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Archived Comments for: A historical reflection on the discovery of human retroviruses

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  1. Time to brush differences aside

    Udaykumar Ranga, JNCASR

    28 May 2009

    Recently I was asked to write an article on HIV Nobel prize for an Indian journal 'Resonance' that has wide circulation among colleges and universities. In this connection, I had to do quite a bit of reading digging up a lot of information from every possible source. The task proved to be much more difficult than I thought for three important reasons. First, the article was intended for the young students of biology therefore must be written in a simple language. Second, most of the information available was too biased often laced with personal prejudices therefore making it difficult to see which was genuine and which was not. Third, the viral contamination matters were quite confusing and no available information offered comprehensive idea on this issue. It took nearly a month for me to place the issues in the right perspective and a period of three more months to write the article. The article is freely accessible at the following URL:

    Having acquainted reasonably well with the history of HIV discovery and armed with clearer understanding on the viral contamination matters, I felt quite enthusiastic to see the article by Anders Vahlne in 'Retrovirology'. I found the article quite skillfully written and I must admit that I learnt a little more on the history of HIV discovery. However, I was quite disappointed to see that this article appears to have a predetermined agenda rather than adapting a balanced strategy. The article brilliantly portrayed the valuable contributions made by Gallo towards the science of HIV-1. The article, nevertheless, appears to have ignored the fact that the significance of Gallo’s scientific contributions has never been in dispute. Having read countless number of blogs, commentaries, perspectives, official documents etc, it is evident that even people who disliked Gallo’s personality did not deny the importance of his work. Like many other previous pieces of work that took up on themselves to defend Gallo, Vahlne’s article too appears to have suffered from similar kind of limitations. On two important matters, as discussed below, Vahlne’s article maintained silence and ignored facts.

    Did Gallo attempt to misappropriate credit from others? Historically, all the disputes of HIV discovery have been centered around this single question, not on the merits of Gallo’s contributions to science. Any article that attempts to review HIV discovery must answer this question and the one below. Vahlne’s article appears to refuge even to consider this question. The most incriminating evidence that Gallo attempted to steal credit of HIV discovery for himself comes from the press meeting on 23rd April 1984 at NIH. At that meet, not only Margaret Heckler, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), but also Gallo himself officially declared that AIDS virus was discovered in his own laboratory and it was named HTLV-III. In the entire press conference, or in his scientific presentation, Gallo did not make a mention to Montagnier. Do not forget that it was only a few days before this press meet that Gallo was in Montagnier’s laboratory and both of these teams have had an understanding of organizing a joint press meeting, involving both of the French and American groups. Importantly, Gallo was fully aware of the contributions made by the French group at the time of the press conference. Additionally, there was even evidence that the photos of the virus used by Gallo in the press meet actually belonged to French data. Investigation committees later identified that the virus photos shown at the conference were actually taken from the French team without their knowledge. It is practically impossible now for anyone to verify the veracity of such allegations for numerous reasons. Furthermore, the French group had already published their findings a year ago whereas Gallo’s publications were yet to appear a week later. Unfortunately Vahlne’s article maintains a stoic silence on this important evidence.

    Why was the French application for HIV-ELISA delayed and eventually rejected by the US patents Office? Montagnier and his coworkers applied for a patent of the United Kingdom on 15th September 1983 and for a US patent on 5th December 1983. This application was kept pending at the US patent office for years before finally rejecting it. Five months later, on 23rd April 1984, Gallo and Popovic applied for a US patent for a diagnostic kit for AIDS. A year later on 28th May, 1984, the US Patent and Trademark Office awarded an American patent to Gallo and DHHS. The French application which was filed 17 months earlier was still kept pending in clear violation of the patent norms. While the facts remain such, it is quite surprising that the Vahlne’s article openly defends that ‘the approval of the Pasteur patent was delayed, principally because the French had not reduced their patent to practice, i.e. showed that they had a working blood test in the patent application’. Polarized statements like this raise doubts in readers’ mind as per the balanced approach of this article. In fact a lot of money was at stake. The patent would be worth hundreds of millions of Dollars. Several companies already applied for licenses to develop a commercial kit from this technology. If not for the commercial interests, is it not amazing that big laboratories should make serious claims on a simple technique like ELISA which any ordinary laboratory with basic knowledge in immunology should be able to develop?

    Did Gallo’s publications establish the causative relationship between HIV and AIDS? Like many other articles have done previously, Vahlne’s article too presumes that Gallo’s publications ‘for the first time convincingly demonstrated that AIDS was caused by a new human retrovirus…’. Looking at various works of literature carefully, one would realize that a myth has been built around Gallo over the years. ‘The general understanding’ today is that while Montagnier was first to isolate the AIDS virus, it was Gallo who ‘accomplished’ to establish the cause and effect relationship between the virus and AIDS. The statements reinforcing such a notion are far from the truth. The single publication of Montagnier in 1983 and all the publications of Gallo in 1984 collectively did NOT establish that AIDS was caused by their viruses. All these publications only demonstrated a significant association, but not a causative relationship, between AIDS and HIV. In fact, way back in 1984, neither of these groups even knew that they were fumbling with the same virus. Neither the French team nor the American group through their early publications fulfilled the Koch’s postulations to prove that HIV caused AIDS. The main difference between the publications of the French and American groups remains in the numbers of virus isolates and quantum of data. Unlike the French team, whose work was based on only two viral strains, the American team used many more viral strains. Additionally, the American team also did an analysis at a much broader level. However, it would be too generous to give the credit of establishing the causative relationship to the American group based on numbers.

    According to Koch postulates, (1) a microorganism must be found in the body of the host suffering from the disease (2) the microorganism must be isolated from the host and grown in pure culture (3) the cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy host and (4) the microorganism must be reisolated from the experimental host and identified as being identical to the original microorganism. From the above it is clear that both of the French and American groups successfully accomplished the objectives 1 and 2, but not 3 and 4 of the Koch’s postulates. All of us are fully aware why satisfying conditions 3 and 4 of Koch’s postulates is not possible for practical reasons. The objective of establishing the causative relationship between HIV and AIDS has been fulfilled in the subsequent years by the contributions of numerous laboratories spread all over the world and mainly because of unfortunate accidental injuries.

    After the rightful decision by the Nobel Committee to honor Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre Sinoussi for HIV discovery, many believed that the disputes on this topic would come to a halt. The virus is still out there ravaging continents and killing millions of hapless people. Isn’t it time that we brush all the differences aside and invest our energies in moving forward?

    Competing interests