The HIV pandemic began in 1920s Kinshasa, Congo

Kinshasa in the 1920s

An international team of scientists has analyzed the genetic evolution of the AIDS virus, HIV, and concluded that the human pandemic began sometime in the 1920s in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As reported in today’s Science magazine, the researchers said HIV attempted to jump from infecting primates such as chimpanzees to infecting humans more than a dozen times, thanks to gene mutations, but only one such shift took hold in people. Kinshasa (then still a Belgian colony and called Leopoldville, named after the brutal King Leopold) was then a booming trade center which gave the newly human infectious virus an opportunity to spread.

(Editor’s note: To those who talk of Ebola evolving into an airborne virus, that was the same fear expressed at the outset of the HIV pandemic in the early 1980s. After nearly a hundred years of spreading in humans, HIV has still not evolved to spread like flu or other airborne viruses. This is because of the evolutionary dynamics governing on how viruses evolve. Too much to explain here, but HIV after a century has not changed its basic modus operandi of transmission. Ebola is probably just as unlikely to get its wings.)

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You can learn more about this fascinating bit of scientific detective work from Gabe Spitzer’s report at KPLU.org, including the perspective of a Seattle scientific sleuth who was part of the team. Says Gabe:

A Seattle scientist is helping piece together the history of the HIV pandemic, and the new findings on when and where the pandemic began are helping explain how infectious diseases go global.

The first thing to know is that HIV didn’t jump from apes and monkeys to people just once. Trevor Bedford, an infectious diseases scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said it likely did so at least 13 times.

“Almost none of these took off, whereas there is this one particular virus that managed to spread throughout the world and infect millions of people,” Bedford said.

Read the rest and listen to a brief audio interview at KPLU

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.