INTERVIEW ROBERT GALLO
By Anthony Liversidge
Spin March 1989
Last year, the country's top AIDS researcher, Dr. Robert Gallo, told
SPIN that "HIV would give Clark Kent AIDS." But now he says that
maybe you could "live with it for 30 years and die of old age."
Is HIV not so deathly after all?
Dr. Robert C. Gallo wants to be liked. High pressure salesmanship is
the style of the czar of AIDS science. His mixture of warmth and belligerence
is charismatic. Some say he browbeats an entire field of scientists with
it, and rumor has it that no AIDS grant is funded without his blessing.
But if Gallo is a bit of a rogue, he is an engaging one, quick-witted and
chummy even in the heat of argument, after which he will squeeze your elbow
and ask, "Are we still friends?"
Whether for his charm or his considerable power, he is worshiped more
than criticized by scientists and journalists. Most of the criticism there
is, is muted. Some of it is not. The Native, a gay paper in New
York City, recently accused Gallo flatly of being a "crook."
Such critics see Gallo clinging to a doubtful but self-serving theory that
the virus he codiscovered causes AIDS, and promoting his own fame at the
cost of lives. Gallo professes, on the contrary, that he hasn't got time
to answer such slander because he is too busy working to save lives by
finding a cure.
This dark cloud of doubt is still invisible to the major media, however,
and currently Robert Gallo is riding high, well above the controversy.
Having won worldwide renown, and convincing most of the world that HIV
causes AIDS, Gallo is now a globe-trotter, in foreign capitals as often
as in his office at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , where he
directs a lab budgeted at nearly $1 million a month.
Gallo's celebrity was given another boost last November, when he joined
the illustrious ranks of those who have given the Bampton lectures at Columbia
University. Among those in the audience, however, were a sprinkling of
skeptics. For whether HIV does in fact cause AIDS is, as readers of this
column know, still a matter of doubt to several distinguished scientists.
The sharpest critic among them is Dr. Peter H. Duesberg, a professor
at the University of California at Berkeley and one-time colleague and
drinking buddy of Gallo. Duesberg has spent nearly two years resolutely
picking apart the theory on which Gallo's fame and fortune rest - that
the so-called "deadly AIDS virus," HIV causes AIDS. HIV is currently
the focus of 2.5 billion federal dollars each year, but Duesberg insists
it is a harmless microbe, and that the causes of AIDS are probably drugs
and diseases overload.
Duesberg is a pioneer in the field of retroviruses, of which HIV is
one. He argues that HIV is a very poor candidate for causing AIDS, which
is characterized by loss of the all-important T-cells of the immune system.
He points out that after initial infection with HIV, the virus is never
measured in quantity, even when the patient develops full-blown AIDS years
later and dies. (The AIDS test doesn't detect the virus itself but its
antibodies, the immune system's foot soldiers against disease.) HIV infects
se few T-cells that even if it killed them directly as fast as it infected
them, no more would be lost per day than in a drop of blood from a shaving
nick, and the body would easily replace them. In essence, there is nothing
in the behavior of the virus that could possibly account for the disease,
according to Duesberg.
Though his first long article two years ago in Cancer Research,
a leading science journal, was virtually ignored by the scientific community,
Duesberg has withstood scorn to press his case. In January '88, he introduced
it to the public at large in SPIN. Last July, both sides battled it out
in the pages of the prestigious journal Science. Unreported in the mainstream
media, the clash left one thing clear: the debate on HIV remains open.
Too many of Duesberg's questions remained unanswered. Duesberg has since
followed up with a very compete article for the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, of which Duesberg is a member. Before it
was accepted, however, his paper ran the gauntlet of an unprecedented battery
of hostile reviewers called in by the editor, all of whose objections Duesberg
was able to satisfy. Duesberg says he is now "absolutely certain"
he is right.
Gallo's six hours of Bampton lectures were in large part a reply to
Duesberg - the first he has given in public. But he refused to stay to
answer follow-up questions at the end of the final evening's lecture, although
he had promised to do so.
SPIN arranged to talk with Gallo later that evening. To our surprise,
it was a long, frank and fascinating conversation. Gallo allowed us to
challenge him directly on any point, readily admitting he didn't know the
answer to some questions. The shocker came when Gallo outlined how his
ideas on the deadliness of the virus have changed over the past year. What
he said should encourage HIV-positive people who are otherwise without
SPIN: What do you think now of Duesberg's criticism of the theory that
HIV causes AIDS?
Gallo: There is no organized body of science that thinks it is anything
but comedy with Peter right now. That's the fact. Why does the Institute
of Medicine, WHO (World health Organization), CDC (Centers for Disease
Control), National Academy of Sciences, NIH, Pasteur Institute and the
whole body of science 100 percent agree that HIV is the cause of AIDS?
If there was anything to what Peter is saying, wouldn't it occur to
you that there would be some other scientists that would agree with Peter?
Can you tell me anyone?
SPIN: Walter Gilbert of Harvard.
Gallo: Wally Gilbert believes HIV doesn't cause AIDS?!!
SPIN: He says it remains an open question. He says Duesberg has shown
that at least.
Gallo: Wally Gilbert said that?! You want to get that in writing? Get
Wally Gilbert to say that in writing! I don't believe Wally Gilbert ever
said anything of the sort. He probably doesn't know all the facts. We have
had detailed study by the best qualified people and the answer is overwhelming.
SPIN: Now Duesberg has written a 10-page article in the Proceedings,
answering all the ways people have tried to rebut him so far.
Gallo: Yeah, that's nothing. That's O.K. But believe me, it is going
to have zero impact. No one believes Peter, except a few people that don't
matter. That's the simple fact. Why would anyone go to Duesberg? He is
hanging around with some unusual people, isn't he, rather than his own
peers. Strange. Very strange. He comes to meetings with guys with leather
jackets and the hair and so on in the middle. I mean that's little bit
odd. Doesn't it speak of something funny? I just cannot take his arguments
very seriously. Either he is not reading something or he is not being honest
SPIN: Will you agree, however, that Peter Duesberg is a serious academic
Gallo: Please. You have to know deeply the background. Deeply. I know
Peter for 20 years. Infinitely better than you can or will ever know him.
I know him as a colleague and friend. He is funny, strange, paradoxical,
ironical. But in science, you don't flap, you do. I don't think he is logical,
Do you have an emotional reason for believing HIV is not the cause of
AIDS? Look me in the eye and tell me straight. Look me in the eye!
SPIN: No, I don't. I am only trying to look at the logic.
Gallo: And you have got a reasonably good I.Q.? Go back and read what
he wrote in Science. Do you think he told the truth? You know what
he said? He said the blood [transfusions] cases were worse. You know what
he did? He lied. He used the old data. Of course they have gone down.
SPIN: No, AIDS cases where the cause is reckoned to be blood transfusions
haven't gone down yet.
Gallo: The people who got AIDS from blood were the people before the
blood tests. He knows that. But played it in a quiet way.
SPIN: It's true that with a latency period of eight years, you wouldn't
expect any immediate improvement. But you said in Science that they
had gone down, and that is not so. Last year they doubled, in fact. So
you can't say they have gone down.
Gallo: All this is emotional statement. Because if you don't have the
virus as a cause you don't have guilt, you don't have to worry, you can
lower your lifestyle. But there is more evidence this virus causes disease
than for any single agent that we accept as the cause of a human disease
in the history of medicine, save what we have a vaccine for.
SPIN: In the Science debate you also wrote that accidental needle-sticks
among health care workers, otherwise free of AIDS risks, had made some
HIV-positive and then led to AIDS. I looked up the reference you gave and
there was only one person who claimed to have gotten AIDS that way.
Gallo: No, that's ridiculous. There is not only one.
SPIN: Of the 18 possible needle-stick cases, there was only one case
claimed as certain, and it was anonymous. So the plural is wrong.
Gallo: No, you're wrong. In the reference I gave there is only one case.
There are more. Do you want me to go and get more references?
[Ed. note: The reference in question is "Update: Acquired Immunodeficiency
Syndrome and Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection Among Health-Care Workers,"
published in the federal Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and
Mortality Weekly Report of April 22, 1988. It was the most current and
comprehensive report at the time. In it, only one health-care worker with
AIDS is cited for whom the reporters claim to have ruled out all other
risk factors, although no case history is given to support this conclusion,
and the report does not indicate whether the person was a man or a woman.]
SPIN: In your lectures, you were frank to say that we don't yet know
how AIDS develops in patients and how they lose so many T-cells.
Gallo: Yes, but again I want you to remember that in the history of
medicine no one has had to explain the detailed molecular and cellular
pathogenesis [disease causation and progression] before concluding and
agent causes the disease. To this day, no one knows how polio causes polio.
SPIN: Isn't Duesberg right when he says the body actually manufactures
many more T4-cells every day than the virus could possibly kill?
Gallo: No, Duesberg is wrong. You don't repopulate. He doesn't know
what he is talking about. Nobody has kinetics like that in humans yet.
SPIN: You mean it is not, as Duesberg asserts, standard knowledge that
in adults, T-cells regenerate at a certain rate?
Gallo: No, of course not. No one knows the rate of repopulation of T4-cells
in an adult., because by the time you are an adult you have almost no thymus
[the "T" in T-cell] gland left. You may not have any repopulation
of T4-cells. No one has a good answer to that question. If he knows the
kinetic production of T4-cells, fine, I tell you the T-cell immunologists
that I have talked to don't know the answer.
[Ed. note: The acknowledged authority in the field is Jonathan Sprent
at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, in California. Duesberg
reports that in a paper in B and T Cells in Immune Regulation, Sprent
estimates the renewal rate of T-cells in human adults at about 50 percent
SPIN: With an estimated 1.5 million HIV-positives in this country, we
still have only just over 80,000 AIDS cases in eight years - doesn't that
begin to seem low?
Gallo: No. It's a long-latency virus. All the retroviruses that infect
naturally have long latencies. A disease can take years to occur. We have
lots of things that take a long time. I hope that things will happen more
on the side you imply - that not many of these people get AIDS.
SPIN: But six percent after eight years begins to seem a slow rate of
attack for a supposedly 100-percent deadly virus, even with an average
latency of eight years.
Gallo: Yes, but again, once again, what is the latency period? You could
say, "Oh gee, virus doesn't do that." But how long does smoking
take? How long does even a powerful carcinogen like asbestos take? How
long does most human cancer take when we have an agent which we think is
SPIN: How does the virus make a comeback of initially it is put down
by the antibodies which attack foreign elements in the body?
Gallo: I have no idea. That is a complexity we don't understand, but
it doesn't take away from the fact.
SPIN: So Duesberg is right in pointing it out - that in our current
state of understanding of the immune system, we don't know how that works.
Gallo: I would say that is fair, yes.
Prior to 1988, Gallo insisted that "you don't need cofactors"
to bring on AIDS. He has recently shown signs of shifting his views. Last
summer, he said he now believes that HBLV, a herpes virus, is a major "cofactor."
Were there others? As followed him through the logic of his position, I
got goose bumps. Gallo's current ideas are stunningly different from those
he has consistently espoused.
SPIN: Do you think that drugs could play a role in bringing on AIDS?
Gallo: I have no basis to say no, and no basis to say yes. I just don't
know the data well enough on some of the drugs I might be talking about.
So if you tell me you know some data that is intriguing for some particular
drug being possible major cofactor in AIDS, I am all ears.
SPIN: Do you think syphilis may be involved in some form or fashion?
Gallo: If syphilis was there before there was AIDS, then syphilis is
not the cause of the AIDS epidemic. Can syphilis come into the picture
and make it much worse? Of course. Does it? I don't know. I have not studied
the literature carefully. It is certainly not silly to think about it.
Of course, all these things that develop aren't just one virus knocking.
But HIV is the goody that if it vanished, this epidemic would vanish.
SPIN: How can you be sure of that when by itself the virus seems to
have caused illness in only five percent of the AIDS cases in the U.S.?
The rest have other risks - they are high-risk-taking gays or drug users.
Gallo: It's deep. I tried to tell you that laboratory studies indicated
that the virus spreads after T-cell activation. T-cells are activated by
other infections, right? O.K.? The virus lays dormant. It will not cause
disease rapidly, at least most of the variants of the virus won't.
[Ed. note: T-cells are involved in fighting all foreign agents. According
to traditional biology, it is not only a certain few microbes that activate
them: they are activated dozens of times every day.]
SPIN: So if you have the virus it just puts you at risk for other diseases?
Gallo: Maybe you and I, Tony, could live with it for 30 years and die
of old age. I don't know that. But I wonder, and I could believe it, and
you could say, "Doesn't that prove your point," and I could say,
"No!" it's what I think is reasonable, I do believe if you got
rid of the virus I don't care about your behavior. You understand what
I am saying? I don't believe it is lifestyle. Lewis Thomas, who used to
be President of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, gave a lecture when
I was a kid just coming into science, and I never forgot that statement
he made: Multifactorial usually translates in medicine to multi-ignorance.
When you have a specific agent, grab it.
SPIN: But you agree that the two so-called AIDS viruses, HIV-1 and HIV-2,
have existed for a long time. They haven't just popped into existence.
SPIN: So why do we have a novel plague?
Gallo: The virus may have existed for some period of time alright, but
not all over the planet. We proved that with old serum [blood samples].
The old serum is negative, except for those in one region.
[Ed. note: Blood samples are often kept in storage for future study.
Tests have been run on samples from several countries to detect antibodies
to HIV. According to Gallo, all pre-AIDS samples test negative, except
for those in one region of Africa, which he would not name.]
SPIN: So when it arrived in the U.S., it still didn't cause a lot of
trouble until it attached itself to people who were exposed to other powerful
Gallo: Tony, that part is reasonable. But I can't come to that as a
conclusion, O.K.? Let me just say that that is not unreasonable in my opinion.
But it is not something I could prove.
If anything has been agreed in the past year of debate and non-debate,
it is that HIV, as Duesberg was the first to point out, does not infect
enough T-cells to kill AIDS patients unless some unknown indirect mechanism
is involved. Much of the theorizing of the AIDS science establishment over
the past year consists of unproven speculations as to how these indirect
mechanisms might work.
Given this weakness in the alleged killer virus, Gallo accounts for
its deadliness with a new inspiration. He speculates that the virus typically
lies quietly in the T-cells without causing any harm, until other infections,
and possibly drugs as well, "activate" it. Only through a partnership
between virus and disease is the damage to the body's defenses done, and
the fatal immune deficiency caused. Very often, it seems, the virus by
itself will do nothing.
SPIN: Haven't you then shifted ground a bit since you told me a year
ago that HIV was killing T-cells all by itself "like a truck"?
Gallo: No, listen to me carefully. I still say that again. If you infect
a T-cell in the lab and stimulate it, it is dead. I showed you a picture.
It is dead. Be careful you are not misunderstanding a quote from me. I
am not shifting any ground. My opinion on the disease is fundamentally
unaltered, but I hope like you I grow with time. I wouldn't want to stay
in one spot, would you? That would mean I have learned nothing.
SPIN: So supposing someone does test positive for the virus, and they
are behaving well and not taking high risks, would you agree that on the
whole they might live happily for some time?
Gallo: Yes. It's possible.
SPIN: Doesn't that suggest that you need cofactors?
Gallo: No. Because the cofactors existed before, and the AIDS virus
didn't. You have a new agent and a new disease. The agent correlates with
the disease. O.K.? In an overwhelming manner - a manner which is almost
simple. That cofactors make things worse, I repeat, is self-evident. It
is true of almost every human disease.
SPIN: But how can we be sure that the virus is actually involved, when
the other things are necessary to cause the problem, and you have to wait
for them to come along?
Gallo: No. The other things are not necessary but they accelerate. Your
T-cells are going to get stimulated, and you are going to spread virus,
and you are going to have disease.
You could argue it was something else and something else forever, you
know, and no one can ever prove anything and you can do a lot of harm to
SPIN: Does the virus vary in its deadliness to cells?
Gallo: Sometimes. The disease tends to be slower without the T-cell
stimulation. I can see that in lab studies. I have said it for a long time.
Things that activate T-cells will make life worse. It will spread more
virus. In addition, I told you that there are specific cofactors probably,
in a sense, if you want to call them cofactors.
But there are plenty of people who simply got blood transfusions who
have gotten AIDS.
SPIN: There is hope for those that don't behave badly?
Gallo: I like that line. I like that line. Let's emphasize that. I agree
with you. I hate it when people give no hope - like the [Washington] Post
front-page story saying 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, even if it were true. But the fact is that we just don't know.
SPIN: Basically, you will not be surprised if the rate of actual AIDS
cases falls off despite the fact that there may be lots of HIV-positive
people around - so long as they behave well?
Gallo: Right. My suspicion is that good behavior, avoiding certain things,
is likely to make the rate of development of the disease much slower in
the population as a whole. There may be variants of the virus that grow
fast and people will throw it in your face and my face if I say this, but
it may be because some variants are worse than others. I do believe that
you could make the disease slow. And that in the general population you
probably will see a slow rate of disease with good behavior, and maybe
the latency will be very, very low. I'd love to see that happen.
SPIN: So we seem to be ending up with a virus that actually doesn't
cause a lot of harm unless you behave in some way or other to exacerbate
Gallo: Don't go that far! That's a mistake. For me that's too far. For
me in this interview it is. If you want to say that on your own, fine.
But I don't believe that. I do believe that this virus in and of itself
can cause a fatal disease.
Is it possible to "stay in one spot" and "shift ground"
at the same time? Despite his disclaimer, Gallo seems to have shifted ground
dramatically. He has, in fact, accommodated Duesberg's objections by incorporating
them into his own position. Duesberg says that the virus is not involved,
and that AIDS is more likely caused by drugs and disease overload. Now
Gallo agrees that disease overload, and perhaps drugs, are involved, because
they "activate" the virus which he feels is otherwise asleep.
The world's leading AIDS scientist had now made it clear that if
HIV-positive people otherwise maintain their health, the "deadly virus"
is not so deadly after all. Given this, I wanted to know how he could justify
giving highly toxic AZT to people who are HIV-positive but don't have any
AIDS related symptoms.
SPIN: If, in fact, just having the virus is not necessarily a threat
by itself, why take AZT, which is undeniably very toxic?
Gallo: Very low doses of AZT are not very dangerous. To answer the question
as best as I can, if it was me I can simply tell you in honesty, if I get
infected in the lab I am going to take low-dose AZT.
SPIN: But why? You are a risk-free person who wouldn't easily be exposed
to these other cofactors?
Gallo: I don't want to gamble on the virus being one of the variants
that spreads to my brain or anything like it. O.K.? I would rather gamble
with low-dose AZT. But I don't know that that is best.
SPIN: They are now giving AZT to day-old babes and pregnant women with
no symptoms. Wouldn't you say that is a little bit forward?
Gallo: Well, we'll have to see. It may be a mistake, it may not be.
What can we say right now, you know? The answer is that we don't know this
is the best policy. My guess would be to err on side of taking low-dose
AZT. I may be wrong on that.
SPIN: You seem to be bringing in some real optimism here.
Gallo: I would much rather err on that side than the other. I do believe
AIDS is a solvable problem.
Informed about what Gallo told us, Duesberg had a chance to comment:
"He is a nice guy, but he is just like a willow, bending and flexing
in all directions. On the needle-stick cases, first he says you are wrong,
then he says he should have given more references. On the transfusion cases
he clearly made an error, and he doesn't want to admit it."
On the rate of regeneration of T-cells in human adults, it is Gallo
who is wrong, Duesberg insists: It is such old stuff. The textbook gives
the figure, 50 percent a month."
How about that the T-cells are quite happy with the virus inside them
until they get stimulated? "I wonder what stimulation means,"
Duesberg asks. "Maybe he shows them an erotic picture! According to
Gallo's own data, the virus is undetectable in many AIDS patients who are
dying and virtually absent in all others. It seems that if the virus is
not stimulated, it doesn't do much either, since there is no virus to be
The virus varies in deadliness? "Another totally arbitrary statement."
Duesberg claims. "How does he know that? I assume if he isolates the
virus from a dying person it is deadly, and if he isolates a virus from
a healthy person he calls it less deadly.
"Gallo has said himself, and it is the official position, that
up to 100 percent of those infected will die from AIDS. He says it is the
'most efficient virus ever found.' Yet now he also says if people really
behave well, it may be alright after all. Similarly, with AZT, he now says
just take a little bit of it, a tiny bit. He seems to want to please everybody.
What kind of position is that for a scientist? If he is skeptical about
it, it is his obligation to say why."
Duesberg concludes: "Gallo has found a virus which can't possibly
explain a disease, and then he tries to make it fit with some form of epidemiology,
reassuring us that nobody in history has ever had to explain how an agent
works to claim that it is the cause of a disease. But you have to make
sense. The parasite has to act when the disease occurs."
And what, in his turn, does Duesberg think of Gallo now? "He is
a grown-up kid who wants to be a hero. He even adjusts his hypothesis to
agree with you. He calls me irresponsible, but in fact he is the one who
says as long as you don't catch the virus you'll be fine, you can do what
you want, and who is promoting the poisoning of people with AZT."
Go here for the first interview.