A University of Arizona research team has tracked the entry of HIV into the US, discovering it arrived far earlier than originally suspected, and possibly via a different route.
Now, however, scientists reconstructing the genetic evolution of the deadly virus say they have traced its true path — concluding that the insidious pathogen used Haiti as a steppingstone from Africa to the United States and arrived much earlier than had been thought. It then simmered silently here for more than a decade before it was detected, beginning its global spread along the way.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to bring together the geographical picture with the timing picture to show with a pretty high degree of certainty where the virus went from Africa, and when,” said Michael Worobey, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the research.
This is a fascinating breakthrough, and yes, it’s got the makings of a great detective story. It is an exciting victory for research, that much is certain.
In addition to writing a key chapter in the history of the AIDS pandemic, the new insights into the genetic variability of the virus could aid the long-frustrated efforts to develop an effective vaccine.
“What this might tell us is how the virus might evolve molecularly,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “That might have an impact on the virus that you put in your vaccines. So this not only has historical value but practical implications for vaccine design.”
Reading the several versions of it I’ve gone through this week however, my response has been a growing overwhelming sadness, over the sheer numbers of lives lost, the despicable prejudices suffered by the early victims along with the hateful scapegoating leveled at both gays and Haitians, the evil black hole of the Reagan era, and finally, the inadequacy of funding today for this and so much other much-needed research. The steadily increasing dismantling of US federal funding streams for all manner of vital biomedical research is a staggering thing to contemplate.
It’s a hushed sobering feeling, like walking across a battlefield where there’s been a great victory in a long, bloody war that is far from being over.
UPDATED: An interesting exchange here between veteran activist Larry Kramer and Michael Worobey, the leader of the UA research team.
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