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How the discovery of HIV led to a transatlantic research war

As the world struggles to constrain the new coronavirus, COVID-19, it’s worth remembering the discovery of another deadly, global virus — HIV (or Human Immunodeficiency Virus) — and a controversy that played out among the researchers who brought it to light.

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, 32 million people have died from related illnesses and 74.9 million have become infected with HIV. Though the number of deaths has been greatly reduced over the decades, AIDS killed more than 770,000 people and infected 1.7 million people in 2018 alone.

In the 1980s, a virologist named Dr. Robert Gallo was the head of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. He was a pioneer in the detection of infectious forms of cancer, once called human RNA tumor viruses and now known as retroviruses. Gallo and his team discovered interleukin-2 (IL-2) and the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV), which is associated with specific leukemias and lymphomas.

Gallo published a set of four papers in the journal Science in May 1984 that identified a retrovirus they called HTLV-III, a name he initially chose because he considered it to be a relative of the leukemia viruses his lab was studying. HTLV-III is better known today as HIV-I and Gallo’s papers correctly identified it as the cause of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In the papers, Gallo claimed to have grown the virus in large quantities in their laboratory. Only a year earlier, however, on May 20, 1983, the French virologist Luc Montagnier and his team at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, had published a paper in Science identifying a retrovirus they called Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV), which they isolated from a patient with AIDS.

Soon after the Gallo papers were published, DNA analyses demonstrated that the American HIV virus and the French LAV virus were the same. What followed was a loud whisper campaign suggesting that Gallo somehow acquired the Montagnier virus by nefarious means, and used it as his own.

Matters came to a head after the development of an HIV-antibody test — a huge advance in an era where we hardly understood AIDS and doctors were not yet able to precisely identify who was at risk and who was infected. The test was created at the NIH and there were great financial rewards in the offing. But who was entitled to the patent? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Gallo) or France’s Pasteur Institute (Montagnier), or both?

To challenge the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services patent on the clinical HIV lab test, the Pasteur Institute filed a lawsuit in December 1985. The volume on this ugly war was finally dialed down in 1987 by the President Ronald Reagan and French President François Mitterrand, with a formal agreement to divide the scientific credit and patent royalties from all HIV work and the blood test that detected it.

The National Institutes of Health conducted an investigation and exonerated Gallo of any charges of wrongdoing, as well as proving that Gallo and his colleagues had many isolates of HIV from their own work. Yet there was a huge but to the official report: One of the samples found in the Gallo lab’s viral archives for 1983-1985 did originate from the Montagnier lab, which was requested by the Gallo lab and sent to them from Paris. The sample contained two viruses (it was a virus from one patient who had somehow contaminated a virus sample from another patient). Hence the sample the Montangier lab sent and that the Gallo lab was studied was actually a pooled culture. The Gallo lab admitted to inadvertently using the Montagnier sample in their pathbreaking work.

Both Gallo and Montagnier later agreed to share the title of co-discovers of the virus and they wrote several papers together describing their work in Science (Dec. 29, 2002) and the New England Journal of Medicine (Dec. 11, 2003).

For his share of the work, Gallo won the prestigious Lasker Award in 1986 (his second, having won it in 1982 for his work on retroviruses). Thereafter, the murmurings in hospitals and laboratories across the United States was that it would not be long before Stockholm called with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

But when the call came in the fall of 2008, it was only for Luc Montagnier. He shared the 2008 Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who worked with him at the Pasteur Institute on HIV and with Harald zur Hausen, the discoverer of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The scientific world was shocked to learn that the Nobel Committee snubbed Gallo’s work, but because those archival records are locked up until 2058, we will not know the precise argument behind this decision until most of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. Some have speculated it may have been the controversy over how Gallo obtained his viral samples that repelled the prize committee; others, more cynically, have described it as a popularity contest and that Gallo was disliked by those who had the power to grant the prize.

The old sports television series “Wide World of Sports” used to begin with its catch phrase: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Those nine pithy words may describe the career of Gallo, whose birthday we celebrate this week. As Montagnier said when he won his Nobel Prize, “It was very important to prove that HIV was the cause of AIDS, and Gallo had a very important role in that. I’m very sorry for Robert Gallo.”

In the broader scope of history, however, Gallo’s great contribution to science and society overshadows any scandal.

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