ON VIRUS HUNTING
By Peter Duesberg
New York Native 29 April 1991
In Virus Hunting, Robert Gallo offers a highly personal view
of his triumphs and agonies with the human retroviruses he believes cause
leukemia and AIDS. Gallo's greatest triumph was the notorious press conference
in April 1984 when he and the Secretary of Health and Human Services
Margaret Heckler jointly announced that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
is the cause of AIDS and that Gallo had discovered HIV. It set the unique
precedent, that a scientific hypothesis of immense clinical consequences
would be nationally accepted prior to a single publication on the subject
by Gallo or any other American scientist. Moreover, Gallo managed at the
same time to file together with his employer the National Institutes of
Health, for a lucrative AIDS test patent. However, subsequent nucleic acid
sequence analyses proved Gallo's virus from 1984 to be the same as the
virus discovered by Luc Montagnier in 1983. Since Montagnier had sent his
virus to Gallo in 1983, it appeared that Gallo had rediscovered Montagnier's
virus. In addition, a legal investigation proved that the photograph of
HIV in Gallo's first AIDS papers was that of Montagnier's virus ''inadvertently"
used ''largely for illustrative purposes" (p. 210-11). That would
have been the end for all claims to immortality by ordinary, academic scientists
not working for a government that had committed itself to Gallo's
In Virus Hunting, Robert Gallo claims to have achieved two of
his most desired goals: to prove that HIV virus is guilty of causing AIDS
and that Gallo is innocent of appropriating Montagnier's virus. The bizarre
story of how Gallo isolated his HIV is one of the many, too many, stories
told to put to rest the suspicion that Gallo had misappropriated Montagnier's
virus. Says Gallo, Mika Poppovic took the ''thinking" of infecting
cells in culture ''one step further.... He continually reinfected by adding
virus back to the cell line or by adding fresh cells as needed.... Now
he had virus from ten patients in the pool....To this day, we do not know
which patient it was from." (p.179-180) However, if Gallo and Popovic
had ever studied retroviral interference, the answer would be embarrassingly
clear. The virus was from Montagnier's "patient," because if
cells are infected in sequence by related retroviruses, the first one to
infect a culture will exclude all subsequent infections. In view of Gallo's
and Poppovic's plans that "one day we will tell our grandchildren
about this moment" (p. 180), one can only hope that their grandchildren
will not know more about retrovirology than their grandfathers did.
In his efforts to legitimize his discovery, Gallo struck one of the
biggest deals of revisionist science. In 1987 he coauthored a Nature
paper with Montagnier that described 'the scientific chronology of
events" (p. 214), claiming that both researchers had "co-discovered"
HIV, one in 1983 and the other in 1984, and co-believed that it was the
cause of AIDS. It described the two scientific and patent rights rivals
as friendly allies in the war against AIDS. Indeed, it is bewildering to
see how much time Gallo spends bargaining science for politics or politics
for science instead of making his case in the laboratory. Take for example
another deal with Montagnier, "When Montagnier and I met in private
and had a chance to discuss our views, we agreed to respond to the question
with a middle position: the mutation of AIDS [probably means HIV] into
casually transmitted virus would be highly improbable. '(p. 233)
However, the entente cordiale with Montagnier did not last forever!
In 1990 Montagnier came to the conclusion that HIV cannot be a sufficient
cause of AIDS and is thus no longer a satisfactory enemy in the war against
AIDS. At the international AIDS Conference in San Francisco, at press conferences
and in two scientific papers in 1990, Montagnier cited the chronic dormancy
of HIV, the fact that never more than one in about 500 T-cells are infected,
and above all, the inability of HIV to kill T-cells, as primary reasons
for his change of mind. Ironically, Gallo notes seven years after himself
introducing HIV as the cause of AIDS at a press conference, "this
surprising view which has been chiefly presented in press conferences,
has given, and may do so for a while, added longevity to confused and confusing
(to others) arguments that HIV is not the primary cause of AIDS."
(p. 286) "In short, he has lent some support to Duesberg..."
(p. 297), thus putting the HIV-protestant Montagnier, now referring in
the press to HIV as a "peaceful virus," close to the HIV-renegade
Duesberg who said HIV was a harmless "dud" (p. 290). Likewise,
Gallo writes that "...Duesberg's rush to the media has its dangerous
side." (p. 297) But Gallo, the father of science by press release,
fails to explain why it is "dangerous" for me, Montagnier, and
others to question a hypothesis that in seven years of fierce research
and annual investments that currently amount to 3 x 10 9 dollars has yet
to stop or contain AIDS, or even predict its spread.
Gallo sets for himself the highest standards of scientific integrity
in his efforts to prove HIV as the cause of AIDS: "...until we were
able to lay out our proof before the scientific community... no credit
came our way," and ''I believe in the value of vigorous debate. It
is almost instinctive." (p. 164) "I love the rough and tumble
of intellectual debate and usually welcome attacks on my own ideas (though
I admit not always... and depending on the source)" (p. 169). Yet
lots of credit and patent rights came Gallo's way, before even his first
paper on the AIDS virus had been published; and his love and instinct for
intellectual debate suddenly disappeared when I challenged his "own
ideas" about HIV and AIDS in a paper in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences in 1989 (86:755764). For two years Gallo
failed to honor his promise to the editor of the journal to write a rebuttal.
Indeed, Virus Hunting shows that Gallo is a paper tiger when it
comes to intellectual debate. Clearly he has nothing but soft epidemiological
evidence to offer as "proof" for the virus-AIDS hypothesis. His
strongest point is that antibody to HIV is found in all AIDS patients "one
hell of a good beginning..." (p. 292). However, he fails to point
out that AIDS is defined as a syndrome, a collection, of 25 unrelated diseases
that are only called AIDS if that antibody is present. In its absence the
very same diseases are called by their old names: pneumonia, dementia,
tuberculosis, etc. Moreover, Gallo acknowledges that HIV fails the classic
criteria of proving a microbe guilty of causing a disease, formulated by
the German bacteriologist Robert Koch, who discovered the bacillus of tuberculosis.
However, instead of providing alternative proof of HIV as the cause of
AIDS, Gallo dumps the timetested postulates of Koch. Says Gallo, "The
last one hundred years [from Robert Koch to Robert Gallo!] have also conclusively
taught us that the underlying premise of Koch's postulates is wrong"
Gallo emphasizes repeatedly that I am unprepared to understand AIDS,
because I am not an M.D. but "a chemist, a molecular virologist"
(p. 291). After Virus Hunting, I wonder whether the M.D. Gallo might
not have been better cast using his medical training to treat AIDS patients
than trying to resolve the "molecular virology" of HIV and the
''chemistry" of AIDS. Here are some samples of Gallo's efforts
to prove "How the AIDS virus works":
1. On why antibody to HIV does not protect against AIDS:
a. "Because retroviruses integrate their genetic information upon
entry, the immune response to infection shows up too late to serve as protection
against it." (p. 206) Obviously Gallo believes that the immune system
only protects if it were faster than viral infection. Yet the immune system
against any virus, including retroviruses, never responds until millions
of cells have been infected and sufficient viral protein is made for an
b. But even if antibodies could be made available in time, Gallo argues
"that most antibodies are not protective. In many instances
none are protective" (p. 292). This of course is a heavy blow to the
practice of inducing antiviral antibodies by antiviral vaccination, for
200 years the only protection against virus diseases. Unfortunately, Gallo
does not identify the sources of this threatening information. Fortunately,
it does not apply to antibodies to HIV, detected by Gallo's "all-important
AIDS test" (book jacket), because in the presence of such antibodies
HIV is so efficiently neutralized that it is, if at all. only detectable
by the most sophisticated and expensive AIDS laboratories. Indeed, two
recent papers by Ho et al. and Shaw et al. from the New
England Journal of Medicine (April 4) just confirm "rapid...and
effective immune responses [to HIV] in the host." The fact that antibodies
against HIV are not protective against AIDS is not because they don't neutralize
HIV, but because HIV is not the cause of AIDS (see Duesberg PNAS 86:755-764,
1989 and 88:1575-1579, 1991).
2. On how homosexuals get AIDS in the U.S. and heterosexuals in Africa:
a. "AIDS is in young gay men... for many obvious and logical reasons....
More blood penetration is likely to take place in rectal sex than in vaginal
sex." (p. 291) Perhaps Gallo is not aware of menstruation?
b. In Africa "Other factors may also contribute to the discrepancy,
such as ritualistic voodoo practices." (p. 229)
c. "When the man ejaculates, the few HIV particles may lose their
outer coat (envelope) and are not infectious...." (p. 240) This sounds
like a highly personal observation - because retroviruses are not known
to disintegrate upon far greater physical stress than ejaculation, such
as centrifugation at several 100,000 gravity units.
d. Then there is a very new Gallo story. "My new co-worker A.A.
working with V.F. discovered that two parasites found in fecal material,
giardia and amoeba, can be infected by HIV. These parasites are not uncommon
in central Africa and in gay men everywhere.. ...We wonder whether this
is a factor in HIV communicability" (p. 251). If it were, the host
range of HIV would have expanded very far, from human T-cells to amoeba
Yet the politician Gallo does not want to offend American homosexuals
or central Africans and their microbes by assuring all of us that "sexual
transmission from man to woman... is probably the most common pathway of
infection in the world not man to man by sex, as we in the U.S. tend to
think" (p. 251). That, however, leaves open the question as to why
women represent less than ten percent of all AIDS cases in the U.S.
3. On the long latent period between infection and AIDS, that currently
averages about ten years: "In the early years however, the immune
system is still able to handle the challenge. Not so later." (p. 242)
At that point Gallo seems to have forgotten that the immune response comes
too late, and is not effective at any time as he points out later (p. 292,
4. On the decline of T-cells in AIDS over 99 percent of which are never
infected by HIV: "But it is not only direct killing by HIV that depletes
T4-cells. At any given moment... in our experience usually fewer than one
in 10,000 cells express virus at most times. Other less direct mechanisms
also appear to be operative." (p. 248) This leads him into the theories
on cofactors for HIV described below.
5. On AIDS dementia:
a. ''Some of it no doubt is a direct toxic effect of the virus on microglial
cells. This in turn may lead to less 'architectural support' to the neurons,
whose function may then be compromised." Obviously a speculation.
b. And "another mechanism," as if this one weren't convincing
enough, "...another HIV regulatory protein called Nef is also
released by infected cells and Nef has some regions of similarity
with a brain-poisoning protein from scorpions" (p. 250). Another,
totally different speculation for the same question.
6. On HIV causing Kaposi's sarcoma: The same virus that releases cell
killing "scorpion poisons" is said also to release growth factors,
termed tat proteins, that make certain cells grow into Kaposi's sarcomas.
''To my knowledge, it is the first time a protein of a virus, normally
working as a regulator for virus formation, was observed also being released
from the infected cell and acting as a growth factor for another cell."
(p. 270) Yet another in the inexhaustible repertoire of evils of HIV!
7. On the 20-fold higher incidence of Kaposi's sarcoma in homosexuals
compared to other HIV-positives:
a. "These findings appear to require another environmental (external)
factor - such as another not yet discovered virus - in gay men." (p.
271) If in trouble, postulate another virus.
b. "Perhaps this is a result of differences in the levels of male
sex hormone, testosterone... Perhaps sexually active homosexuals as a group
have higher testosterone levels... This is a testable hypothesis... and
it is testable hypotheses that advance science" (p. 271). A long discarded
hypothesis, which in the past has led to sentences of forced treatments
of homosexuals with female sex hormones.
8. On cofactors of HIV for AIDS: Clearly Gallo has initiated his retreat
from the once solid HIV-causes-AIDS-front to the minefield of HIV-plus-cofactors
cause AIDS. ''I also intuitively agree with the idea that cofactors for
HIV progression [he probably means AIDS progression] itself can also exist...."
a. '' ....At this time we can say that the [so-called human leukemia
viruses] HTLVs are the only known specific cofactor for AIDS..." (p.
b. ''. . . I suspect that [another virus] HHV-6 is also likely to be
a contributing factor to the development of AIDS" (p. 254). "I
have suggested we look carefully at two: HTLV-I and HHV-6 [both discovered
by Gallo]. There may be more." (p. 254).
c. "Another possible cofactor in the depletion of T-cells is via
an abnormality in the production of the T-cell growth factor, IL-2, by
T-cells of AIDS patients, even by cells not infected by HIV." (p.
248). No further explanation is offered as to why uninfected cells
would kill each other in some people with antibody to HIV.
But Gallo is uneasy about cofactors, in particular, if they come from
others. "...Nonetheless I am surprised that Montagnier has suggested
a mycoplasma [not even co-discovered by Gallo] as a possible or probable
prerequisite for AIDS development with HIV" (p. 297). Gallo realizes
that cofactors have been the beginning of the end of many once spectacular
hypotheses. Gallo expresses his concern with a quote from Lewis Thomas:
"Multifactorial is multiignorance. Most of the factors [and quite
possibly even HIV] go away when we learn the real cause of a disease."
(p. 148) Adopting cofactors has in fact become the admission of failure
in the new era of big science. In view of the large personal and commercial
investments in big science, like AIDS or cancer research, it has become
virtually impossible to admit a fundamental mistake. Big science can respond
to errors no better than the Titanic to icebergs.
Clearly Gallo's offerings on "how the AIDS virus works" are
most entertaining and solid proof for his lively imagination. But in terms
of scientific proof for the virus-AIDS hypothesis or "intellectual
debate" they confirm a quote from a common friend who subscribes to
Gallo's virus-AIDS hypothesis, "Gallo cannot argue his way out of
a paper bag." Because there is no logical evidence for HIV as the
cause of AIDS, Gallo flounders around many, too many, hypotheses
and psychological rather than logical drama. Gallo bluffs the outsiders
with scientific jargon and inaccessible concepts and engages the insiders
either in self-congratulating dialogues with supporters or in pseudoscientific
debates with opponents, often in the form of undocumented quotes, in order
to achieve his goals with relentless energy and redundancy. For example,
"It has been said [by whom?] that this period - roughly 1983 to 1985
- marked the most rapid progress in medical history.... Francis Crick makes
this point in What Mad Pursuit. I agree with his sentiment..."
(p. 203) Or, "Duesberg simply dismisses [the slow viruses] by saying
'they probably don't cause the diseases.'" (p. 295) Gallo doesn't
identify the source of the quote and wins his point with an undocumented
counterclaim. However, he gives generous credit to nonthreatening supporters
or collaborators - but none whatsoever to independent competitors or opponents.
And all this without even a single reference to the scientific and nonscientific
literature. In addition, the book is poorly proof-read, containing spelling
errors in names and technical terms, and almost all index items are off
by several pages.
This leaves us with the most unanswered question of Virus Hunting:
Why is there so much faith in virus hunters, even though virus hunters
have not provided clinically productive hypotheses since the polio epidemic
in the 1950s? Like the Cold War armies after World War II, thousands of
virus hunters were recruited since the polio epidemic to defend against
further ''deadly" viruses. Since there were no further deadly viruses
in the Western World since the '50s, at least some were invented in the
laboratories. For example, viruses were blamed as causes of Burkitt's lymphoma,
breast cancer, T-cell leukemia, cervical cancer, Alzheimer's disease, subacute
sclerosing panencephalitis, and now AIDS and the chronic fatigue syndrome.
Since none of these diseases is contagious, the viruses had to become very
slow - allowing years, often decades, between infection and disease. For
example, Gallo's leukemia virus is currently estimated to cause leukemia
only once every 2000 years in human bodies. If it occurs in an individual,
it does so only after "many years" (p. 281), on average 55 years
after infection - a very slow virus indeed! Further, the viruses were said
to be highly selective of their victims to explain the odd, non-random
epidemiology of these diseases like AIDS in drug-addicts and male homosexuals
and chronic fatigue in female yuppies and viral leukemia in certain Japanese
islands. And since the viruses are neither active nor abundant in these
diseases, they were accommodated as "deadly" pathogens by the
bizarre postulate that even rare and latent viruses cause deadly diseases.
The situation became so absurd and academic that many former virus hunters
began to look for more plausible explanations of these diseases. Some,
like me, took up oncogenes as causes of cancer, others like Montagnier,
began to look for nonviral "co-factors" of HIV, as a cause of
AIDS. However, many like Gallo persisted in their quixotic beliefs perhaps
because virus hunting is their only expertise. Writes Gallo, the Don Quixote
of human retrovirology, ''We believed in the human retrovirus and stuck
with our beliefs throughout our own remarkable journey..." (p. 164)
chasing forever the windmills of latent human retroviruses. Perhaps even
Gallo sees the writing on the wall: "Sometimes we Ivirologists] have
a virus in search of a disease" (p.282) that can't be accommodated
as a pathogen - even with an AIDS budget.
And all of this Virus Hunting would be just another, albeit expensive,
scientific comedy if it weren't the only basis for the chronic treatment
of currently 125,000 symptomatic and even healthy HIV-carriers with AZT
(Duesberg. PNAS 88, 1575-1579, 1991). AZT is an inevitably cytotoxic
terminator of DNA synthesis - and DNA is the central molecule of all life.
It is administered to HIV carriers to inhibit HIV DNA, but unfortunately
it inhibits human cell DNA synthesis just as well. Since according to Gallo,
"...fewer than one in 10,000 cells express virus [and fewer would
make HIV DNA] at most times" (p. 248), 9,999 uninfected human T-cells
will be killed by AZT for every T-cell infected by HIV - the hypothetical
cause of AIDS! This is called a high toxicity index in pharmacology. Obviously,
the M.D. Gallo is not unaware of these "side effects...chiefly [on]
cells ...of the bone marrow [that] are dividing and, therefore, making
DNA. So AZT might cause a decline in the number of certain blood
cells." (p. 305) - the very cells AIDS patients are deficient in to
begin with! It would appear that AZT is the most tragic consequence of
Virus Hunting - inevitably fatal to those who receive it and possibly fatal
to the future reputations of those who have prescribed it. *