Fact Check

Was AIDS Created by the CIA?

Published June 13, 2023

 (Chance Yeh/Stringer, Getty Images)
Image Via Chance Yeh/Stringer, Getty Images
Claim:
AIDS was created by the CIA.

In 2003, Snopes concluded the frequently repeated claim that AIDS was purposely created by the CIA or some other federal government agency was false. Twenty years later, we decided to revisit and update that fact check based on the most current evidence available. Our verdict remains the same: The disease emerged naturally. It was not a human creation.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was first recognized as a new disease in the early 1980s. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. In 2021, 650,000 people died from HIV-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The origin of AIDS was originally unknown, as was that of HIV. Together with the virulence of the disease, these unknowns inspired a great deal of fear in the early days of the epidemic, which in turn inspired rumors and conspiracy theories.

In the original 2003 fact-check, one of the claims that we examined was from a book titled "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture," by Patricia A. Turner. The book discussed rumors that have spread throughout the African American community. In it, Turner wrote one young Black/Seminole Indian told her a story she had heard about the claim:

The story was told to me by an aunt. Apparently the CIA was testing to find a disease which would resist any cures known to man. They did this testing somewhere in Africa [South]. The purpose of finding this incurable disease was to bring America back to the old days of the moral majority. Therefore this disease was to be transmitted sexually among the outcasts of society, namely people of color and gay men.

In 2023, we found posts still spreading variants of that claim on several social media platforms, including Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit. One video posted on TikTok in August 2021 claimed that the CIA created AIDS to "wipe out homosexuals and African Americans on Richard Nixon's orders."

@conspiracytheories89 Did the CIA really create HIV/AIDS? #CIA #HIV #AIDS #virus #theory #greenscreen #makingthecut #fypage ♬ clair de lune ethereal remix - Trey Phills

Another social media post we found on Reddit from August 2019 claimed that the "widespread myth that HIV was created by the USA government" was originally spread as a disinformation campaign by the KGB. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media posts baselessly spread a claim that the COVID-19 vaccine contained HIV. We've also fact-checked rumors that spread about the origin of COVID-19, which were reminiscent of the rumors about the origin of AIDS.

What Do Scientists Say About the Origin of AIDS?

The 2003 fact-check found scientists generally agreed AIDS came from chimpanzees. It found other diseases like Ebola and the Marburg virus were passed to humans from simians, too.

There are two types of HIV: HIV-1, the more prevalent type, and HIV-2. People can develop AIDS from both types. Under HIV-1, four known groups exist: M, N, O, and P. Group M is the pandemic form of the virus and has infected over 40 million people, according to a 2015 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1999, a team of scientists found that the species Pan troglodytes troglodytes (commonly known as the central chimpanzee) was the primary reservoir for HIV-1 and was the source of at least three independent introductions of SIV (simian immunodeficiency viruses) into the human population. A reservoir for an infectious disease is where an infectious agent (including viruses like HIV) lives, grows, and multiplies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A 2006 NPR article reported there were opportunities for hunters to get infected with "the chimp version" of HIV through bites or cuts, as people had long hunted chimpanzees for food.

Scientists have found that central chimpanzees in southern Cameroon carried a form of SIV that was most closely related to group M. (Central chimpanzees are mostly found in Gabon, Cameroon, and the Congo.) Group N came from a different strain in the same chimpanzees in Cameroon. Scientists later found in 2015 that western lowland gorillas in southern Cameroon were the source for HIV-1 groups O and P. 

As for other infectious diseases like Ebola and the Marburg virus coming from simians, monkeys as well as fruit bats and forest antelopes are some of the animals that can carry Ebola and infect humans, according to WHO. 

African green monkeys were the source of infection for the first outbreaks of the Marburg virus in August 1967, also according to the WHO.

Fact-Checking Claims Surrounding the Origin of AIDS

The 2003 fact-check found the Soviet Union might have been behind the conspiracy theory that a U.S. government agency created AIDS:

Part of the prevalence of the AIDS origin rumor that pins responsibility for the virus on the CIA (or another group within the American government) may be due to deliberate Soviet misinformation designed to discredit the USA. 

This is also true. In a 2019 article published in the academic journal Journal of Cold War Studies, researcher Douglas Selvage found that the KGB had pushed the idea that AIDS was created during biological warfare research carried out by U.S. military scientists. 

The conspiracy theory especially spread in U.S. newspapers that were read by the gay and African American communities, both of which were deeply impacted by AIDS. In a 2020 interview with the editor of the Journal of Cold War Studies, Selvage said gay and African American communities already felt mistrust towards officials due to decades of discrimination and racism within the medical field respectively.

In the 2003 fact-check, we wrote about why people would believe conspiracy theories about AIDS in the first place:

Rumors about lab experiments gone wrong or deliberate attempts to decimate certain groups are part of our struggle to come to terms with the unfathomable, to reduce it to something that can be comprehended and dealt with. Also, the AIDS origin stories we tell give us someone to blame, providing us with the comfort of a whipping boy in place of the terror inherent to "It just happened; there was no because to it." The acknowledgement that something so deadly could "just happen" is a starkly unforgiving reality that arrives accompanied by its chilling yet unstated companion message of "Something similar could happen again, maybe even tomorrow, and maybe even to us." AIDS origin rumors reflect both western society's anxiety about this dread killer and its attempts to make sense of it.

Sources

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Izz Scott LaMagdeleine is a fact-checker for Snopes.

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