In recent weeks, many accounts across various social media platforms have been resharing an old Times article claiming the AIDS epidemic was triggered by the smallpox vaccine. Although the article is real, there is no evidence for its claims.
Published in May 1987, the article claimed the World Health Organisation (WHO) was studying whether the vaccine “awakened” dormant HIV.
As evidence for the theory, it claimed that areas of central Africa with the greatest spread of HIV infection mirrored those with “the most intense immunization programmes”.
It also cited the case of an American soldier who developed AIDS shortly after being vaccinated against smallpox, and that needles used to vaccinate people against smallpox may have been reused, and sterilised ineffectively, potentially spreading HIV.
There is no evidence that the smallpox vaccine was responsible for the AIDS epidemic.
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Historian of the AIDS epidemic Dr George Severs told Full Fact that when the theory was first posited in 1987 it may have received “some cultural currency”, but its spread was largely limited due in part to the quick response of the scientific community.
“It’s literally the next day people like the WHO and very high profile international scientists are coming out to say there’s absolutely no truth in this theory whatsoever,” he said.
For example, days after the Times article was published, the New Scientist reported: “The WHO denied that any of its advisors had made a statement to this effect.”
It quoted the director of the WHO’s special programme on AIDS at the time, Jonathan Mann, who noted that the smallpox vaccine had been distributed across many areas of the world over the prior two centuries (after being discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796), and never linked to any upsurges in other diseases.
He also disputed the claim that AIDS outbreaks were located in areas with recent smallpox vaccination efforts, saying: “In Asia, where hundreds of millions of smallpox vaccinations were given from 1967 to 1972, AIDS remains rare. Conversely, the US is experiencing a major AIDS epidemic. Yet smallpox was eradicated there many years ago.”
The article did acknowledge a case of a US soldier who was reported to have developed AIDS shortly after receiving several immunisations, including a smallpox vaccination, noting: “It is well known that a challenge to the immune system can sometimes cause someone who is infected by human immunodeficiency virus to develop full-blown AIDS”.
However, an article in the Irish Independent reported on an editorial accompanying observations of this case, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which said the link “may well be co-incidental because no other cases of this kind have been found”.
It argued that even if AIDS in this individual was triggered by the smallpox vaccine, the event would be so rare it could not account for the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
More recent research also dismisses the link between the smallpox vaccine and the AIDS epidemic.
A study published in 2018 identified HIV-positive people in Senegal who had received the smallpox vaccine (indicated by the presence of the smallpox vaccine scar), to examine the relationship between smallpox vaccination and progression of HIV, indicated by levels of beta-2-microglobulin in the blood (a biomarker for HIV disease progression).
The study said it did “not find any association between the presence of smallpox vaccine scar and the [beta-2-microglobulin] level and does not support any association between a previous smallpox vaccination and HIV disease progression.”
There have been studies showing that smallpox vaccination may have had an inadvertent protective effect against HIV and its progression, though the data is far from certain and other studies have found no association.
While the Times article focused on the theory that the smallpox vaccine could trigger HIV progression, some recent posts on social media sharing the story suggest that smallpox vaccines were contaminated with the HIV virus. (The posts actually claim the vaccine was “laced with AIDS”, a collection of illnesses and infections which can be caused by the HIV virus).
These posts sometimes share a blurred copy of the Times’s front page from 11 May 1987, failing to make it clear that the Times never suggested this was the case.
There is no evidence that smallpox vaccines were deliberately contaminated with HIV, though some research has suggested the medical re-use of contaminated needles may account for some of the HIV spread seen in sub-Saharan Africa.
An old story for new purposes
The article appears to be shared in support of misinformation claiming that Covid-19 vaccines themselves are triggering a wide range of unreported side effects which are being ignored. These include heart attacks and recent cases of monkeypox, which some falsely suggest are actually cases of shingles triggered by the Covid-19 vaccines.
Some of these alleged side effects are sometimes bundled together and termed “VAIDS”, an abbreviation of “vaccine AIDS”, so there is a parallel to claims the smallpox vaccines caused AIDS in the 1980’s.
There are of course rare serious side effects which can be caused by the Covid-19 vaccines. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has, for example, identified a “likely” link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and fatal blood clotting. It has also identified a possible link between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and heart inflammation.
To the end of April 2022, 33 deaths in England and Wales have been registered with vaccine side effects on the death certificate, though some deaths which were caused by vaccines may not have yet been registered.
For example, the MHRA acknowledges 81 people have died of blood clots with low platelet counts following an AstraZeneca vaccine.
But there is no evidence the vaccines are causing widespread autoimmune disease, causing the widespread progression of existing autoimmune disorders, or contributing to significant loss of life, as was seen during the AIDS epidemic.
In November, a study from the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimated that 470,000 lives had been saved by the vaccine in people aged 60 and over across 33 countries in Europe since the start of the vaccine roll out.
In England alone, it estimated that 157,000 deaths had been averted.
The Times’ article, when shared with claims smallpox vaccines were deliberately “laced with AIDS”, also ties into conspiracy theories that global organisations and high-profile individuals are acting to depopulate the world, by deliberately killing millions of people, a claim we’ve written about a number of times.
These false claims have been linked to the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. There is no evidence for these theories.
Image courtesy of NIAID