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Killer Viruses: the Other Ecological Crisis

Over the last almost four decades, AIDS has killed 30-plus million people throughout the world – and 30 million are currently infected.  Today, Ebola has killed a few thousand in Central Africa and seems not to be spreading.  AIDS is not a freak of nature, nor “a gay disease”; nor is Ebola a mysterious phenomenon.  By understanding how, when and where HIV originate, people can better understand the significance of the Ebola epidemic.

Carl Gierstorfer, director of a new TV documentary, Rise of the Killer Virus (The Bloody Truth internationally) points out, “HIV and Ebola show that in a globalized world, with humans the dominant species and expanding into the remotest corners of this planet, ‘zoonoses’ [i.e., interspecies transmitted viruses] will become more likely.”  He warns, “We should be aware of the fact that our actions do provoke reactions in nature.”

Gierstorfer is a Berlin-based filmmaker who earned a BSc in Biology from University College, London, and is currently in West Africa working on a film about Ebola.

Killer Virus analyzes HIV as a form of interspecies transmission, a virus jumping from animals – chimpanzees – to humans.  It is like Ebola where transmission is from a fruit bat to a human.  The film is a scientific detective story that traces the pre-history of HIV to its origins in Cameroon around 1908.  The documentary is important for both the history it uncovers and the collaborative effort to produce and broadcast it worldwide for AIDS Day.  In the U.S., it will be shown on the Smithsonian Channel on December 1st at 8 pm.

The documentary follows scientific detectives seeking to determine the origins of HIV.  The key medical researchers are: Dirk Teuwen, Belgium MD, PhD histo-pathologist whose been involved in the search for the origins of HIV since 2000; Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfun, one of the most renowned scientists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) whose worked on the AIDS pandemic since the 1980s; and Mike Worobey, a professor for evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who developed a technique to extract viral RNA from tissue samples.  Their research reveals that AIDS is as much a scientific investigation as an historical and social story.

The film shows that HIV is the horrible legacy of brutal European colonial rule in Central Africa at the turn of the 20th century.  It traces how the imperialist tyranny inflicted by Belgium and France in, respectively, the Congo and Cameroon has come back, a century later, to devastate the West.

The film follows the key scientists in a challenging, two-set research effort.  The first involves finding tissue samples in Central Africa dating from the 1950s and ’60; amazingly, they discover them!  This moves the story one step closer to the pandemic’s origins and evolutional genetic researchers link the finds to its early-20th century origins.

Carefully assemble archival film gives viewers a vivid sense of early-20th century African colonization.  It was brutal and the early black-and-white footage only makes it more gruesome.  To think that comparable plunder continues today in Africa and other parts of the world makes one wonder how much has really changed over the last century.

According to one of the producers, Antje Boehmert of Berlin’s DOCDAYS Productions, “The trip to Cameroon was difficult to get done. We went to a remote corner of Cameroon, bordering the Central African Republic.”  Scientific detective work is not easy.  “To go and film scientists collecting chimpanzee droppings you may think is no big deal but due to the dangerous territory, we needed support by the local authorities, which they gave us,” she reports.

The film’s production and broadcast is the second part of the Killer Virus story.  Production costs toped 500.000 Euros and involved three lead producers from Germany, France and Belgium with co-producers from the U.S. and China — it’s the first time China Science (CCTV-10) has participated in an international coproduction.  Broadcast partners came from Austria, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Wales and the Middle East.  All broadcast partners agreed to show the film as part of Worlds AIDS DAY programming.  This is an unprecedented media event.

According to Boehmert, “The challenge with a co-production this big is that we are dependent on many broadcasters.  It could have been difficult and painful, but our main partners were very quick in making decisions. We found them – and it was in the end no too difficult.  Our partners were really collaborators.”

Gierstorfer points out “there are many paralleles between AIDS and the current Ebola outbreak.”  He notes “the virus jumped from animals to humans because we come in ever closer contact with wildlife; Africians consume bush-meat because they often have no other choice; deforestation and habitat fragmentation increase the likelihood of new pathogens crossing the species barrier.”

He argues that the Ebola crisis was made worse by the “late response by the international community, just like during the emergence of HIV.”  “Only when Ebola became a threat to people in Europe and America did politicians and the public wake up to the threat of another pandemic.”

A century after European colonization of Africa and the accompanying incubated the interspecies transmission of the HIV virus, 30-plus million people have been killed.  Today, a new virus – Ebola — is gaining traction.  One can only wonder what our grandchildren and their children a century from now will think of people today and the ecological horrors we’ve bequeathed them.

David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, FourTwoNine, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker, IndieWire and Salon. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com and can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

 

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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