The verdict’s in: Chimps gave us HIV-1

One of the more dramatic moments at the 6th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections held in Chicago in February was the announcement that researchers in Alabama had traced HIV-1 back to a subspecies of chimpanzees.

Beatrice H. Hahn, MD, and other researchers at the University of Alabama in Birmingham found that the virus had passed from chimpanzees to humans, most likely when people killed and ate the animals. This happened at three separate definable points in time in western Africa, starting about 50 years ago and involving the subspecies Pantroglodytes troglodytes. The chimps were infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, which is genetically very close to HIV-1.

This isn’t the first time a virus has existed harmlessly in its animal hosts before mutating into a killer virus in humans. Influenza is another example.

With the new discovery, researchers and others have called for a ban on the chimpanzee bushmeat trade because the existing animals may hold clues to cures for HIV, and because eating them is dangerous.