AIDS conspiracy theories: a field guide.

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 19 2008 5:51 PM

The AIDS Conspiracy Handbook

Jeremiah Wright's paranoia, in context.

Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Barack Obama rebuked his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on Tuesday for giving sermons in which he blamed the government for creating a racist state and "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." Wright isn't the first to say that AIDS originated in the White House. Others have attributed the epidemic to a laboratory accident, malnutrition, or even God's divine will. Here's a field guide to the most prevalent conspiracy theories:

Government Involvement
The belief cited by Wright—that the government invented HIV—seems to have originated during the early years of the epidemic. In 1986, crackpot East German biologist Jakob Segal published "AIDS: USA Home-Made Evil." According to the pamphlet, scientists at a Fort Detrick, Md., military lab manufactured the disease by synthesizing HTLV-1 (a retrovirus that causes T-cell leukemia) with Visna (a sheep virus). The scientists administered their lethal concoction to prison inmates, who then introduced the disease into the general population. In case you're wondering, Segal has since been accused of being a Soviet disinformation agent.

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Similarly, the aptly named Boyd E. Graves (who calls himself a doctor although he has only a law degree) has postulated that scientists in the employ of the U.S. Special Virus Program modified Visna to create HIV during the 1970s. The government, with help from pharmaceutical company Merck, added the virus to an experimental hepatitis B vaccine, which was given to gay men and blacks in New York and San Francisco.

And then there's Gary Glum, author of Full Disclosure, who fronts the theory that scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor lab in New York engineered HIV, and that the World Health Organization spread the virus under cover of the smallpox eradication program. Glum believes the virus was created to wipe out, or at least control, the black population. (According to a study released in 2005 by the Rand Corp., more than one-quarter of African-Americans believe the disease was engineered in a government lab, and 16 percent think it was created to control the black population.)

Laboratory Accident
Edward Hooper, a British journalist, argued in his 1999 book, The River, that Dr. Hilary Koprowski of the Wistar Research Institute unintentionally caused the AIDS epidemic by using chimp kidneys to produce an oral polio vaccine. The chimps, says Hooper, were infected with SIV (the simian precursor to AIDS). Then, via an experimental mass-vaccination program in the Belgian Congo, SIV made the jump from monkey to man.

Hooper's contaminated polio vaccine thesis sounds less wacky than most conspiracy theories and has attracted support from a few notable academics—including late Oxford professor W.D. Hamilton. But it's definitely wrong. Hooper says Koprowski got his kidney samples from chimps in the Congo. The problem is that the SIV strain endemic to chimps from that region is phylogenetically distinct from HIV. The offending chimps probably came from Cameroon.

It's Not a Virus
Among the most popular, and pernicious, conspiracy theories is that AIDS isn't caused by a virus at all. Peter Duesberg, a biology professor at University of California-Berkeley, has argued that drugs and promiscuity are the principal causes of the disease in the United States. He attributes AIDS in Africa to malnutrition.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has voiced support for the so-called Duesberg hypothesis, and his health minister, Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, has recommended treating AIDS with foodstuffs, like garlic, rather than pharmaceuticals.

God's Punishment
The Rev. Jerry Falwell famously argued that AIDS is a plague sent by God to punish homosexuals and American society for tolerating homosexuality. Jerry Thacker, the publisher of Today's Christian Teen and other Christian magazines, has also called AIDS a "gay plague" and referred to homosexuality as "the death style." In 2003, the Bush administration nominated Thacker to serve on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. He withdrew his name under pressure from gay rights groups and Democrats.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Martin Delaney of Project Inform and Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.

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