Skip to Main Content

AIDS: Contagion and Confusion

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a disease that results from a viral infection that damages the immune system. A damaged immune system cannot protect the body from other infections and cancers, and these secondary illnesses are often fatal. There are many strains of the AIDS virus, called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), with different strains existing in different geographical areas.

Billions of dollars are spent annually to combat what has been called “one of the most destructive epidemics in history.” Since AIDS was first recognized in the 1980s, it has killed more than 25 million people, and 40 million people worldwide are believed to be infected with the virus.(1) Not included in that number are the animal victims killed in countless wasteful experiments in an attempt to find a cure.

How AIDS Is Transmitted

Non-animal clinical, epidemiological, and in vitro studies have successfully isolated the virus that causes AIDS and have demonstrated how the virus is transmitted in people. Clinical evidence shows that AIDS is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The virus dies quickly outside the body, so it cannot be transmitted through the air or through casual contact. Because AIDS can develop years after the initial infection, it is impossible to predict how many people might get the disease.

Researchers rely on epidemiology and in vitro lab work to identify, track, and isolate new strains of HIV before they spread. These methods were recently responsible for stopping an epidemic of drug-resistant, super-virulent AIDS in New York City.(2)  

Nonhuman Primates Dying in Labs

Until recently, research had focused on injecting the HIV virus into chimpanzees. Many AIDS-infected chimpanzees were locked in small steel-and-glass isolation chambers in laboratories, where these highly social animals typically became psychotic from stress and isolation. The stress of confinement also suppressed the chimpanzees’ immune systems, making accurate AIDS studies impossible. After years of trying to infect chimpanzees with the virus, in 1996, a 15-year-old chimpanzee named Jerome, who had been infected with HIV in 1986, died of AIDS.(3) No chimpanzee has ever developed AIDS from normal exposure to the virus, and Jerome only developed AIDS because he was injected with three different strains of HIV, which formed a new hybrid strain unlike the ones found in humans.

The high cost and endangered status of chimpanzees have prompted more researchers to inject AIDS-like viruses into other animals. In 1999, a monkey named “798” was injected with a trial vaccine, and from that point on, experimenters regularly injected him with virulent forms of HIV. Like all the monkeys in the trial, he tested positive for HIV but didn’t develop symptoms. The experimenters trumpeted their success in medical journals, all the while poking, prodding, and repeatedly jabbing the monkey with needles to withdraw still more blood. Then, suddenly, “798” got sick and, after a year of suffering from debilitating, body-wasting AIDS symptoms, he died.(4)

The Failure of the Monkey ‘Model’

As far back as 1987, renowned AIDS researcher Dr. Allen Goldstein of George Washington University stated, “The sooner we begin testing on humans, the sooner we’ll hopefully be able to develop a vaccine.”(5) Still, experiments designed to mimic the HIV virus involve infecting monkeys with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) and cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). However, like other AIDS-related viruses, these viruses do not resemble HIV. AIDS researcher Marc Girard stresses, “One should realize that we still do not know how the SIV or SHIV model compares to HIV infection in humans. Extrapolating from vaccine protection results in non-human primate studies to efficacy in man may be misleading.”(6) An animal experimenter at the Washington National Primate Research Center wrote in a peer-reviewed journal that nonhuman primate models of HIV “do not allow direct testing of HIV vaccines” and that “because of the complexity and limitations of the nonhuman primate models, it remains difficult to extrapolate data from these models to inform the development of HIV vaccines.”(7) Another researcher said, “What good does it do you to test something in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave totally differently from monkeys, so you’ve wasted five years.”(8) 
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 80 HIV/AIDS vaccines that have passed animal testing have failed in human clinical trials.(9) Jerome’s death and the endless suffering of other nonhuman primates from this horrible disease have not produced any benefits for human patients and draw precious research funds away from the study of the disease in infected humans. A research scientist working on AIDS therapies wrote in New Scientist, “Animal research merely gives false hope to people who need real cures and detracts financially and intellectually from more appropriate research.”(10) As the associate editor of the British Medical Journal stated, “When it comes to testing HIV vaccines, only humans will do.”(11)

Prevention Proves Successful

A U.N. position paper on AIDS states that “the AIDS epidemic can only be reversed if effective HIV prevention measures are intensified in scale and scope.”(12) While the numbers of HIV infections and AIDS deaths rise annually, prevention efforts are starting to have a promising impact. In his message written on World AIDS Day 2005, the executive director of UNAIDS said that there are areas in which adult infection rates have actually decreased and that “changes in behaviour, such as increased use of condoms, delay of first sexual experience and fewer sexual partners—have played a key part in these declines.”(13) Sadly, fewer than one in five people who are at risk of infection have access to basic prevention services.(14)

A 2006 study published in Science concluded that “greater spending on prevention now would not only prevent more than half the new infections that would occur from 2005 to 2015 but would actually produce a net financial saving as future costs for treatment and care are averted.”(15) Yet only 4 percent ($956 million) of the 2007 U.S. federal AIDS budget went to prevention efforts, while 12 percent ($2.6 billion) went to research, including experiments in which monkeys are infected with diseases that cause acute weight loss, major organ failure, breathing problems, and neurological disorders.(16)

What You Can Do

Despite these failures and the skepticism among prominent researchers that an AIDS vaccine may ever be developed, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it intends to ramp up the use of nonhuman primates for HIV research. Please write to the NIH, one of the main sources of funding for animal experiments in North America, and politely explain the following points:

  • You do not want your tax dollars used to support animal experiments.
  • Funding for research should be redirected away from experiments on animals to epidemiological, clinical, in vitro, and computer modeling studies.

Please send polite comments to:

Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D., Acting Director
National Institutes of Health
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892
[email protected]

Support only charities that do not fund research on animals. If you must donate to a charity that conducts tests on animals, indicate on your check and donation form that you want your donation to go only toward animal-free research.

1) Associated Press, “U.N.: 40m Now Have AIDS Virus,” 21 Nov. 2005.
2) Lawrence K. Altman, “The Challenge of Tracing a Rare H.I.V. Strain,” The New York Times 1 Mar. 2005.
3) David Berreby, “Twists and Turns in Chimp AIDS Research,” The New York Times 4 Feb. 1997.
4) Mark Schoofs, “Monkey’s Death Muddles HIV Vaccine Hunt as Researchers Keep Focus on Inoculations,” The Wall Street Journal 17 Jan. 2002.
5) Associated Press, “U.S. Said to Back AIDS Vaccine Test on Humans,” 18 Aug. 1987.
6) Marc Girard et al., “New Prospects for the Development of a Vaccine Against Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1. An Overview,” Life Sciences 322 (1999): 959-66.
7) Shiu-Lok Hu, “Non-Human Primate Models for AIDS Vaccine Research,” Current Drug Targets—Infectious Disorders 5 (2005): 193-201.
8) M.A.J. McKenna, “Science Watch ‘Manhattan Project’ for AIDS Q&A With Dr. Mark Feinberg, a Leading AIDS Researcher ‘We Need the Human Trials as Well,’” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 21 Sep. 1997.
9) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “Clinical Trials of HIV Vaccines,” National Institutes of Health, 19 Sept 2008.
10) Claude Reiss, “Mouse Model Fails,” New Scientist 11 May 2002.
11) Alison Tonks, “Quest for the AIDS Vaccine,” British Medical Journal 334 (2007): 1346-8.
12) United Nations, Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS/HIV, Intensifying HIV Prevention: UNAIDS Policy Position Paper (Geneva: World Health Organization, Aug. 2005).
13) Peter Piot, “Message on the Occasion of World AIDS Day,” UNAIDS, 1 Dec. 2005.
14) Associated Press, “U.N.: 40m Now Have AIDS Virus.”
15) John Stover et al., “The Global Impact of Scaling Up HIV/AIDS Prevention Programs in Low- and Middle-Income Countries,” Science 311 (2006): 1474-6.
16) Jennifer Kates, “U.S. Federal Funding for HIV/AIDS: The FY 2007 Budget Request,” HIV/AIDS Policy Fact Sheet Feb. 2006.