Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Future Is History": 12 Monkeys and the Origin of AIDS

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Future Is History": 12 Monkeys and the Origin of AIDS

Article excerpt

Set at the start and end of an epidemic plague, Terry Gilliam's 1996 film conflates schizophrenia, hypochondria, carceral confinement, and unregulated experimentation. But these timeless themes have a singular locus: the ultimate truth of a fictional virus. In turn, this locus positions 12 Monkeys in a historical frame: within contemporary discourse on the origin of AIDS.

AIDS is a nightmare poised to be an apocalypse. Twenty years into the pandemic, sixteen million people are dead and another forty million infected, with projected human casualties of one billion by 2025. Given the limited success of AIDS prevention campaigns and AIDS therapies, the only way to end the pandemic seems to be a vaccine. And a comprehensive vaccination program would have to provoke an immune response in two to three generations of the world's population; virtually everyone would have to be exposed to some version (or at least some recombinant portion) of the AIDS virus itself. But, since human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) seems to function by confusing, then consuming, exactly that portion of the immune system that recognizes and responds to pathogens, constructing a safe and reliable vaccine has proved extraordinarily difficult. Indeed, the first human trials of an AIDS vaccine risked the novel recombination of HIV's veritable cloak of invisibility with any other virus, protozoa or bacteria in th e human "volunteers" (Hooper 101). In other words, an imperfect AIDS vaccine could unleash a new, more powerful pandemic.

Ironically, this is one of the theories for the origin of the AIDS pandemic itself. Live, attenuated poliomyelitis virus that was grown on monkey kidney tissue culture then disseminated in the Belgian Congo as an oral polio vaccine between 1957 and 1960 may have been contaminated with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that mutated to HIV in its new human hosts (Curtis). This theory was first articulated in the popular music magazine Rolling Stone by investigative reporter Tom Curtis in 1992. Soon afterward, the designer of the Belgian Congo polio vaccine, Dr. Hillary Koprowski, denied the charges in Science ("AIDS and the Polio Vaccine" 1,024). Further, at the behest of the manufacturer, Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, six independent scientists reviewed Curtis's claims about their vaccine and judged the SIV hypothesis extremely unlikely (Wistar Institute). By 1993, Wistar had sued Rolling Stone, which settled by retracting the story and exonerating Koprowski ("Clarification"). This effectively mitigated public pressure on Wistar to test the seed stock of the polio vaccine for SIV contamination. Nevertheless, Curtis, his medical collaborators, and even his brother, a law professor, continued to refine and defend the theory (Elswood; Michael Curtis).

However, in 1995, crucial scientific evidence used by the Wistar panel to refute the Curtis hypothesis was itself found to have been contaminated, probably on purpose (Zhu and Ho; Bailley; Hooper 496-97). Here the worst fears of medical accidents and medical conspiracies seemed to collide. The search for an immediate simian precursor to HIV was crucial for AIDS research, since the archival strain could help determine the pathogenic nature of the virus, and it offered the clearest genetic model upon which to build an AIDS vaccine (Zhu et al.; Gao). With this understanding, it seemed imperative to test the seed stocks at Wistar, although the Institute effectively made this impossible (Hooper 505). To avoid responsibility for mistakes of the past, Wistar was willing to risk everyone's future. Appearing at this crucial juncture, one other popular culture text seems to urge the re-examination of Wistar's polio vaccine: Terry Gilliam's 1995 film 12 Monkeys.

Like other Gilliam films, however, 12 Monkeys is hardly explicit about its participation in AIDS discourse. Indeed, Gilliam films have a tendency toward madness, although often enough this is their greatest tool for cultural critique. …

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