An Addition to the Honor Roll?
The events of the subsequent seven months are obscure, and—despite intensive scrutiny by journalists and a half dozen official investigations by various reputable bodies—the facts may never fully be known. What appears beyond dispute is that, shortly after the Cold Springs Harbor conference, Montagnier forwarded to Gallo a sample of LAV for him to study. Then, the following April, reports of Gallo's discovery of a "third variant" of HTLV began to appear in the pages of U.S. newspapers. Just months after insisting that HTLV was the cause of AIDS—while increasingly having trouble finding it in AIDS patients—Gallo presented the world with a new virus, "HTLV-III," which he claimed was a member of the HTLV family. Later, in January 1985, investigators would determine that Gallo's HTLV-III samples had a 99 percent genetic similarity to Montagnier's LAV—that is, the viruses were much too similar to have come from separate sources. The implications were clear: Whether the consequence of accidental contamination of viral cultures—a common problem in virology labs—or of outright theft and misrepresentation, the Pasteur Institute's LAV had found its way into Gallo's cultures. Almost beyond a doubt, Gallo had in fact "discovered" Montagnier's virus.
Yet none of this was known in 1984. Indeed, there was little said about Montagnier on April 23 that year, when Margaret Heckler, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of health and human services, stood before a roomful of reporters. "The probable cause of AIDS has been found," she announced with some fanfare: "a variant of a known human cancer virus, called HTLV-III." Just a few days earlier, Lawrence Altman, the New York Times 's medical reporter, had received a scoop from CDC Director James Mason, who told him that a virus discovered in France, called LAV, was the likely culprit; the Times had run the story on the front page. "There was so little excitement in the scientific community when the French came up with their announcement last May," noted Mason, claiming he did not understand why it had taken so long for the importance of the Pasteur Institute's work to be recognized. But at the press conference on Tuesday, Mason's boss had a different tune to play.
"Today we add another miracle to the long honor roll of American medicine and science," said Heckler. "Those who have said we weren't doing enough," she added, in response to widespread complaints of inactivity on AIDS by the Reagan administration, "have not understood how sound, solid, significant medical research proceeds." As Randy Shilts described it, the researchers on the podium with Heckler "blanched visibly when she proclaimed that … a vaccine would be ready for testing within two years."
Heckler made only brief reference to the Pasteur Institute scientists, describing them as "working in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute"; she indicated her belief that LAV and HTLV-III "will prove to be the same." Nor was mention made of UCSF virologist Jay Levy, who was also close on the heels of a virus linked to AIDS. (He would submit his paper to Science the following month.) Pressed by puzzled reporters, Gallo added: "If it [the virus] turns out to be the same I certainly will say so…." Heckler emphasized the crucial role of the U.S. research, noting that only Gallo had succeeded in reproducing large quantities of the virus, which was necessary for the development of a blood test that could detect viral antibodies. Hours earlier, the U.S. government had filed a patent application for just such a test.
The New York Times , in an editorial printed a few days afterward, was not slow to draw implications from the episode. "In the world of science, as among primitive societies, to be the namer of an object is to own it," the Times noted wryly, pointing to the dispute between
"LAV" and "HTLV-III." Since the blood screening test was not yet in commercial operation and no vaccine had yet been produced, "what you are hearing is not yet a public benefit but a private competition—for fame, prizes, new research funds."