would serve as a yardstick to measure the evolution of the current HIV,'' Ho said.

HIV has mutated over the years to form 10 distinct subtypes, lettered A through J. One of these, subtype B, is the dominant strain in the United States and Europe, while subtype D is most common in Africa.

The family tree of HIV looks like a bush with the various subtypes forming the limbs. Ho said the 1959 HIV is near the trunk, around the point where subtypes B and D branch off.

``This is no doubt an ancestor to B and D,'' he said.

Zhu said this suggests that all the HIV subtypes evolved from one introduction of HIV into people, rather than from many crossovers from animals to humans, as some have speculated. And given the steady rate at which HIV mutates, it also means that the virus probably first got into people sometime in the 1940s or early '50s.

``I would say this is the oldest, totally unambiguous look at HIV that we have,'' said Dr. Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was not involved in the study.

A few years ago, British researchers reported that a Manchester sailor, who also died in 1959, was the oldest case. However, Ho's group provided evidence that the HIV in that man's blood was actually contamination that entered the sample long after he died.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the latest discovery does not help those who have AIDS now, but having the early genetic snapshot of HIV may allow experts to predict how the virus will evolve over the next 10 or 15 years.

The study also does not explain how AIDS spread and became an epidemic.

However, the researchers speculated that it could have been unwittingly transmitted in Africa through unsterilized needles used in vaccination campaigns.

Other potential factors that could have hastened the spread include the end of colonial rule and the introduction of automobiles and shanty towns.

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