According to a group of scientists led by Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, HIV may have traveled from Africa to Haiti before spreading to the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Based on an analysis of tissue samples from five Haitian AIDS patients collected in 1982 and 1983 and other statistical techniques, the researchers estimate the virus left the African continent in the 1960s when a wave of Haitian professionals returned home from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
The study’s results have piqued the interest of other scientists in the field. However, many scientists have said that more research needs to be done before the most recent findings can be declared fact.
“The paper is a nice piece of evolutionary sleuthing,” Beatrice Hahn, a microbiologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, told National Geographic. “It shows how chance events can shape a major epidemic and that one virus introduced under the right circumstances can create major havoc.”
Added Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University: “It is possible that HIV made many incursions into the United States. Most of these likely never spread or spread cryptically for a while and burned out. The one discussed in this paper appears to have been the bomb that actually went off.”
Worobey agreed with Garry’s analogy. “It is like a forest fire, it often produces sparks that fly out in front of a fire,” he told said. “Some of those sparks … die out. But every once in a while one of those sparks … can start a new wildfire. And that is what we are seeing in this case.”