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Robert Gallo Talks To Anthony Liversidge (2)

July 14th, 2007

As described below, Gallo also made himself available a year later, when he came into New York to give his triumphant six Bampton lectures at Columbia, a six hour marathon which was attended by a number of skeptics who feasted on the remarkable number of flaws they claimed to detect in Gallo’s review of the history of virus research and human health.


By Anthony Liversidge

(published in Spin March, 1989)

Last year, the country’s top AIDS researcher, Dr. Robert Gallo, told Anthony Liversidge for 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 deadly 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, Gallo is worshipped 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 co-discovered 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 seeking 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 convinced 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 so 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 by 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 complete 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.

We 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 AIDS symptoms. – Anthony Liversidge

AL: 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?

AL: Walter Gilbert of Harvard.

Gallo: Wally Gilbert believes HIV doesn’t cause AIDS?!!

AL: 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.

AL: 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 with us.

AL: Will you agree, however, that Peter Duesberg is a serious academic critic?

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, obviously.

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!

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.]
AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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 per month.]

AL: 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.

AL: 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, a 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 responsible?

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: How can you be sure of that when by itself the virus by itself 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.]
AL: 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.

AL: 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.

Gallo: Sure.

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.]
AL: 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 things?

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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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 science.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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 it.

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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

AL: 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.

Peter Duesberg comments:

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 found.”

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.

(Copyright Anthony Liversidge 1989)

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