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 News and opinions on situation in Haiti
An Interview with Worobey Reveals the Scientist is Not so Sure

Time Warner Cable, MNN
The World and Democracy
By Smith Georges
Published in December 3, 2007, New York City
Complete Script of my Interview with Michael Worobey on Sat., Nov. 10, 2007.

Live interview on Time Warner Cable MNN: “The World and Democracy”

Producer/Host: Smith Georges
S.G. = Smith Georges, Haitian-American Producer/Host of “The World and Democracy” on Time Warner Cable, MNN
M.W. = Michael Worobey, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona
S.G. – Yes, you are on the air, hello.
M.W. – Is this Smith? Michael Worobey here.
S.G. – Thank you so much for calling and Welcome to “The World and Democracy – where the viewers will have – really – an opportunity to hear directly from you and where you can shed some lights.
M.W. – Thank you very much for having me – nice to be on your show.
S.G. – OK – Definitely- What we are going to do discuss tonight is the fact that there was a press release in October 29 in which it states that the AIDS virus – HIV path came out of Africa, then to Haiti, then to the United States, then to the rest of the world.
M.W. – Yes, that’s correct.
S.G. – In it you said in 1966 it came from Africa to Haiti to the United States in 1969, and from there – you know- it spreads all over the world – so first of all Michael I want to give you a chance to introduce yourself.  I know you are an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, is that right?
M.W. – Yes, that’s correct – and the origin of HIV and how it has gotten to human beings – to its spread across the world is something that I have been investigating for several years now.  I’ve done quite a lot of field work in Central Africa and I made several trips to the Republic of the Congo where I collected samples from Chimpanzees and think that there are many different types HIV that had crossed into human on independent occasion from wild primate population and there is this one called HIV type 1M – the main group and that one accounts for most of the pandemic around the world so that’s the one I’ve been mostly interested in working out the history of – .
S.G. – Have you been to Haiti?
M.W. – No, I’ve never to Haiti.
S.G. – Africa?
M.W. – Yes, I’ve been to Africa in many occasions.  I was just in Kinshasa this summer giving a talk in a conference and collaboration with some of my colleagues there.
S.G. – You were the lead scientist in that research? Right or wrong?
M.W. – Which research?
S.G. – The one that says that HIV path came from Africa, then Haiti, then to the United States, then to the rest of the world.  There were other scientists there, not just you?
M.W. – Yes, I had a number of co-authors and I was the kind of lead author on the paper, yes.
S.G. – This is very important.  Can you tell us the procedure by which you derive to such a conclusion?
M.W. – Yes, before I do that, let me go back – you refer to those dates of 1966 and 1969.  There are kind of intervals around those estimates so we’re looking within two or three years either side of those dates.  That’s the kind of most possible time frame. It’s not necessary the case it happens in those exact years – but the procedure is basically – my line of research is called molecular phylogenetic which basically just means using gene sequences from DNA to make family tree of different  organisms and organism that I work on is HIV.  I also work on influenza and other viruses – but essentially as these viruses move through time – every time they’re replicated.  The viruses are very ---in replicating their genetic material.  Kind of like typing on a typewriter really quickly without going back to spell checking – They accumulate mutation at a pretty rapid rate and the pattern of accumulation of mutation kind of allows you to go back and create those family trees that can often give you insight into geographic pattern or question about timing.  This has been very powerful in the field of HIV and has been central as to where the virus came from and it when first emerged into human, and that basically what we’re doing here.
S.G. – OK, alright, I am not a scientist – you know – I am trying to understand  – to follow closely what you’re doing here – In your field and you know some very prominent names such as Luc Montagnier and Robert Gallo and all those folks – and recently , which is confirmed by the way, Montagnier said that you research is kind of questionable because – as you know – he even sued Mr. Gallo because – you know- both were claiming that they discovered that HIV virus.  Can you explain to us what is Evolutionary Biology?  What is it?
M.W. – Sure, In a way, my field is a little bit different from the real pure virology that Luc Montagnier and Robert Gallo do – and what I do is more evolutionary biology as you said. So Evolutionary Biology is a huge field.  It basically studies how things organisms change over time, and one aspect of that is the field of using geo-sequences to make family trees.  That’s something I have a background when I did my doctoral work in the University of Oxford in a group that was on the cutting edge of developing the kind of method …we’re in kind of two different spheres we both study HIV, but this work is quite separate from the kind of virology that those gentlemen use to discuss HIV which was major early on in the study of HIV/AIDS.
S.G. – Would you say that it’s more or less like your field of study goes beyond -   which searches for the origin of the virus – that’s what it is? The origin – date or place such as .
M.W. – Yes, specifically using the evolutionary or family tree – and within that field there has been a lot of acceptance and very strong result.  Beatrice Hann who is the researcher at the University of Alabama who has led the way n studying the virus n wild primate in Africa has had a very nice piece of work.  Peddy Copper who runs the Los Alamos National Laboratory which is a kind of a central repository for gene sequence information about HIV, and she has led the way in term of timing when we think of how main group as HIV1 entered human – message is beautiful.  The analysis is elegant, and Tony Faucci who is the director of the National Institute of allergy and infectious disease so this is the main funding body for infectious disease research – has noted that the work has not only historical implication, but implications – practical implication for vaccine design – so it’s been a quite – It’s not – particularly been criticized inside the field very much – and it’s encouraging that people like Anthony Faucci – the implication for vaccine.  This is one of the benefit for doing this kind of work.  It can tell you with a lot of confidence where the virus has been evolving longer than other places and those are the places that are going to be the most difficult to develop vaccine because the virus has had more time to generate mutation which then means defense against vaccination.
S.G – Ok, there is a link that you gave me and I am going to put it on the screen as` am speaking right now.  What can this link do? What’s the purpose of it?  What they’re going to find there?
M.W. –  So is it the pnas report?
S.G. – That’s correct, that’s correct.
M.W. –  So that’s a link.  What I’ve done with this paper, because I am eager , not only for my scientific colleagues and anyone around in world with an internet connection or access to one who wants to read the paper, this journal, the proceeding of the National Academy of Scientists which is one of the top peer review journal.  It gives an option if you pay a little more to process the paper, they will allow open access to the paper.  So if people go to that link, they can actually download an electronic copy of the paper and although some of the details are a little bit technical.  The main  thread of he paper is – I am hoping that a lot of people would be able to follow and see what we’re actually saying in the paper itself as opposed to the message that gets filtered through the media which often not exactly the same.  And the paper itself – I think is intelligible and gives strong evidence of what we’re talking about here.
S.G. – Is it free of charge?
M.W – It’s free of charge, you bet.
S.G. – Now, In your press release, it says a single, a single Haitian came from Haiti to the United Sates – and, this is one area that we are questioning here                     
M.W. – Absolutely
S.G. –  A single Haitian came in 1969 to the United States and brought the virus to the United States.   Can you explain? Can you elaborate more in his area?
M.W. – And first let me say the press release and the paper don’t say anything about the nationality of the person.  What they say is we have strong genetic evidence that the virus – the variant of the virus emerged out of Africa and began circulating in Haiti and then after that at some point after that moved to the U.S.  It’s not certain whether it moved in a Haitian or in an American who traveled to Haiti and was infected with this variant of the virus.  It’s not even possible that it moved from the Haitian community into the no-Haitian community in the US from blood product, that’s another way.  But on the family tree of the viruses, what you see as a very striking pattern where virtually all of the viruses that were sampled in the US and many other countries around the world.  They fall into a single branch on the evolutionary tree into a sub cluster, and that’s consistent with – the simplest explanation for that pattern is that they all trace back into a single infection.  Who that person was, we don’t know.
S.G. – Another question is – I mean – would agree that this virus can be contracted only via blood transfusion or by sexual contact.  Is that true? or are there other ways people cam contract this virus?
M.W.- Well, yes, It’s basically a blood borne and sexually transmitted pathogen another major way, of course, that it can move from person is through – from mother to infant – and that can happen both during child birth and also potentially through breast feeding – yes, those are the basic ways that it moves.
S.G. – Michael, the reason why I am asking this question that single Haitian, the only way he or she can spread it to the U.S. population has to be via sexual contact or blood transfusion.  Are those the two ways only that can be spread?     
M.W. – Well Again, it’s a blood borne virus so it can also go through anything that moved blood from one person to the other so injecting drug users
S.G. – Yes, Drug users
M.W. – And again,  let me just correct you there, you said this Haitian person.  It’s not necessarily a Haitian person that moved the virus from Haiti to the US,
S.G. – Who?
M.W. – Again, the gene sequences tell us with a high degree of certainty, that the virus, this sort of HIV had established itself in Haiti and spread there for some years before the majority of the US epidemic appeared and exactly how the virus got from Haiti to the non-Haitian US population is something that our method can’t actually tell.
S.G. – So, alright, now I understand.  You say it’s from Haiti, but not necessarily from a Haitian.
M.W. – yes, that’s right. That’s correct. And that’s an important point because what we’re doing here is basically trying without any bias to step back, look at the gene sequences and trace the path that the virus took around the world just like people in my field did when SARS hit and in that case it was trace back to East Asia, China, just like we do when outbreaks of other viruses occur.  And a really key point here is that all of these movements of the virus happened in the 1960’s, the 1970’s, long before 1981 which was the kind of turning point when we realized that there was a new disease.  So all of these transmissions happened amongst people who have no idea they had the virus.  There is no way you can place blame on any person, or ethnicity, or nationality, and anyone who does that is doing something that’s not scientifically supported.
S.G. – Alright, ok, now, this another – because I have to tell you – you know – I am a Haitian-American also, and I have heard in the community such as – this is what some Haitians are saying, they say that in the 60’s during that sexual revolution, sexual liberation in the United states, and Americans have better means to travel around the world, and why does the virus have to come from Haiti straight from Africa to the United States?  Why you’re so sure the virus came from Haiti, then the United States, then to rest of the world?  That’s the question
M.W – It didn’t have to happen that way and the emergence of pathogens often involve chain of events, and things that don’t necessary have any reason, but if you just look at the gene sequences and try to analogue the history that they tell just like people do when they study the evolution of human.  If you look at human gene sequences, there is a very strong signal that we’re ultimately all African and that it’s only relatively recently and that humans emerge from the African homeland and populated the world.  You see the same pattern in the gene sequences of these viruses and again they’re just more consistent with an epidemic that started in Haiti first and moved to the states later, and I think that everyone deserves to know that’s what the data say.  I think the fact that virus had what we’re estimating, something like three more years to spread without anyone knowing about it in Haiti than it did in the states is probably part of the reason why the prevalence of the virus got so high in Haiti, and I think a lot of people, Haitian-Americans, Haitians and non-Haitians alike would be interested to know that, but even more importantly the virus seems to have been circulating there for longer, that means it might more difficult to develop vaccine against the Haitian population of this variant of HIV, and if people don’t think about that ahead of time, then some years down the road we might be slapping ourselves in the forehead saying oops! I wish we’ve been thinking about that because that’s related to the kind of virus that you might put in your vaccine.
S.G. – Michael, what would you say to the people who are saying that you have chosen the most vulnerable continent and the most vulnerable country to prey on, and instead of taking more time for your study.  They say why have you left out the homosexual community, the gay community?  You don’t even say a word about that community? Why is that? How would you respond to this people?
M.W. – Basically as a scientist, what we try to do is not determine the outcome of a study before we do it on the basis of what we wish would be the way it happened.  What we try to do is just do a neutral analysis, let the chips fall where they may, and then interpret the outcome, and again they key thing here is that these events all happened anyone knew about the virus, and so we all have to work together to make sure that anyone who tries to lay blame at individuals or groups inflicted by HIV and AIDS is basically ostracized.  It’s that kind of thinking we need to move beyond.
S.G. – Michael, another thing – like – let’s say – have you also – or are you, maybe, working on this to study why the AIDS epidemic is so rampant  – rampant in the gay community, and in certain group – you know- that’s what we’re trying to figure out here.  Why is that?  Why is it spreading so much and why back then we were talking about “patient zero” that a person from Canada – that was the belief first – who came here in the 80’s, early 80’s and started spreading the virus, then FDA said that it was the Haitians and they shouldn’t be donating blood.  They put a ban on the Haitian blood which was reversed, now are you working also on finding out why there is such high  concentration of AIDS related disease in the gay community or in certain other groups beside Africa and Haiti?
M.W – Oh, absolutely, in fact there were more gene sequences in my study that were sampled from the gay population than were sampled from Haitians  and we weren’t just looking at Haitians or Haitian-American samples here.  We were drawing on twenty years of hard work by laboratories around the world who have been sequencing HIV genes and putting the whole things together into one large analysis, and you do that the sample from the gay population in the U.S. appeared to emerge from Haiti rather than the opposite, and that’s a very strong signal.  Now what is also important in the study, it wasn’t a study about just one geographical area and a key thing that came out of our study was that how seldom it looks like the virus migrated successfully from Haiti to the US.  Again, almost the whole US epidemic traces back to a single migration event, so it was once it got into the US and into the highest risk population in the gay community, the injecting drugs using community, that’s when the virus seems to have proliferated to many, many countries around the world.  The US was actually a more important hub for the transmission of this particular HIV variant around the world than Haiti was.  Haiti was a kind of stepping stone, but it was once it got into the US that it really exploded.  So  yes, we’re looking at those things as well.  It’s a big picture.
S.G. – Michael, there is another thing – I mean – there isn’t a possibility where the AIDS virus can go from Africa to another country, but you say it passes through Haiti, then the United States, then from the US to the end of the world – I mean, do you understand what you’re saying here? I mean there is no possibility where the virus can go from Africa, let’s say to France, to Japan, to other countries.  It passes through Haiti first, then to the US, then to the rest of the world – I mean is this a definite study? Are you 100% sure, or 90%, or 50% sure?
M.W. – The way we do it is we gather all the gene sequences and then we test all of those different hypothesis against the actual data and if you ask the gene sequences if they’re consistent with viruses going directly from Africa to the US and then to Haiti, the probability of that was less than .01%, and if you ask  the data if they are most consistent, particular variance, which is this one of many variances of HIV.
S.G.- Michael I am sorry to disturb you right here.  Could it be an American tourist who traveled to Haiti back then, and carried that disease, that virus there? No, there isn’t such possibility?  An American tourist could have traveled to Haiti and brought the virus to Haiti, and then the virus spread in the United States as well.  You think, you’re sure the path is more Africa- Haiti, Haiti-US, US-rest of the world?
M.W. – yes, the family tree that you infer from all the gene sequences when you put them together is one that says very strongly it emerged first in Haiti, and then afterward into the US, and the bulk of the US epidemic traces back to a virus that was typical of that early Haitian epidemic.  That’s a very strong result.  Those are what the data are and again no blame should put on anyone for any of this and we need to be giving these groups that were hit early both Haitian and the gay population our sympathy rather than trying to say let’s blame this group, or let’s blame that group.
S.G. – Ok Michael, again – would you say – let say – In Haiti actually, the rate of AIDS in Haiti comparing to the rest of the world.  Where does Haiti? Where are we placing now?
M.W. – Well, the first thing to say there is that –  the prevalence of HIV in Haiti over the last several years has dropped considerably and that in part due to the hard work of some of the people who have pushed through the idea that  everyone including people developing countries deserve treatment for HIV.  That’s been really wonderful. And Haiti, actually, has led the way in showing that even people in poor country who don’t have a lot of resources can either meet or beat in the western world in taking this complex regiment of medication, so Haiti prevalence is dropping.  It’s still very high compared to other country in the Western Hemisphere.  And again, my finding suggests part of the reason for that it had extra years to spread, and I Think that’s something that people deserve to know about.
S.G. – Ok, Michael, other question I have for you, ok now, you have heard of these things too.  People say it’s a man-made disease.  People say that when they were trying to make the polio vaccine, they were extracting some liquid from monkeys – chimpanzees’ kidneys and to make the polio (vaccine) and something went wrong in Africa and then they tried that vaccine on so many thousands Africans and that’s how the virus started in the 50’s, and some even said that it was a biological mistake that the US – that was being made at a US lab – you know. You hear all kind of stories. I mean – what would you say about these allegations?
M.W – Well, again, these are hypothesis you can go out and test.  I have been involved in that, so I went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Civil War, and collecting sample from chimpanzees that allowed for direct test of that hypothesis.  And what you find is, first of all, this particular population of chimpanzees that were implicated in that theory don’t actually have a really close relative of the human one, so geographically it doesn’t make sense.
S.G. – Did you find the AIDS virus in any of the chimpanzees that you were testing?
M.W. – Yes, we did.  We found an AIDS related virus that was a very distant cousin that it related, but not the one that gave rise to the human variance.  That one appeared to have circulated in South East Cameroon and the timing suggests the cross into human around 1930. So using these family trees you can test these hypothesis, and you can say ok, let’s take the idea seriously and what the data say, and this case the data say, really strongly, that’s not how the virus crossed into human.
S.G. – So the fact that it’s a man-made disease you refute that?
M.W. – Yes,
S.G. – I mean – you are not too sure?
M.W. – yes, I would refute that.  There’s so much evidence against that.  The virus is circulating in wild population of dozen of species of monkeys and apes all over the African continent, and frankly I don’t think sinister man-made forces are kind of clever enough to do that kind of trail cover-up so, yes,  I don’t think those kind of ideas have merits and that’s part of what I do.  I try to find information that can help answer questions like that.
S.G. – Michael, you also refute the fact that the government wasn’t trying to destroy what they called undesirable groups and such as the gays, the Haitians or the black community.  You don’t think that they were trying to experiment on them and that’s why the rate of the AIDS virus is so rampant in those groups.  You don’t think that’s the case?
M.W. – No, No, I don’t think there is any serious person who looked at the evidence could say something like that.
S.G. – Michael, one question – you know – as I have a TV show and so many people are watching right now, there is a question they have in mind.  You, Are you supported, you get grant from the government, or how do you do your research?  Who is supporting your research?
M.W – Yes, I have a grant from the National Institute of Health and I have a grant from a private foundation as well.
S.G. – The government and private as well?
M.W. – Yes, although that the work I did in the Congo, some of that was funded from my own bank account because I didn’t have any funding at that time, but I really thought the question needed to be answered, and so from my bank account and I bought a ticket went down and did the work, yes.
S.G. – Two private questions that you don’t have to answer
M.W. – OK, and I am about a minute away from having to take off here.
S.G. Alright, Ok.  You’re Christian, are you?
M.W. – Let’s not talk about-
S.G. –OK religion – you are not gay, are you?
M.W – Again. It’s not really relevant so I don’t think we should really talk about that.
S.G. – OK Michael I think you so much for calling, and believe me I appreciate your calling here and I think you have shed a lot of lights and I am going to put the link on the screen again so people can see it and can download or upload the research paper.
M.W – Well, It’s certainly been a pleasure for me to be on your show.  I’ve  enjoy corresponding with you in the last several days.  I think you’ve done a great job of getting people an opportunity to hear from someone who is doing this kind of research and that can only be a good thing to share information like that.
S.G. – Michael, the last thing I want to say.  You put out a press release.  Do you think – like – such like – groups are fighting against other group or accusing other groups, and – which – because in the Haitian community, and that can have impact on children going to school, discrimination on housing, discrimination at work.  Your press release is very —impact – —full.  Would you put out another press release to explain that was not your purpose to put one group against the other?  Would you do that?
M.W. – It’s implicit in all the work and the press release that is not the purpose of it and so I won’t put out another press release because I am not releasing another paper, but I certainly on your show say let’s not let this virus make us fight each other.  It’s got to be us against the virus, but not us against each other that the way forward is to have a clear map of what the virus has done and to work with that to beat the virus.
S.G. – Thank you, once again, thank you so much Michael
M.W. – Thank you Smith
S.G. – Thank you
M.W. – My pleasure
S.G – Thank you.  Take care, bye. 
Below are statements made by Michael Worobey during the live interview and via e-mail.  Those statements show clearly that Worobey is not so sure of his finding.
 Worobey Not so Sure (See his own statements below)

“…and first let me say the press release and the paper don’t say anything about the nationality of the person. What they say is we have strong genetic evidence that the virus – the variant of the virus emerged out of Africa and began circulating in Haiti and then after that at some point after that moved to the US”
“…it’s not certain whether it moved in a Haitian or in an American who traveled to Haiti and was infected with this variant of the virus…”

“…exactly how the virus got from Haiti to the non-Haitian US population is something that our method can’t actually tell…”

“… There is no way you can place blame on any person, or ethnicity, or nationality, and anyone who does that is doing something that’s not scientifically supported”

“– I am hoping that a lot of people would be able to follow and see what we’re actually saying in the paper itself as opposed to the message that gets filtered through the media which often not exactly the same.”

“…It’s not necessarily a Haitian person that moved the virus from Haiti to the US,”

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