German scientist couple presses theory that AIDS was created at Fort Detrick

February 21, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- Once at the center of the Cold War's last great propaganda battle, Jakob Segal now sits in his cramped high-rise, pondering why no one believes his theory that the AIDS epidemic was made in Maryland.

"If the United States were recognized as the producer of the AIDS virus, it would destroy the economy. Think of the compensation claims! This is why they will never admit it," Mr. Segal said.

Convinced that the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick biological warfare laboratory in Frederick created and accidentally released the disease in the late 1970s, Mr. Segal admits no opposition. Scientists who argue that the virus is a natural phenomenon are either blind or afraid of the United States, he says.

In the mid- to late 1980s, Mr. Segal's views were the stuff of scores of newspaper articles in more than 70 countries. They made their way onto the "CBS Evening News" and were studied by State Department propaganda specialists.

For those who have met him, the theory's appeal may lie in the man himself. Engaging and well-read, he is sympathetic to AIDS sufferers and clearly wants to help fight the disease.

The only hitch is that no recognized AIDS researcher or expert agrees with his main point. They are all part of the new conspiracy to silence him, he believes.

"It's crazy nonsense," said Meinrad Koch, head of the AIDS Research Center of the Federal Health Office in Berlin. "He can't be convinced otherwise, and that's that."

The idea that AIDS is a human product is still believed by many people, including those who hold that the disease's widely hypothesized African origin is racist and those who see a conspiracy behind every tragedy.

Documents obtained by The Sun show that the East German secret service, the Stasi, and Soviet Union's KGB did use Mr. Segal's theories between 1985 and 1988 in an attempt to discredit the United States. But he and his wife, Lilli, seemed to have developed the idea in the honest conviction that the disease's true origin would provide a clue to its elusive medical treatment.

Others also supported the theory, but Mr. and Mrs. Segal made the suspicions of U.S. responsibility much more believable by giving them a seemingly scientific founding. Mr. Segal, 82, is the former director of microbiology at East Germany's prestigious Humboldt University. His wife, 81, was an assistant professor of biology at the university and a researcher in immunology.

In 1985, after their retirement, Mrs. Segal said they heard about AIDS from a former colleague, who explained the widely held theory that the human immunodeficiency virus -- which causes AIDS -- probably evolved in African primates before spreading to humans.

"The theory sounded preposterous, and so I started my research," Mr. Segal said.

Soon afterward, he became convinced that HIV stemmed from a similar virus that infects sheep in Iceland but had been harmless for humans until U.S. germ warfare scientists at Fort Detrick got their hands on it.

Mr. Segal calculated that in 1986, the sheep virus was 40 percent different from HIV. His figures showed that the xTC difference between the two viruses grew by 10 percent every two years. Working backward, that meant that the HIV and the sheep virus were identical in 1978 -- nine years after the Army announced the start of research into biological warfare at Fort Detrick.

Undeterred by the fact that genetic engineering was almost impossible in the early 1970s, Mr. Segal is certain that the Army's 1969 plan for biological weapons continued past the 1972 international ban on them. The sheep virus was engineered so it could attack human cells, and then tested on prisoners who volunteered to be human guinea pigs in exchange for their freedom.

But researchers at Fort Detrick made a fatal mistake when they released the infected prisoners, not realizing that HIV sufferers initially appear healthy, he believes.

"Being criminals, the prisoners didn't stay in Maryland because there was nothing there," Mr. Segal said. "So they went to New York. The disease entered the homosexual population and was transmitted to San Francisco, and so on."

Although the Segals have refined their theory over the past seven years, it was picked up from the start by the Stasi's Division 10, which was responsible for disinformation, and passed on to the KGB, according to 1986 Stasi documents.

The documents said Mr. Segal's ideas were to be "disseminated with a view toward harming the enemy's credibility," primarily in poorer countries. This largely confirms the U.S. government's contention that the AIDS-from-Maryland theory was planted by Soviet disinformation specialists in the Third World media.

Spurred on by more than 80 reports in the Soviet media in 1987, the Tass news agency and Radio Moscow shortwave broadcasts, Fort Detrick's sinister reputation grew. One estimate put the number of press articles at more than 200 in 74 countries.

The conspiracy theory's high point came in 1987 when Dan Rather repeated the contentions on the "CBS Evening News."

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