BOOK REVIEW / Harmful side-effects of a major virus: 'Virus Hunting' - Robert Gallo: HarperCollins, 9.99 pounds

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THIS is a haunted book; frustrated, stifled, and tongue-tied by the story it ought to have told and cannot. More mortifying still, everybody knows how it ought to have read. Brilliant, dynamic Dr Robert Gallo discovers a new class of viruses called retroviruses, which defy accepted principles of genetic transmission. When the Aids epidemic burgeons, Dr Gallo figures that a retrovirus is responsible, and leads the team which discovers the microbe. With the virus under assault from the united medical forces of the world, Dr Gallo accepts the Nobel Prize that is his due.

But the story didn't quite pan out like that. Instead, Dr Gallo became embroiled in a web of disputes and accusations that obscured the undeniable importance of his work. For the public, which included people infected with HIV, the controversies served to undermine confidence in the commitment of the scientific elite to the greater good.

At best, it made science look absurd. As David B Feinberg tartly noted in his novel Spontaneous Combustion, the virus was named HIV 'in an effort to solve a dispute about who had discovered the virus first, an American scientist who discovered the virus in 1984 or a French scientist who discovered the virus in 1983'.

Dr Gallo maintains that he isolated the virus during 1983 as well; but his rival Dr Luc Montagnier, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, had already got to that stage in January of that year. Dr Montagnier had even supplied a sample to Dr Gallo's lab at the US National Institutes of Health, and it seems to have found its way into Dr Gallo's own material. In the fraught atmosphere that developed, many people were only too happy to believe the worst. Dr Gallo says he recognised the possibility of accidental contamination early on, but it was unimportant because he already had samples of his own as well.

The dispute turned into a transatlantic legal tussle over patent rights to blood tests for antibodies to HIV, tainting public perceptions of the issue with the scent of greed. Dr Gallo states emphatically that at the time he took out the patent, at the behest of his employers, the US government, he had no reason to suppose he stood to gain personally.

On the legal level, and that of scientific protocol, all is now resolved - thanks in no small part to Dr Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, who took the role of diplomatic intermediary upon himself. Dr Salk has noted that the row was more over credit than patent rights, and the tenor of Dr Gallo's account bears him out. Scientific credit is all about who had the more valuable insights, who developed the more useful techniques, who made the most of the samples; not simply who got there first. Science is not the same as the race to the Pole. But for all that, the ambitious scientist still wants to be the first to plant his flag.

Now Dr Gallo finds himself in a permanent state of defensive truculence, railing against what he compares to a McCarthyite witch-hunt.

This is an important book, given the position of its author in one of the most important medical episodes of the century; and it is thus all the more regrettable that it falls short of its goals.

On a personal level, Dr Gallo's failure to engage the reader's sympathy is somewhat sad. He relates the tragedy of his sister's death from leukaemia, but there is little emotional continuity in his account between the bereaved child and the high-powered adult scientist. Nor is he an inspired populariser, and this impairs his laudable attempts to present a detailed but accessible account of virology.

One exception, fortunately, is the section in which he disposes of Dr Peter Duesberg's argument that HIV is an innocent bystander on the scene of Aids. But part of the reason that Dr Duesberg keeps going is that the authority of medical science is under challenge in the field of Aids, and the Gallo controversies have played their part in undermining that authority. The real eloquence of this book lies in its demonstration of how Robert Gallo remains enmeshed in the events of 10 years ago.