Aids: will the true story ever be told?

He became one of the world's most famous scientists when he announced his discovery of HIV. Then Robert Gallo was accused of stealing his research. Steve Connor investigates
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The discovery of the Aids virus has gone down in scientific history as one of the greatest achievements in 20th-century medicine. Finding the virus led to a reliable test for screening blood, which ultimately saved the lives of tens of thousands of people. The successful isolation of the virus from one of the first patients to be diagnosed with Aids also enabled scientists to study its genetic structure in fine detail. It opened the way to devising new drugs and treatments, as well as developing a future vaccine which is widely viewed as the only way of controlling a pandemic that has already killed some 25 million people.

But the story of how rival camps of scientists – one led by Robert Gallo, the other by Luc Montagnier – made this historic breakthrough has never been told in full. Various attempts at writing "official histories" have proved deeply flawed. Indeed, the first attempt, published in the journal Nature in 1987, stated: "Both sides wish it to be known that from the beginning there has been a spirit of scientific co-operation and a free exchange of ideas, biological materials and personnel between Dr Gallo's and Dr Montagnier's laboratories."

In fact, the truth is that the bitter dispute over who was the first to discover HIV and link it to Aids was marred from the start by a lack of co-operation, the suppression of data, and a reluctance to share anything that could give the opposition a competitive advantage. A new book published in the US called Science Fictions describes the 20-year history of the race to find the cause of Aids. It is a story that shames science, not least because it involved an alleged cover-up that reached to the highest levels of the US scientific establishment.

John Crewdson, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, has written a detailed history of the events that led scientists to the cause of Aids – and it makes unpleasant reading for anyone who thought science was simply about the pursuit of truth. Instead, a picture emerges of deliberate falsehoods, exaggerated claims and denigrating criticism. Above all, Crewdson attacks one scientist whose giant ego he says led him to selfishly pursue the glittering prizes that would come with being first to identify the cause of Aids, even though, Crewdson claims, the credit – and indeed the virus – originally belonged to Gallo's rivals.

Robert Gallo, the former chief of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the US National Cancer Institute near Washington, DC, was arguably one of the highest-ranking scientists in the field of retrovirology. In 1983, everyone listened when he claimed to have isolated a virus called HTLV from an Aids patient. It subsequently was found to have nothing to do with the disease. Another scientific paper, by Luc Montagnier and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute, that appeared in the same issue of the journal Science, went virtually unnoticed, even though it was they who had really found HIV.

A year later, Gallo co-authored an unprecedented four papers in Science "proving" that the cause of Aids was now a different virus, which he called HTLV-3. By then, Montagnier's team, which included Jean-Claude Chermann and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, had already demonstrated that Aids was caused by the virus they had isolated a year earlier, which they called LAV. Unfortunately, their proof, which was presented to a scientific conference in 1983, was never published because it was rejected by anonymous scientific referees working for Nature.

One referee in particular dismissed the French study out of hand. The referee said the French virus might not even be a human infection at all, but a mouse virus that had accidentally contaminated the Paris laboratory where the research took place. The referee, whose identity has never been formally acknowledged by Nature, ended his report: "Gallo's laboratory spent almost two years carefully characterising HTLV before they first ventured into print. Had the data been as rudimentary as for the Paris virus, no one would have taken the findings seriously. The potential importance of an Aids virus is too great to rush into print with one-item papers."

It was a view mirrored by Robin Weiss, a leading British Aids researcher, who was asked by Nature to write an analysis of Gallo's HTLV-3 discovery in 1984. Montagnier's group, said Weiss, may have published first but it had "skimpy data", whereas Gallo's group "delayed submission until a thorough characterisation of their virus and repeated isolations from different patients had been accomplished".

However, Crewdson claims that Gallo did not delay the submission of his study for more than a year in order to make sure he had the right virus. His laboratory records show that he was working on the wrong virus for most of 1983, and it was only when he "discovered" the French virus, LAV, that he made the decision to publish his findings on HTLV-3 as soon as he could. (Neither did Gallo ever support his statement that he had about 50 separate isolates of the Aids virus.)

Crewdson alleges that Gallo claimed credit for a discovery that was never his. His HTLV-3 was one and the same as the virus isolated from an Aids patient in Paris, a sample of which Montagnier had given to Gallo for research purposes only. Gallo claimed falsely on many occasions that the French "gift" had failed to grow and was therefore useless. Yet it was this virus that Gallo used to form the basis of a highly lucrative blood test he had patented, which subsequently earned millions of dollars.

A legal dispute over the patent for the HIV test between the Pasteur and the US Government – Gallo's ultimate employers – failed to resolve the questions about the discovery of the virus. One question was whether the genetic similarity between LAV and HTLV-3 – which is scientific proof that they were isolated from the same patient – was due to mere chance, a suggestion that proved erroneous.

Neither Science nor Nature was able or willing at the time to get to the bottom of the controversy. It was left to the popular scientific press, namely New Scientist, to investigate the circumstances of the discovery and point out that Gallo's HTLV-3 was a laboratory contamination. In 1987, the magazine published, over 10-pages, my investigation, which concluded that LAV and HTLV-3 are one and the same, and that an important unresolved issue is whether the contamination was deliberate or accidental – a conclusion that was derided at the time by friends and collaborators of Gallo who wrote to the magazine to complain.

Crewdson, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune whose own investigations were initially prompted by the New Scientist, set out to explode the myths that still surround Gallo's role in HIV research. "Robert Gallo played the game of Big Science better than it had ever been played," he says. "He had become the most famous Aids researcher in the world, treated like scientific royalty on three continents."

Yet the key paper, co-authored by Gallo and published in Science in 1984, which has since become one of the most cited scientific articles of all time, contains inaccuracies that have never been corrected. "Being wrong in science is hardly a sin. Scientists are wrong every day, and their mistakes are what pushes science forward," says Crewdson. "What set Gallo apart was his profound disinclination to acknowledge his mistakes, preferring instead to ignore them, insist they hadn't occurred."

Gallo, now director of the Institute for Human Virology in Baltimore, still lists his achievements as the "independent discovery" of HIV, his proof that it causes Aids and his development of a blood test for antibodies to the virus. His institute announced in February that he and Montagnier are "friends and collaborators" who will co-operate in a new initiative to find an Aids vaccine.

Gallo was this week unavailable to comment on the claims made by Crewdson, but his institute said in a statement to The Independent that a research integrity inquiry by the US Department of Health nine years ago dismissed Crewdson's "biased, distorted and discredited falsehoods which are rehashed in the book Science Fictions... Revisiting a long-settled dispute 10 to 15 years later serves no purpose except to question the author's motive."