Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and The Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery
As the summer of 1988 began, many of the world’s leading AIDS researchers were gathered in the long twilight of Stockholm for the Fourth International Conference on AIDS—the first in which the virus seemed fully understandable, and perhaps even amenable to treatment. Among the 10,000 scientists wandering about the huge convention center, few could boast of greater achievement than Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute’s laboratory of tumor cell biology. Almost always described as the codiscoverer of the first known AIDS virus or the leading AIDS researcher in the US, Gallo had already received every major award in biomedicine (except the one he coveted most, a Nobel Prize). With his name appearing on more than nine hundred scientific papers, Gallo was one of the most prolifically published scientists alive. Recently he had won a second Lasker Award, the highest prize in American medicine, for his work in “proving that [AIDS] is caused by a retrovirus.”
The Stockholm meeting was a time of particular glory for Gallo, a moment he refers to in his new book as “the best time I can remember in AIDS research.” Thousands of reporters attended the conference and he was the object of unique attention. Voluble, flamboyant, Gallo took to his fame readily. Mobbed like a rock star wherever he went, Gallo permitted reporters from most news organizations three-minute interviews, and dozens lined up for this privilege. For the largest American papers and networks, however, a more intimate setting was provided.
One by one, reporters were ushered into a private room at the convention hall by one of Washington’s most expensive public relations experts. There, after punching the correct security codes into an alarm on a heavy oak door, visitors found Gallo surrounded by what amounted to his scientific consiglieri, the vaccine experts Dani P. Bolognesi, of Duke University, and Maurice Hilleman of the Merck, Sharp & Dohme pharmaceutical company. The men reclined in leather chairs. Crystal decanters, brandy snifters, and espresso cups rested on a nearby counter.
Yet questions had been raised about Robert Gallo for many years, even before April 23, 1984, when the former US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, announced that Gallo had found the virus that causes AIDS. Almost no mention was made of the French that day, although months earlier they had also claimed the discovery. When it became apparent that the Gallo virus was an uncanny genetic twin to one he had been given for research by the French virologist Luc Montagnier and the Pasteur Institute, suspicions arose that Gallo had either deliberately or mistakenly used a viral strain supplied by Montagnier in the research for which he had claimed credit.
Indeed, the charges became so intense that the French filed a suit against the United States and Gallo challenging the claim of the US to a patent on the first AIDS antibody blood test. In 1987, only a year before the Stockholm Conference, the prime minister of France and the …