A starving World War One solider forced to hunt chimps for food was the first AIDS patient, a scientist claims.
Professor Jacques Pepin, an epidemiologist at Université de Sherbrooke in Canada, has been working to discover the origins of the deadly viral disease for decades.
Back in 2011 he concluded that a hunter in Cameroon was the first person to be infected by HIV, the condition which leads to AIDS, at the start of the 20th century.
Previous studies had confirmed that simian immunodeficiency virus, which is found in chimps, moved from the animals to humans in South-East Cameroon as the 1900s began.
Dr Pepin has now revised his theory to argue patient zero was in fact a starving World War One soldier forced to hunt chimps for food when stuck in the remote forest around Moloundou, Cameroon in 1916.
Cameroon was invaded by a combination of British, Belgian and French soldiers.
One of the invasion routes saw 1,600 soldiers venture from Léopoldville up the River Congo before reaching the destination on foot.
Dr Pepin says this path took them to the remote town on Moloundou – the location which previous studies had speculated was the site of the very first HIV infection.
He said soldiers spent three or four months there before moving forward but the main problem was starvation.
He said: “All of a sudden you have 1,600 soldiers with rifles and plenty of ammunition, so the level of hunting in that area went up dramatically over these few months.
“My hypothesis is that one of the soldiers got infected while hunting in the forest. A chimpanzee was killed and when cutting the animal to bring it back, there was an injury which got infected with the virus.
“Eventually, the soldier, after the war, came back all the way to Léopoldville and probably started the very first train of transmission in Léopoldville itself.”
Professor Peplin believes the virus then spread slowly, initially confined to what was then the capital of the Belgian colony.
This one case could have led to around 500 infected people in the early 1950s, he estimates.
The spread of HIV was primarily driven by the reuse of dirty needles in hospitals.
He said sexual transmission was accelerated in the 1960s as the population increased with an influx of refugees and migrants. This led to poverty and prostitution with ten men living there for every woman.
Dr Pepin said a Haitian technical assistant came to the country after the nation’s independence and caught the virus, he took it home where it spread among gay men.
More than 33 million people have died from AIDS related illnesses since the start of the epidemic.
At the end of June 2020, 26 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy.
Dr Jacques Pepin’s book ‘The Origins of AIDS’, published by Cambridge University Press, is available to buy now for £19.99 RRP.