Robert Gallo on the Witness Stand
HIV/AIDS Model Wins Aussie Court Battle, but Not the War
news analysis by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
A court of law isn’t usually a place where scientific truth is debated and argued, but then AIDS isn’t your garden-variety disease either. In the 26 years since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control first proclaimed the existence of what it then called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” on the basis of five Gay men in Los Angeles, and the 23 years since National Cancer Institute (NCI) virologist Robert Gallo persuaded the U.S. government that the virus now called HIV was the cause of AIDS, the syndrome has grown far beyond the worlds of science and medicine and intersected the fields of politics, religion and morality.
On February 12, 2007 the various forces involved in the AIDS issue came together to create an astonishing historical spectacle: Robert Gallo himself, the man who more than any other individual created the dogma that HIV and HIV alone causes AIDS, was forced down from his mountaintop to tell a court in Brisbane, Australia just how HIV was identified as a new virus and what was the evidence on which Gallo concluded it caused AIDS. Of course, he didn’t actually come down from his mountaintop literally — he sat in an office in the virological institute in Bethesda, Maryland which he has directed since he left the NCI and his video image was beamed to the court in Brisbane.
The trial began when a young Australian man named Andre Chad Parenzee fell victim to one of the nastier types of legislation generated by the belief that HIV causes AIDS: the criminalization of sex involving a so-called “HIV positive” person. He was accused and put on trial for having consensual sex with three women, one of whom later tested “HIV positive” herself, without using condoms or telling them he was “HIV positive.” After Panerjee was convicted in January 2006, his family retained one of Australia’s best-known defense attorneys, Kevin Borick, to represent him on his appeal — and Borick in turn sought expert opinion and testimony from a maverick group of doctors and scientists in the Australian city of Perth.
Led by Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Valendar Turner, the so-called “Perth Group” have been publishing articles in scientific journals and on the Internet for over two decades questioning the popular wisdom about HIV and AIDS. They have argued that, rather than an infectious disease caused by HIV, AIDS is the product of “oxidative stress” from various toxic factors that sends the body’s blood chemistry haywire and thus trashes the immune system. They have established that what the so-called “HIV test” actually tests for is not HIV itself or even antibodies to it, but antibodies to nine proteins that supposedly make up HIV but are also found in the bodies of normal, HIV-free individuals. What’s more, they have questioned whether HIV even exists as a unique, identifiable virus at all.
Papadopulos-Eleopulos, Turner and their colleagues base that startling claim on a belief that the standard experiments needed to establish the existence of a previously unknown virus were never done for HIV. In a 24-page affidavit submitted to the court hearing Parenzee’s appeal, Turner argued that neither Gallo nor Luc Montagnier of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, commonly regarded as the joint discoverers of HIV, actually “isolated” the virus in the literal meaning of the term: that is, separating it out from all other biological material and then photographing it with an electron microscope to prove not only that it exists but it has the physical features of a virus.
Instead, Turner wrote, “What Montagnier reported as ‘isolation’ [of HIV] was detection of an enzyme activity — that is, reverse transcription — not purification of virus-like particles proven to be infectious. In fact, Montagnier did not purify ‘HIV.’” Attorney Borick used Turner’s affidavit to argue that since HIV was never properly isolated in the first place, and therefore could not possibly have been shown to cause AIDS, his client Parenzee shouldn’t be held legally responsible for endangering the lives of his sex partners by exposing them to a so-called “virus” that may or may not exist, which he was supposed to have had on the basis of an antibody test that may or may not have measured perfectly normal bodily proteins.
Parenzee’s prosecutor, Sandi McDonald, responded by bringing in seven Australian scientists and health practitioners to testify in favor of the HIV/AIDS model: Peter McDonald, Elizabeth Dax, John Kaldor, Martyn French, David Gordon, Dominic Dwyer and David Cooper, all of whom work either in research or patient care on AIDS at Australian institutions. MacDonald also called Gallo to the witness stand to defend the work of both his and Montagnier’s labs in identifying HIV and linking it to AIDS.
The judge’s final ruling, issued April 27, was a sweeping attempt to vindicate the mainstream view of AIDS: that HIV is its cause, the virus is sexually transmitted, the antibody tests are specific and sensitive, and there was no reason to reopen the case based on the statements of the Perth Group to the contrary. It’s true that the Parenzee case raised these issues in one of the worst imaginable factual contexts: he was accused of having unprotected sex with three women, one of whom supposedly became “HIV positive” from her contact with him. Also, his attorneys didn’t raise the question of whether HIV existed or caused AIDS, or whether the antibody tests were accurate, in the initial trial. Parenzee’s defense didn’t bring this issue up until they filed permission to appeal the original verdict on the basis of new evidence — and the standard of proof for that, in Australia as in the U.S., is higher than it would be for its admissibility in an initial trial.
Nonetheless, Justice John Sulan’s opinion dripped with scorn for the alternative view of AIDS in general and Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner in particular. Noting that neither Papadopulos-Eleopulos nor Turner has specific expertise in virology, epidemiology or immunology — she’s a nuclear physicist who works in radiation medicine at the Royal Perth Hospital and he’s an emergency-room physician there — he rejected the defense claim that they be considered expert witnesses. Their views “are outside the scientific mainstream and … have not been widely expressed in either mainstream or scientific publications,” Justice Sulan wrote (p. 10). “Neither Ms. Papadopulos-Eleopulos nor Dr. Turner claimed to have practical experience or qualifications in any of the particular scientific disciplines to which their evidence pertained.” (p. 13)
That wasn’t the only reason Justice Sulan found for disregarding everything Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner had to say about HIV and AIDS. He said that they had misinterpreted various scientific papers they cited in their presentations and had relied almost exclusively on information published in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Papadopulos-Eleopulos “has not read or she has chosen to ignore an enormous volume of recently published material on the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS,” Justice Sulan wrote (p. 22).
He also ruled that Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner couldn’t be considered “objective” experts because they maintain a Web site, www.theperthgroup.com, on which they promote their contrarian views on HIV and AIDS, and because the home page of the Perth Group site advocates, as one of three possible ways of testing the HIV/AIDS model, that “HIV seropositive individuals … have the evidence for their diagnoses of ‘HIV’ infection examined in courts of law.” The judge said Turner’s affidavit to the court couldn’t be accepted as evidence because it was also published on their Web site — ignoring the no-brain fact that scientists supporting the HIV/AIDS model regularly post justifications for it on their Web sites.
Justice Sulan also faulted Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner for not carrying out any original research on HIV and AIDS, but instead merely reading other people’s published papers — many by authors who themselves accept the HIV/AIDS model — and critiquing them. Among the papers Papadopulos-Eleopulos cited in court were three by Nancy Padian, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the University of Canada, which Papadopulos-Eleopulos said cast doubt on whether, or how efficiently, HIV could be transmitted by heterosexual sex; and a study by Rodriguez and Liederman (Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 27, 2006) which she said suggested that the primary causes of CD4 T-cell depletion in people with AIDS come from factors other than HIV.
In throwing out Papadopulos-Eleopulos’s contentions, Justice Sulan relied mostly on statements by the authors of these papers rejecting her interpretations of them and reaffirming their fealty to the One True Faith of “HIV/AIDS.” “HIV is unquestionably transmitted through heterosexual intercourse,” Padian wrote in the statement the judge quoted (p. 26). “Indeed, heterosexual intercourse is now responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all HIV transmissions worldwide.” Likewise, the statement by Rodriguez and Liederman Justice Sulan quoted called Papadopulos-Eleopulos’s interpretation of their findings “disturbing” and added, “There is absolutely no doubt that HIV is the cause of AIDS; far from challenging the veracity of this statement, our work further confirms it.” (p. 30) [For more information on the Rodriguez-Liederman paper from an alternative perspective, see http://barnesworld.blogs.com/barnes_world/2006/10/by_jeffrey_dach.html and http://barnesworld.blogs.com/barnes_world/2006/11/the_final_nail_.html.]
If taken to its logical conclusion, Justice Sulan’s position would argue that the only people qualified to interpret and analyze a scientific paper would be the scientists who did the research themselves. No one would be allowed to read a paper and question whether the data reported really supported the conclusion the authors said they did. What’s more, Justice Sulan wasn’t consistent in applying this standard. He certainly didn’t apply it to Kary Mullis, Ph.D., who in 1983 invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology used in the so-called HIV “viral load” tests and in 1993 won the Nobel Prize for this invention. Mullis has consistently rejected both the HIV/AIDS model itself and the use of PCR in “viral load” tests.
The reason is the PCR is a technique for amplifying small amounts of protein or genetic material by copying them millions of times into a large sample that can then be analyzed and sequenced. The problem is that, because it is an amplification technique, it’s good at determining whether a particular genetic sequence existed in your original sample but it’s lousy at determining how much of it you started with. “Quantitative PCR is an oxymoron,” Mullis has repeatedly said — and therefore, according to the inventor of the technology used to generate them, all those official-sounding numbers people with HIV and AIDS are given from their “viral load” tests are meaningless.
But Justice Sulan, who was willing to regard Padian, Rodriguez and Liederman as the sole arbiters of what their research means, didn’t grant the same concession to Mullis. Paraphrasing prosecution witness Peter James McDonald, Sulan said that Mullis had “express[ed] confidence in the PCR system” but totally ignored Mullis’s well-known critique of its use as the basis of “viral load” tests (p. 82). Instead, Sulan called Mullis an “AIDS denialist” — a common propaganda term used by the HIV/AIDS mainstream to attack both scientists and lay people who advance alternative views — and said Mullis’s views on AIDS “are not supported by research” (pp. 81, 83).
The extent to which Justice Sulan’s decision was motivated by politics rather than research was nowhere more apparent than his statement that, “in support of the proposition that HIV is the cause of AIDS,” the prosecution “relied upon the Durban Declaration … a document signed by 5,000 scientists and research institutions acknowledging that HIV causes AIDS” (p. 78). The Durban Declaration was issued in 2000, on the eve of the international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, and though it contained a handful of scientific references, its overall purpose was political, not scientific: to shame South African president Thabo Mbeki into abandoning his government’s efforts to bring mainstream and alternative AIDS scientists together to debate and test the foundational assumptions behind the HIV/AIDS model.
According to Justice Sulan, scientific “truth” is whatever a majority of the world’s scientists studying a problem say it is. If that had been the accepted view throughout history, we would still believe that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun, planets and stars revolved around it; that human illnesses could not possibly be caused by organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye; that people of color were biologically and genetically inferior to whites; and that homosexuality was per se a mental illness. We don’t believe those things anymore because courageous individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, Pasteur, Franz Boas and Evelyn Hooker made it their business to challenge them, and ultimately their ideas were vindicated. Indeed, the most famous scientists in human history are generally the ones who challenged the conventional wisdom of the day and were proved right — though they weren’t always able to live long enough to enjoy it.
Justice Sulan’s idea of what constitutes “science” puts any scientist who wants to challenge conventional wisdom in a catch-22 similar to the one in Joseph Heller’s famous novel. If your expertise isn’t in the same field as the idea you’re challenging, you can be written off as “not an expert.” If it is, you’ll be subject to loss of jobs and research grants from the establishment you’re trying to take on. If you base your critique solely on an analysis of the published papers in the field, you’ll be told it’s invalid because you haven’t actually done your own research. If you try to do your own research, the establishment you’re challenging will make sure you don’t get the money for it. Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner actually did design a research study to test some of their ideas on HIV and AIDS, and they even won the cooperation of a fellow Royal Perth Hospital staff member who testified for the prosecution in the Parenzee case, but the only funding they had was $10,000 from Turner’s father — and, as Papadopulos-Eleopulos ruefully noted in the hearing, “$10,000 can’t go too far these days.” (pp. 38-39)
Gallo on the Stand
Though Parenzee’s counsel, Kevin Borick, lost his client’s case, he gave the alternative AIDS movement one hell of a consolation prize: Robert Gallo’s on-the-record, under-oath testimony on how the HIV/AIDS model came to be in the first place. An article in the February 14, 2007 online publication New AIDS Review called Gallo’s testimony “raw meat for the baying hounds of AIDS ‘denialism’ (that is, any intelligent person willing to read the scientific literature critically … ).” Hamstrung not only by Gallo’s famously combative demeanor but by a strict time limit on Gallo’s availability (his total testimony took only 76 minutes), Borick nonetheless subjected Gallo to a withering cross-examination that shed unexpected light on just how Gallo supposedly identified HIV as a unique virus, how he validated the antibody tests that have been the standard measures of HIV “infection” ever since, and how he got the U.S. government and most of the worldwide scientific community to sign on to his claim that HIV and HIV alone caused AIDS.
Gallo’s testimony began in the customary way with a direct examination by prosecutor McDonald. Though McDonald’s questions were intended to build up Gallo’s credentials and answer the criticisms made over the years — including the allegations that he didn’t discover HIV at all, that he stole it from culture samples Montagnier sent him and then claimed it as his own discovery — they also revealed Gallo’s famous egomania and his combative nature. He claimed the entire controversy over his role in identifying HIV was started as a vendetta by Congressmember John Dingell (D-Michigan) and a woman on his staff who headed the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Scientific Inquiry (OSI) investigation against him. Gallo was found guilty of scientific misconduct in that investigation, but the finding was reversed on appeal, and he boasted that the woman in charge of his investigation had been fired.
“Nobody ever in that group charged anyone with misappropriating a virus,” Gallo insisted. “That was innuendo. That was [an accusation made by] the French patent lawyers [defending Montagnier’s claim as sole discoverer of HIV] but it was never part of the governmental statement. [Milan] Popovic, my co-worker, was reviewed for whether his paper acknowledges a classic for succeeding in the mass production in HIV — that was making what was important even more golden and that fell down and didn’t stand under appeal. When that didn’t stand, this group that wanted to do damage to me dropped everything.” (pp. 1270-1271)
The reference to “mass production in [sic] HIV” referred to one of Gallo’s major claims in defense of HIV’s existence. The Perth Group has long maintained that the only way to identify a retrovirus, which HIV is supposed to be, is through what are called “sucrose density gradients.” This is a process that involves adding the suspected virus to a sugar solution, spinning it in a centrifuge, and seeing in what concentration of sugar the supposed virus particles collect. According to the Perth Group, in order to be a retrovirus, the particles must collect in the part of the sugar solution that contains 1.6 grams of sugar per milliliter of water. They claim that the failure of Gallo to publish any electron microscope photographs of HIV at that sugar density in his initial papers on the virus, published in May 1984 in Science, shows that he never properly isolated the virus and therefore did not prove it existed.
In court, Gallo partly blamed this failure on Montagnier — who, he said, sent him an electron microscope picture of the wrong virus — and also said that once he had figured out how to grow HIV in quantity in his lab, that proved its existence as a unique virus and made sucrose density gradients beside the point. The problem with viral cultures in general is that a virus can’t reproduce without the help of a host cell — and the problem with retrovirus cultures in particular is that retroviruses are dependent on their host cells for their own survival. Gallo had earlier figured out how to grow retroviruses in quantity by extracting T-cells from people with leukemia, growing their cells into so-called “immortal’ cell lines, then introducing the viruses, letting them grow inside the host cells and using powerful chemicals called mitogenic stimulants to get them out again.
According to Gallo, his ability to do this with HIV proved beyond a doubt that the virus exists. “When we succeeded in mass-producing the virus in a continuous culture, you have got an enormous purification far beyond the sucrose gradient alone because you are now producing loads of virus with little amount of cell,” he told the Australian court. (p. 1258) Gallo also spent a lot of time trying to undercut the Perth Group’s claim that the genetic sequences claimed to constitute HIV may actually be so-called “endogenous viruses,” virus-like particles created by the human body itself. “We didn’t find HIV in normal cultures, normal lymphocytes,” Gallo said. “Molecularly, it is simple to distinguish HIV from endogenous retroviral sequences. They are night and day.” (p. 1260)
Ironically, some scientists who otherwise question HIV as the cause of AIDS agree with Gallo’s point here. “HIV viral DNA is reasonably well defined, as well as you can define it,” Peter Duesberg, UC Berkeley-based virologist who started the scientific critique of the HIV/AIDS model in 1987 in the journal Cancer Research, said in an interview with this reporter in the January 1998 Zenger’s. “It’s been cloned and sequenced. … It’s not an intrinsic element of the human genome.” In the same interview, Duesberg essentially took Gallo’s side over the Perth Group’s on the question of whether HIV had been sufficiently “isolated” to prove its existence, and agreed with Gallo that his ability to grow (“clone”) HIV in immortal T-cell lines proves that the virus exists.
Political Proclamation of “HIV/AIDS”
Gallo’s testimony before the Australian court also dealt with the question of just how HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS in the first place. In his cross-examination, Kevin Borick zeroed in on one of the most controversial aspects of the claim that HIV causes AIDS: the fact that in Gallo’s 1986 paper in Nature he reported that he could find HIV in just 40 percent (48 out of 119) of the people with AIDS from whom he tried to isolate it. “Do you agree that the isolation of HIV from only 40 percent of [AIDS] patients is not proof that HIV causes AIDS?” Borick asked Gallo (p. 1294).
“In and of itself, 40 percent isolation of a new virus, I wouldn’t say is the cause,” Gallo said. “But … I would be phenomenally stimulated by it, especially a virus that targeted CD4 T-cells … and was new and unknown in man before and was being found in risk groups and not in healthy heterosexual populations at that time. … The virus was new, the disease was new.” Gallo went on to say that he re-ran the antibody tests from his original sample, in which 88 percent of people with AIDS had tested positive, and the new tests revealed 100 percent of the AIDS patients tested positive while only “one in over 1,000 healthy heterosexuals” tested positive. He also said that there were no positive test results from serum samples sent from countries “where there was no AIDS.” (pp. 1294-1295)
Gallo also argued that his failure to “isolate” the virus from his original samples — at least in the Perth Group’s preferred meaning of the term, which is to separate it not only from all other potentially biochemically active material but from inert material as well — was because, “other than in a peak of an acute viremia with an acute infectious virus,” hardly any viral particles exist to isolate. “Samples you get are decayed, they are lysed and cells are destroyed,” he explained. “If you don’t have enough of the target cells … [in] the population of the blood you get, you have hardly any CD4 T-cells to work with. You would be a liar if you said you isolated it every time.” (p. 1301)
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Gallo’s testimony was when he inadvertently confirmed what alternative AIDS scientists, journalists and activists have been claiming for years: that the identification of HIV as the cause of AIDS was determined largely by politics, not science. “In March 1984,” Gallo said, “I went to a restaurant in Bethesda with Jim Curran” — then head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — “and he handed me an envelope and I handed him an envelope. They were coded samples” of the blood transfusion patients from whom he’d claimed first an 88 percent, then a 100 percent, correlation between testing “HIV positive” and having AIDS. “When we opened the letters up, he looked at me and he said, ‘It’s all over,’” Gallo recalled. “When I went to that restaurant I was convinced I knew the cause of AIDS, but when I came out I was happy because I knew from Jim Curran that he knew the cause of AIDS also.” (p. 1316)
One month later, Curran’s boss, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler, hosted a press conference at which she introduced Gallo and announced that he had found “the probable cause of AIDS” — and from that moment, before any of Gallo’s research papers had been published and before anyone other than Curran, CDC official Dr. Don Francis and maybe peer reviewers for the journal Science had had a chance to read them, the U.S. government declared HIV the sole cause of AIDS and stopped funding any research exploring any other possibilities, a ban that has remained in effect to this day. In essence, Robert Gallo and Jim Curran decided on HIV as the “cause” of AIDS over lunch in Bethesda, Maryland one afternoon in March 1984, without any input from the rest of the scientific community and without any opportunity for anyone to review their research objectively.
To download a PDF or OCR text version of Robert Gallo’s complete testimony, visit http://garlan.rethinkingaids.info/Cases/Parenzee/Gallo.html. The judge’s final ruling is available at http://garlan.rethinkingaids.info/Cases/Parenzee/Decision.html. Page numbers above refer to the PDF versions of these documents available from those links.