The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Rainforest, by admired science journalist David Quammen, tells the real story how AIDS originated with a virus in a chimpanzee, jumped to one human, and then infected more than 60 million people in one of history’s most devastating pandemics. Described as a frightening and fascinating masterpiece, The Chimp and the River illustrates how the origin of AIDS is very different from what most of us think we know.
The common narrative holds that the spread of HIV and AIDS among humans can be traced back to one flight attendant in the 1980s. But while that individual certainly did spread the virus, he was far from the first to do it.
In fact, Quammen writes, humans had been infected with HIV as far back as at least the early 1900s. He traces the genetic origins of the AIDS epidemic by reviewing scientific literature, consulting researchers and traveling to the geographic source of the deadly disease.
Excerpted and adapted from the book Spillover, with a new introduction by the author, Quammen’s, hair-raising investigation tracks the virus from chimp populations in the jungles of southeastern Cameroon to laboratories across the globe, as he unravels the mysteries of when, where, and under what circumstances such a consequential “spillover” can happen. An audacious search for answers amid more than a century of data, The Chimp and the River tells the haunting tale of one of the most devastating pandemics of our time.
David Quammen is that rare breed of science journalists who blends exploration with a talent for synthesis and storytelling.
He writes: “The very beginning of AIDS has now been traced to a single event, localized rather precisely in place and time. The place was southeastern Cameroon, a small wedge of landscape in forested Central Africa from which two modest rivers (the Ngoko and the Sangha) drain toward the great freeway of brown water known as the Congo. The time was as early as 1908, give or take a margin of error. The event was an encounter—presumably a bloody encounter, a predator-prey interaction—between one human and one chimpanzee. The chimp happened to be carrying a blood-borne virus, which scientists much later have labeled SIV—an insidious thing, a retrovirus, slow-acting, with enormous potential to replicate, persist, and cause harm in the right host (meaning the wrong host, from our point of view), if it could blunder its way into such a promising situation. This virus passed from the chimp’s blood—through a cut on the man’s hand, maybe?—into the hunter’s bloodstream. SIV became HIV. (More precisely, the chimp’s version of SIV became the founder lineage of what’s now called HIV-1 group M, the pandemic strain. I explain all this in the book.) Forget about that Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas, (And the Band Played On) about whom you may have heard or read. The Cameroonian hunter, not Gaetan Dugas, was Patient Zero. From there, that single man, that moment, that mishap, the fateful strain of HIV spread through global humanity, like a bucket of blood flowing down a tile stairway.”