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HIV Missing Link?

on July 25, 2009
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AP: “Scientists Find HIV’s ‘Missing Link’ in Ill Chimps” Hot news about chimps, “missing links,” and evolution—but the story has nothing to do with human origins or anthropology. What could it be?

The results of a nine-year-long study of chimpanzees reveal new insight into HIV and HIV-like viruses, reports the Associated Press on a study conducted in Tanzania. Specifically, the study examined chimps infected with SIV, a virus similar to HIV, which causes AIDS in humans.

SIV causes no symptoms or illness in many of the apes and monkeys who have it.

SIV, however, causes no symptoms or illness in many of the apes and monkeys who have it. “If we could figure out why the monkeys don’t get sick, perhaps we could apply that to people,” explained study head Beatrice Hahn, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama—Birmingham.

Chimpanzees are a different story. Hahn and colleagues discovered that of the chimps they studied at Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, those infected with SIV had a death rate 10 to 16 times higher than those without SIV. Those chimps also showed T-cell white blood proteins well below normal—just as in humans with AIDS. Furthermore, the strain infecting the chimps is the “closest relative possible” to HIV. According to Hahn, both chimps and humans probably first became infected with the virus in the same way: by eating infected monkeys.

But why are monkeys and apes other than chimps able to survive SIV infection? Daniel Douek, an AIDS researcher with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speculates that the difference is due to some “evolutionary adaptation, probably on the cell receptors,” the AP reports, while “the infection of chimps is more recent so they haven’t adapted.” (Douek was not involved in Hahn’s study.) Compounding the evolutionary flavor of the AP coverage is that Douek calls Hahn’s research the “‘missing link’ in the history of the HIV pandemic.”

What Douek calls an “evolutionary adaptation” could truly be a biological change—a decrease in genetic information, for instance, that allows monkeys and non-chimp apes to avoid AIDS. Or, perhaps just as likely, chimps and humans could be the ones with (degenerative) mutations that render us susceptible to SIV/HIV. Each hypothesis is contingent on ongoing study of SIV.

As with all diseases, HIV/AIDS forces us to ask how could a loving God allow such suffering? The answer to that question can be found in Genesis 3.


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