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John Crewdson’s reply to Science

Asking Martin Delaney to review Science Fictions,1 my history of the discovery of HIV, is like asking Ariel Sharon to review Yasser Arafat’s memoirs. Why bother?
        I first became aware of Delaney a dozen years ago, when he threatened2 to send the publisher of my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, a bill for the ‘direct and indirect’ costs incurred by the government investigations of Dr. Robert Gallo's AIDS research that had been prompted by my reporting in the Tribune.3
       Judging from his letter, Delaney, a San Francisco AIDS activist and Gallo’s most vociferous defender, was uncomfortable with Tribune’s conclusion that Gallo had performed his celebrated experiments, including the development of an HIV blood antibody test that has so far earned him more than $1 million in personal patent royalties, with a virus isolated at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
       Delaney’s inflammatory missives to the Tribune continued for years, and he hasn’t missed many chances to attack anyone else who questions Gallo’s behavior. Now Science, which published many of the papers that provided AIDS researchers with a false impression of Gallo’s work, chooses the one person in America least likely to give my book an impartial reading. And, rather than acknowledging his longstanding conflict of interest, Delaney dons the guise of objective reviewer – and proceeds to demonstrate convincingly that he has not read Science Fictions.
        Delaney thinks my book contains no mention of Pasteur researcher Luc Montagnier’s hypothesis that mycoplasma is an important co-factor in AIDS? Check out page 366. Or that the book fails to note that Don Francis ‘spent 10 years on a quixotic search for value in an old gp120 vaccine?’ See page 529. Or that ‘the author fails to mention that he never interviewed Gallo at all?’ Take a look at page 343, for an account of how Gallo cancelled a long-sought interview at the last moment.
        Despite Gallo’s refusal to speak further to me or to allow his staff to do so,4 his side of the story is told, and told again, in extensive first-hand quotes from his scientific talks, public appearances and correspondence – not the ‘hearsay’ Delaney describes, but a historically useful account of Gallo’s story in his own words.
        The book spends ‘precious little time digesting the ultimate conclusions’ of the DHHS Research Integrity Adjudications Panel’s finding that Gallo’s chief virologist, Mikulas Popovic, had not committed scientific misconduct? Chapters 24 and 25 devote exactly 10,602 words to Popovic’s 1993 hearing before the panel and its report (a report which, far from representing an ‘exoneration’ of Gallo, acknowledges that the narrow case against Popovic was ‘largely vestigial’ to the larger issues raised by Gallo’s claims of credit for discoveries made at the Pasteur and the resulting patent dispute between the French and American governments).
        As for readers of Science Fictions having to take ‘the author’s word for the accuracy of what he writes,’ Delaney seems to have missed the 78 pages of documented chapter notes that make up more 10 percent of the book. He does acknowledge the book’s 1,749 citations and references – though not the more than 300 public source documents, including the 79-page Research Integrity Adjudications Panel report, available for downloading at www.sciencefictions.net.
        Nor does Delaney’s reprimand for my ‘prosecutory tone’ and ‘adversarial perspective’ square with the observations of presumably impartial reviewers that I did not put enough of my own perspective and analysis into the book, choosing instead ‘to let the facts speak for themselves.’5
        In the end, Delaney finds it ‘difficult to understand the purpose of this book. ’ He utterly fails to see that what matters most is how the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other entities of the Reagan administration behaved after it became clear that – however it happened – Gallo’s flagship AIDS virus had been isolated from a French patient in Paris.
        Except for the reporting that forms the basis for Science Fictions, the day might never have come that then-NIH director Harold Varmus stood in front of two hundred reporters and researchers to acknowledge that HTLV-3B was, is, and always will be, LAVLAI.
        Even so, it took seven years longer than it should have to rewrite scientific history. That the record was ultimately corrected not through the efforts of the scientists involved or their institutions, but because of a Chicago newspaper reporter, perhaps is worth pondering. If science doesn’t want any more Science Fictions, it knows how to make that happen.

1   M. Delaney, ‘Double Jeopardy for Gallo,’ Science 215:1615-6, 31 May 2002.
2   M. Delaney to J. Madigan, August 7, 1990.
3   J. Crewdson, ‘The Great AIDS Quest,’ Chicago Tribune, 19 November 1989.
4   R. Gallo to M. Schwartz, February 4, 1991
5   J. Horgan, ‘ “Science Fictions”: Autopsy of a Medical Breakthrough,’ New York Times, March 3, 2002.