by Anthony Brink
When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), English, author of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “The Speckled Band” (1892), speaking of Dr. Grimesby Roylott.
For any number of obvious reasons it would probably be disquieting to folk at large to discover that Mother Theresa – to employ a fanciful illustration – had kept a Swiss bank account. One would imagine that the honesty of men working at the frontiers of science in that hazy twilight terrain between the known and the unknown, the certain and the speculative, would count for quite a bit as well. Particularly where their pontifications, theories, and advices have the potential both to reap magnificent honours and riches, and very directly affect us dumb fucks out in the laity who sit at the feet of these guys and crave as much of their wisdom as we can get. And especially in a time of a perceived medical emergency, or during the rise of an hysterical epidemic, fuelled by a medieval fear of tainted blood and poisoned semen – and now evil mothers’ milk – in which we look up with frightened eyes to these secular sages for deliverance from tiny invisible enemies which we are told beset us. Mostly when enjoying our favourite recreation.
Science at its outer limits is populated by no end of ambitious cowboys of modest acumen hungry for fame, glory and the Ferraris in which some of their lucky chums in bio-tech cruise out of their labs’ parking lots in the direction of their Cessna hangars. They live so to speak in remote Wild West towns with lamentably few marshals to keep an eye on things. These are the left-overs too mediocre to cut it in university environments who wind up in homes for scientific dullards like the politically powerful health bureaucracies of the National Institutes of Health and The Centres for Disease Control in the USA. As we’ve all seen, when these oracles mumble, press trumpets blare and the entire world eagerly gobbles up every word, without demur. Notwithstanding how many fake health crises they have delivered still-born into the popular consciousness, like the idle Herpes scare in the 70’s, the phantom Syphilis epidemic in the 30’s and 40’s, the great Swine Flu fiasco in the 60’s, and that shining emblem of medical idiocy, the Pellagra plague in the first four decades of this century, treated inter alia with arsenic and ruthless quarantine, which turned out to be plain malnutrition among the politically awkward droves of poor white crackers in deep south industrial towns.
We need contagious epidemics to fight. Even imagined ones. They’re tremendously psychologically useful. Germ theory so dominates contemporary medicine that it seeks germs everywhere, the more virulent the better, and especially if they can be linked to our culture’s great taboos, sex and death. Anything to avoid facing up to unappealing political realities like widespread chronic undernourishment among a shameful number of our countrymen as the time-honoured and common-sense cause of broken health. Or, at the other pole, for those of us felicitously occupying the higher orders, factors inextricably tied to the excesses of our culture of affluence.
Of course, the loftier the degree of scientific specialisation, the sharper the point of the pyramid, the smaller and remoter the frontier town, and the fewer the guys with badges. As in a funny little corner of theoretical (some say virtual) virology called retrovirology – served at the commencement of the AIDS era by only a handful of labs run by the same guys who’d lost the “war on cancer” declared by Nixon in 1971, by putting all their money, and 40 billion of their country’s, on the perfectly ridiculous theory that cancer was an infectious condition caused by viruses.
Folk inclined to the view that a reasonable degree of personal integrity is essential to serve as a brake on the perennial temptation tickling largely unpoliced scientists at the frontiers of their specialisations to make extravagant claims with fabulous commercial potential beyond those which their data really support might be put out to learn that the pope of AIDS is a complete scum-bag.
This is Robert Gallo, who told the worried world at a US Health Department-convened press conference on 23 April 1984, before the publication of any paper for his fellows to assess, that he’d discovered the cause, a virus he said, of the poor health that a narrow subset of gay men with ruinous lifestyles were experiencing, later christened, in a flourish of conceptual surplusage, the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Having sneaked through a patent application on the blood test he’d devised for his claimed viral culprit ahead of the previously lodged French one, thus guaranteeing him a fortune in royalties, Gallo went on to publish four papers in the prestigious if dowdy journal Science two weeks later. Then the trouble started: an exuberant international disputation over who stole the fake diamonds. For Gallo this was the Paula trouble that led to Monica.
Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in France complained that the samples containing what he believed to be his newly spotted virus and which he’d trustingly sent Gallo had been flagrantly ripped off. He sued across the sea. Gallo brazenly counter-charged his accuser. It was embarrassing for the US administration to have its premier AIDS scientist accused of theft and fraud, but with the help of a gang of lawyers hired to fudge the facts and conceal boxes of crucial discoverable documents, Gallo got off – by dint of a neat political compromise agreeing a history, cosigned by no less than the presidents of the respective republics, Reagan and Chirac, in terms of which these two giants of modern biology were henceforth to be deemed co-discoverers of the AIDS virus.
The sham began unraveling almost immediately. A trouble-making investigative journalist on the Chicago Tribune, John Crewdson, began sticking his nose in. He went to print with a comprehensively researched expose spilling the beans on Gallo’s theft of Luc Montagnier’s samples, even his photographs of them. Hardly able to do otherwise, Gallo’s bosses in the National Institutes of Health instigated an enquiry with Yale biochemist Frederic Richards as overseer. Reviewing the four seminal research papers upon which the entire HIV-AIDS causation paradigm is founded – if feebly – the inquiry found fraud, a discrepancy between what had been reported and what had been done. The NIH watered it down, finding Gallo to his relief and the irritation of Richards, guilty merely of “creating and fostering conditions that gave rise to falsified/fabricated data and falsified reports”. This loyal whitewash was promptly criticized by Richards and by Senator John Dingle, who had got wind of the corruption in Gallo’s laboratory, and had begun his own investigation under the aegis of his Sub-Committee on Oversights and Investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Department of Health’s Office of Research Integrity reviewed the NIH report and disagreed with the cop-out. It had no trouble finding Gallo guilty of scientific misconduct, the gravest possible verdict, and a capital offence in career terms. So did the Dingle Committee in its draft report. Facing criminal prosecution for the perjury adorning his patent application, Gallo was forced to leave the National Institutes of Health in disgrace. On the scandal festered, until 1993, when happily for Gallo, it all went away. The government dropped the patent charges, and of fraudulently making a misstatement in a scientific journal and failing to credit the work of other researchers in claiming it as his own. Why? Because, a review board, comprising lawyers naturally, not scientists, had raised the bar in asserting a brand-new revised definition of scientific misconduct, which Gallo’s prosecutors in the Office of Research Integrity doubted they could clear. Unlike Sol Kerzner who kept his head down when the bribery case against him was dropped, Gallo boasted complete vindication.
Before making becoming famous for HIV, Gallo’s laboratory had been found by a panel of university scientists appointed in 1974 to be one of the worst offenders in the scandalous abuse of federal funds received during the Cancer War. Two co-researchers were later gaoled for embezzlement.
*** (missing text) the founding papers of the most powerful, all-pervasive and terrifying medical model of our time, the HIV-AIDS-causation hypothesis. No wonder the Nobel committee has set its face against the whole stinking shambles. Yet its integrity is assumed as an indisputable fact of contemporary science in the almost one hundred thousand papers in the subject that have been published since. Those critics making a living in the scientific establishment who point a finger at the emperor’s pink arse do so at immense professional and personal risk, and for some, at terrible cost. But there’s another story.
Curiously, the Office of Research Integrity found that the fraud tainting Gallo’s claim-to-fame papers did not affect the validity of the papers’ main conclusions, even though some of the key research work was described as “of dubious scientific merit”, and “really crazy”. Suffice it to say that others who have meticulously scrutinized Gallo’s original HIV research claims – allowing for the purpose of reviewing them that the dubious research data is sound – have found them to be, well, shall we say troubling. The adventurous leap between the papers’ contents and their headings for starters. But that’s another yarn still.
Gallo’s disgraceful behaviour in relation to his AIDS research was no first. Had he not ascended to such power and influence within the federal health bureaucracy, it is likely that his claims to have found a single infectious cause for the disparate diseases grouped together as AIDS in the early 1980’s would have been laughed out of court. After all, this was the bright spark who, with almost as much fanfare as that at his flash-bulb popping HIV press announcement, had loudly touted his discovery of what he claimed to be the first identified human retrovirus, HL23V, in the mid 70’s. After another look, this exciting find turned out to be nothing of the kind, just an accidental laboratory artefact. His laboratory hadn’t done the most basic controls. To his great embarrassment, Gallo had to retract his fancy claims, and HL23V then modestly retired as a virus from the scientific lexicon.
As the last misfired shots were going off in the failed cancer war – staged largely around the viral-cancer hypothesis – and it had become irresistibly plain to everyone that cancer had nothing to do with germs, and the whole thing had been a monumental waste of money, Gallo and his mates (known in-house as the Bob Club) sought new funding opportunities for their imminently redundant laboratories. Ever eager to position himself where the action was, he began punting another retrovirus which he claimed to have discovered, HTLV1, as the possible cause of the odd diseases like Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystitis Carinii Pneumonia suddenly appearing to ail urban fast-track life-style gay men in San Francisco and New York. The virus had in fact been identified by biologists in Gallo’s lab, principally Poiesz and Ruscetti, not Gallo, but true to form he appropriated the discovery and took the accolades. Wanting the virus to be all things, the theory that HTLV1 could be responsible for AIDS was ludicrous. He had previously claimed this virus, again on absurd grounds, to be the cause of a rare form of Leukaemia, which amounts to disorderly immune cell replication, not premature cell death. “One of the most exciting stories of twentieth century biology” he gushed. Nobel laureate Kary Mullis thinks it “a joke”. The virus had first been posited to be a cell division stimulant, not a killer. Obviously, Gallo’s new converse role for HTLV1 went up like a lead balloon, but it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t long afterwards that Montagnier sent Gallo his samples, and we know the rest. In cravenly seeking the imprimatur of Big American Science, by seeking the endorsement for his work of an abject rogue, Montagnier naively left his keys in the ignition, and the next thing it was gone. Gallo resprayed Montagnier’s LAV as HTLVIII. It was later renamed HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, on the basis of Gallo’s claims, without proof to warrant its fearsome title. (Unless one thinks that correlations disclose proofs of causation. As if sparrows sometimes seen on telephone cables cause crossed lines.)
Whether HIV (or rather the minute biological traces said to evidence its presence) actually lives up to its frightening billing, is something Gallo can’t seem to make up his mind about. This ought to come as some comfort to those who live in wait for the clatter of the hangman’s key. Once insisting that HIV “kills like a truck”, and “would kill Clark Kent”, he now concedes, “We don’t know that 100 percent of people infected with HIV will die with AIDS. We don’t know that. We shouldn’t be predicting that, and it could even precipitate suicide. They shouldn’t have put that on the front page (of the Washington Post), even if it were true. But the fact is that we just don’t know”. In 1995, The Pasteur Institute’s Simon Wain-Hobson confessed, “An intrinsic cytopathic effect of the virus is no longer feasible”. The biggest medical research effort in history has found HIV to be biologically inactive. Gallo has tried weaseling out of the difficulty created by this humbling observation by suggesting “cofactors” might be involved in AIDS, since HIV can’t do any mischief on its own. (David Ho’s opposite assertions in 1996 have imploded on his childish mathematical errors.) Gallo had lots to say about a virus called HHV8 for a while, implicated as a “co-factor” in the development of that signal AIDS condition Kaposi’s Sarcoma, but like all other exciting breakthroughs in AIDS research, it has proved to be just another flash in the pan. Worse still, it is now generally accepted, and by Gallo too, that those horrible skin blotches have nothing to do with HIV at all.
At last count, our charming charlatan was on SABC TV a few months ago, singing his own praises for his alleged breakthrough anti-HIV protein HAF, distilled from the urine of women with child. About which we have heard nothing since. Naturally, since it was just another rodeo stunt. Gallo’s new laboratory in Baltimore had produced nothing to show for the millions he had duped state and municipal authorities into giving him, and was about to have its plug pulled by the Maryland legislature accordingly. A neatly timed “very important discovery” defeated the danger.
Since the case for Gallo’s HIV-AIDS hypothesis is invariably pressed with calls to the authority of its famous protagonist, in the absence of scientific proof in the sense that most curious folk understand, it’s as well that we know what kind of bloke we’re relying on.
With such scintillating credentials as Gallo’s, no wonder the astute German virologist Stefan Lanka – referring to HIV-AIDS, Luc Montagnier, and Gallo – talks of “a medical theory concocted by a French mediocrity who, right from the start, doubted the validity of a virus-only theory of AIDS causation and only last week unleashed a new wave of doubt; and an American scientific gangster who had committed so many crass, self-aggrandising blunders in the previous decade, that he could not really be relied upon to tell the time correctly”. Quite.
Anthony Brink is an advocate (barrister) in Pietermaritzburg South Africa.