Where Did HIV Come From? A Look at the Origins of the Pandemic of Our Time

A chimpanzee’s virus has killed 35 million humans.

That virus, commonly known as HIV, is the defining pandemic of our time. More than 35 million people have been killed by the virus to date. But the virus itself didn’t get its start in humans.

HIV/AIDS is, like the vast majority of emerging viruses infecting people, zoonotic in nature. The AIDS crisis, as we generally think of it, began in the 1980s. First as a mysterious illness primarily infecting gay men in urban areas in the United States. But that’s not really the beginning. Before the disease’s first mention in 1982 in the New York Times, people had been dying of AIDS for at least a decade, though probably not much longer. In Africa, HIV–the virus that causes AIDS–had jumped from chimpanzees to humans sometime early in the 20th century.

To date, the earliest known case of HIV-1 infection in human blood is from a sample taken in 1959 from a man who’d died in Kinshasa in what was then the Belgian Congo.

It’s this fact which keeps me awake at night. Imagine, for a moment, that the HIV virus in that 1959 sample had been studied and identified. If, in the 1950s, the scientific community realized the potential harm this new virus could unleash. What could we have done? What therapies could we have developed before it became one of the deadliest pandemics in human history? Would we have a cure by now?

Imagine if we could travel back even further to be there when a hunter chopped into the flesh of a freshly killed chimpanzee and the virus slipped into our species for the first time.

There are an estimated 1.5 million unknown viruses in the world. Not all of those can infect humans, but many can. And not all of those will cause the next pandemic, but many could.

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The world we boldly envision at EcoHealth Alliance is one in which those potential pandemics never get the chance to start. Ten years ago, we created the first ever global emerging disease hotspots map. Now, we’re scouring those areas where emerging diseases are most likely to spillover into human populations. Our goal is to do what we wish we could have done with AIDS: to stop new viruses from ever infecting people in the first place.

That work takes several forms, including:

  1. Surveying local wildlife to identify which pathogens they carry. We also test their blood, saliva, and other fluids for unknown viruses, with the hope that we may catch a dangerous pathogen before you hear about it on the news.
  2. Teaching communities how to live in concert with the environment. This also means working with local officials to create policies designed to help prevent disease spread.
Samples collected from wildlife in Thailand

Samples collected from wildlife in Thailand (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)

While it’s true that most emerging diseases affecting humans come from wildlife, it’s often human behavior that is to blame for the spillover. Humans are tearing down forests and hunting, eating, and selling wild animals at unprecedented rates. Each exotic animal shipped across the ocean to be sold as a pet is an sveacasino opportunity for a new pathogen to take root in a new continent. Each tree ripped from its roots increases interactions between humans and wild animals, and thus the odds that viruses will find new populations to infect.

But the good news is: If we’re the ones causing the problem, we’re the ones who can stop it.

At EcoHealth Alliance, we’re striving toward a world where pandemics like the one caused by HIV/AIDS are a thing of the past. Join us.

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