Ten years ago, the February 5, 1998 edition of the journal Nature published a short report by a team led by Tuofu Zhu of Rockefeller University. That team examined the genome of an HIV-positive blood sample taken in 1959 from an unidentified man in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo (today’s Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire). By looking at how the virus has mutated over the past 40 years, and by projecting the mutation of that particular virus (dubbed ZR59) back further, they were able to estimate when the various HIV virus groups evolved from a common ancestor. Zhu and colleagues concluded:
Our results … indicate that the major-group viruses that dominate the global AIDS pandemic at present shared a common ancestor in the 1940s or the early 1950s. Given their ‘starburst’ phylogeny, HIV-1 was probably introduced into humans shortly before that time frame, about a decade or two earlier than previously estimated. …The factors that propelled the initial spread of HIV-1 in central Africa remain unknown: the role of large-scale vaccination campaigns, perhaps with multiple uses of non-sterilized needles, should be carefully examined, although social changes such as easier access to transportation, increasing population density and more frequent sexual contacts may have been more important.
That single serendipidous 1959 blood sample from a man whose name and fate is lost to history provided an important part of our understanding of where the virus came from. Simon Wain-Hobson wrote a commentary in the same issue of Nature explaining its implicaitons:
What else is the position of ZR59 among HIVs telling us? First, it probably means that the global epidemic was indeed founded by a single HIV although, in this respect, it is no different from the annual ’flu strain. Second, the centre of the radiation and ZR59 are a considerable stretch from any simian counterpart, suggesting that HIV had a human history before it went global. Third, the Big Bang seems to have occurred around, or just after, the Second World War. Emerging microbial infections often result from adaptation to changing ecological niches and habits. And, of course, the post-war era saw the collapse of European colonialism and attendant changes in urban and technological traits. As usual, when data are limited we’re in the realm of speculation, meaning that the story is not over. …
In 1959, the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg for their work on nucleicacid polymerases, while the world rocked around to Elvis and Chuck Berry. There was fog in the English Channel.
And in 1959, a blood sample was drawn from an unknown HIV-positive man in the Belgian Congo. What he must have gone through afterwards…
Sources: Zhu, Tuofu; Korber, Bette E.; Mahmias, Andre J.; Hooper, Edward; Sharp, Paul M.; Ho, David D. ” An African HIV-1 sequence from 1959 and implications for the origin of the epidemic.” Nature 391, no. 6667 (February 5, 1998): 594-597. Abstract available here.
Wain-Hobson, Simon. “Immunodeficiency viruses, 1959 and all that.” Nature 391, no. 6667 (February 5, 1998): 531-532.