Steve Connor: Snub is just the tonic for worthy winners

Science Notebook

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:16

The nobel prize committee is to be congratulated for giving a share of this year's medicine award to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, for their discovery of HIV in 1983. The committee is also to be congratulated for not giving the prize to Robert Gallo who for the past three decades has been styled – not least by his own institution – as the "co-discoverer" of the Aids virus.

Several scientists have said it is a shame that Gallo could not have shared the award given his supposedly seminal role in the discovery while he was at the US National Cancer Institute in Washington. In fact, it was indeed possible for the Nobel committee to do this – up to three people can share a Nobel – but it had apparently decided to snub Gallo by giving a half share of the 2008 medicine prize to Harold zur Hausen, the man who discovered the human papiloma virus.

The reasons for leaving Gallo out are apparent for anyone who knows the real story of HIV's discovery. Gallo initially chose the wrong causative virus in a study published in 1983, which resulted in the French discovery of HIV going virtually unnoticed in the same issue of the journal Science.

It was only after Gallo had been sent a sample of the French virus later in 1983 that he was able to isolate his "own" virus for a set of studies published with great fanfare in 1984. But it turned out that this novel virus was not new at all, but one and the same as the French virus – it got there as a result of an unexplained "contamination" which Gallo subsequently admitted was accidental.

As the Nobel prize committee says in its citation, the virus discovered by Gallo and published in a study in 1984 "showed considerable similarities" to the virus discovered by Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier and published in their 1983 study. However, the true cause of Aids was all but overlooked in 1983, largely because of Gallo's mistaken view about the cause of Aids, and his prominence in this field of virology. As a result, a vital year was lost in the search for the virus. It therefore would have been quite unfair to give Gallo any share of the greatest prize in science.

Squirrel pie, anyone?

A tiny bit of good news for the endangered red squirrel has emerged with a study showing that eight individuals (out of a sample of more than 500) have apparently developed immunity to the deadly squirrel pox virus, which is spread by the American grey squirrel. It is, however, unlikely to change the overall picture for the native reds, which could become extinct in England and Wales within the next 25 years due to the greys. One can only hope the coming recession will lead to renewed interest in ways of cooking grey squirrels, which I am reliably informed are very tasty when prepared in the right way. After all, grey squirrels are just rats with good PR – and bushy tails.

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