Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Unfinished Blog-Post: To Pull A Gallo

A long time ago I started some blog-posts, but never found the time nor energy to finish them. Now I have long lost interest in the matter and will publish them all "as is" – maybe someone will find these raw thoughts helpful.

BTW: It is this post I most regred not finishing – it is mainly missing one table in the middle, listing some parallels between the story of "Fictional Gallo" and those who brought us the XMRV fraud. However the so inclined readers might be able to find parallels by themselves.

The Grand Tragedy of Robert Gallo and The Rotten Farce of Judy Mikovits
A fictional story of rotten apples
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
-- George SantayanaThe Life of Reason (1905-1906)
As a prelude: my excuses if I focus on aspects you already know and don't explain things you are in need of elucidation – I tried to write one text, not to broad, not too deep, including all facts and speculations that are needed to retrace my conclusions.

The XMRV virus was claimed by a few researchers to be the 3rd discovered human retrovirus ("HGRV"), after the discovery of HTLV and HIV in the late seventies and early eighties.

To understand the history of HIV research and of XMRV research, one has to look not only at the common (or separating) aspects of the virology, immunology or pathology of these three viruses, but one has to look at connections outside of the scientific inquest to gain insight.

One such aspect connecting HTLV, HIV and XMRV research lies in the persons doing the research:

Judy Mikovits was central in the claims that XMRV is connected to CFS. She worked in the eighties in Francis Ruscetti's lab, and she choose Ruscetti to do some work for her XMRV studies.

Francis Ruscetti's lab was where Judy Mikovits worked in the eighties. Ruscetti in turn was involved in the discovery of HTLV. He helped to bolster Mikovits' claim that XMRV was found in the blood of CFS patients.

And it was Robert Gallo's lab where Francis Ruscetti worked, when he researched HTLV – the Robert Gallo who rose fame due to his involvement in the discovery of HIV.

I shall try to outline that it was the success of Robert Gallo's behavior coupled with the ignorance or outright condonation of Robert Gallo's work that gave rise to a culture of laying claims to viruses with possibly falsified and fabricated evidence, in order to claim priority in case an actual (even if different) virus was found.

Before I continue about the circumstances and relationships surrounding the history of HIV research (and thereafter the history of XMRV research), I will make a very short excursion into the history of HIV itself. There exists a group of viruses, now called HIV, which infect humans and cause – if left untreated – the spectrum of diseases called AIDS. That much is now firmly established fact.

As a passing remark: If there is any doubt about HIV causing AIDS, I think it was Robert Gallo's behavior and the protection he received that made HIV denial possible. By "muddying the waters", in order to weaken the claims made by the French group around Luc Montagnier, Robert Gallo prepared (in my opinion) the ground for HIV denial to arise – he most certainly is the darling of the HIV-denial movement. And in my view, the "XMRV/HGRV cult" we see today is not coincidently similar to HIV denialism, but it is the same reaction by laymen to the same type of "water muddying" of those who should know better.

HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) came into existence when the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) jumped from its simian host to a human host. This in fact happened several times, giving us different strains of HIV.
HIV-1 is related to a virus we can find in African primates, SIV. SIV crossed over from chimpanzees to the human population to make 'HIV' sometime in the late 1800s, early 1900s. This event happened at least three times, giving us the three groups of HIV-1, Groups M, N, and O, however it most likely has occurred numerous times over the course of human evolution, it just never lead to a pandemic like what we have with HIV-1 today. You can go get blood samples from African hunters right now and find viruses not found in any other human.
For some considerable time only relative few people were being infected with HIV, before HIV infections reached a critical mass of people and "took of" in the very early eighties.

So here ends my short excursion of the history of HIV and I switch over to the history of HIV research. When people started to realize that they had a pandemic at their hands (and could no longer shrug it of as "epidemic hysteria" or "Gay Plague", in some form of cruel homophobic stupidity), researchers started to look for the pathogen that caused this disease.
… it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce, Caussidière for Danton, L. Blanc for Robespierre, Barthélemy for Saint-Just, Flocon for Carnot, and the moon-calf together with the first available dozen debt-encumbered lieutenants for the little corporal and his band of marshals. Thus the 18th Brumaire would already be upon us.
-- Friedrich Engels, Letter to Karl Marx In London (1851)
Since I've heard of XMRV and learned of all the inconsistencies in the claims by various researchers to have found evidence of this virus (or one of its more or less closely related viruses) in the blood of CFS patients, I was struggling to understand the behavior of the involved scientists, namely Judy Mikovits, Vincent Lombardi, Francis Ruscetti, Harvey Alter and Shyh-Ching Lo. I could find no scientific explanation, no reason, no rationale in the (sorry to invoke Godwin) reality defying bunker-like insistence that IT MUST BE XMRV. Especially the behavior of Judy Mikovits seemed erratic and surreal to me. Well, as I found out, I could not find a scientific rationale because the rationale is not of scientific nature.
Of the writings dealing with the same subject at approximately the same time as mine, only two deserve notice: Victor Hugo’s Napoleon le Petit and Proudhon’s Coup d’Etat. Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’etat as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d’etat becomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.
-- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx – Preface to the Second Edition (1869)
To understand Judy Mikovits' behavior in the last years – to see that her behavior was not like a "bolt from the blue" – we have to first understand Robert Gallo's role in the discovery of HIV in the early eighties. Then, I am firmly convinced, when the circumstances and relationships that were fostered by Robert Gallo and the US government to take credit for the discovery of HIV are understood, then a connection between Gallo's behavior and Mikovits' behavior will become discernable. I will not focus on the circumstances and relationships that govern the research of CFS – as much as it would be needed, I will only note that it were these circumstances that allowed the mediocre (at best) Judy Mikovits to play a hero's part.

So to start with the currently accepted view of Robert Gallo, this is what Wikipedia has to say on Luc Montagnier – and in turn about Robert Gallo. I will consider this the "official" narrative of Robert Gallo's work:
The question of whether the true discoverers of the virus were French or American was more than a matter of prestige. A US government patent for the AIDS test, filed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and based on what was claimed to be Gallo's identification of the virus, was at stake. In 1987, both governments attempted to end the dispute by arranging to split the prestige of discovery and the proceeds from the patent 50-50, naming Montagnier and Gallo co-discoverers. The two scientists continued to dispute each other's claims until 1987. It was not until President François Mitterrand of France and President Ronald Reagan of the USA met that the major issues were ironed out. The scientific protagonists finally agreed to share credit for the discovery of HIV, and in 1986, both the French and the US names (LAV and HTLV-III) were dropped in favor of the new term human immunodeficiency virus (virus de l'immunodéficience humaine, abbreviated HIV or VIH) (Coffin, 1986). They concluded that the origin of the HIV-1 Lai/IIIB isolate discovered by Robert Gallo was the same as that discovered by Montagnier (but not known by Montagnier to cause AIDS). The compromise allowed Montagnier and Gallo to end their feud and collaborate with each other again for a chronology that appeared in Nature that year.

The Chicago Tribune published an investigative report by reporter John Crewdson in 1990 which questioned whether Gallo's laboratory had taken the virus from Montagnier, which led to National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Congressional investigations that ultimately cleared Gallo's group from any wrongdoing. In 1994, when further investigations revealed that there was no evidence that Gallo had invented the AIDS test and that the Pasteur Institute had applied for a patent for its own test months before Gallo, the NIH agreed to award a greater share of the patent royalties to the Pasteur Institute.
So, we can conclude from this – without spinning any conspiracy theories – that besides the personal prestige and ego of Robert Gallo, and besides the prestige of US research at large, some money was involved and the matter of how to distribute this money hinged around the question who had a claim to be the discoverer of HIV, and who not – and the answer to this question was important enough that it involved the heads of state, both of the US and of France.

Furthermore, we can conclude, without any remaining doubt or controversy, that the virus that Robert Gallo isolated was in fact sent to him from Luc Montagnier – that it was Montagnier and not Gallo who isolated the virus first. And I will note in passing that over the years the Official Narrative moved away from Gallo's point of view towards Montagnier's.

And one more remark: This narrative is, in my not so humble opinion, heavily dominated by the view from the US. After reading some articles on Wikipedia on that topic one can not help oneself but to feel sorry for the injustice Robert Gallo has befallen by not receiving the Nobel prize – as even the article about Luc Montagnier is interwoven with the story of Robert Gallo, who is mentioned 28 times in Montagnier's article (while Gallo's article mentions Montagnier only 15 times).

From 1991 to 1995 John Dingell investigated Robert Gallo and the role of the NIH. This is what Wikipedia has to say on the Dingell report:
In 1991–1995 Dingell's staff investigated claims that Robert Gallo had used samples supplied to him by Luc Montagnier to fraudulently claim to have discovered the AIDS virus. The report concluded that Gallo had engaged in fraud and that the NIH covered up his misappropriation of work by the French team at the Institut Pasteur. The report contended:
The real inventors of the HIV blood test were the (Pasteur) scientists. Even more important, the CDC data, together with the extensive data already accumulated by the (Pasteur) scientists, showed that the (Pasteur) virus-discovered long before the putative LTCB virus-was the cause of AIDS.
The report was never formally published as a subcommittee report because of the 1995 change in control of the House from Democrats to Republicans. Other accusations against Gallo were dropped, and while Montagnier's group is considered to be the first to isolate the virus, Gallo's has been recognized as first to prove that this virus was the cause of AIDS. 
It seems that Robert Gallo got off the hook here, because the Republicans who won the House majority didn't have the interest to investigate this any further – not exactly a clean bill for Robert Gallo I'd say.
There was no doubt as to who made the fundamental discoveries.
-- Maria Masucci, Member of the Nobel Assembly in 2008
And so the Nobel Assembly spoke.
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.
-- Carl Sagan, Wonder and Skepticisim
From here I will largely diverge from the "official narrative" and draw from the 1990 article "Lab rat: What AIDS researcher Dr. Robert Gallo did in pursuit of the Nobel Prize, and what he didn't do in pursuit of a cure for AIDS" of Seth Roberts (which can be found here and here). His account draws from his own research and from John Crewdson's 1990 work for the Chicago Tribune (who reported not to be able to find any evidence for the 48 patient samples of Gallo's "HTLV-III" paper). John Crewdson later published the 2002 book "Science Fictions" and he has an extensive cache of documents on his website. Further material can be found in the book from Michael Koch or the Dingell Report (1991-1995). Much material is unfortunately gathered on HIV-denial sites like virusmyth.com – reader discretion is advised.

I have neither the time, the knowledge nor the energy to go deeply into the work of these people – and can neither verify nor refute the veracity of their accounts – so I will focus on the article "Lab Rat" and call Seth Roberts' portrait of Robert Gallo the "Fictional Gallo". Whether or not this Fictional Gallo overlaps with the real Robert Gallo (or how much) shall not be of interest for the moment: I'll use the idealistic construct of this Fictional Gallo only for arguments sake, in order to have a reference to compare with the behavior of Mikovits and Ruscetti.

So first go and read Seth Roberts' article "Lab Rat" now!

I wait so long here.

It's a few pages, so take your time.

Ok, you read it?

Good, so I will continue.

Actions by
Fictional Gallo
Actions by
Mikovits and Ruscetti
. .

It seems, Mikovits and Ruscetti knew of the Fictional Gallo.
The theory is usually the correct one, that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities, while retaining sufficient explanatory power.
-- Occam's Razor (Parakoch edition
Now, we could assume the following:
  1. Fictional Gallo is fictional. It is all an coincidence, the actions of Mikovits and Ruscetti were fully independent of Gallo, and just look superficial similar.
  2. Fictional Gallo is fictional. Mikovits and Ruscetti arrived coincidentally at a similar modus of operation as the Fictional Gallo
  3. Fictional Gallo is fictional. However Mikovits and Ruscetti took this Fictional Gallo as a blue print for their actions nonetheless
  4. Fictional Gallo is more or less identical to the real Gallo. That's where Mikovits and Ruscetti have learned their trade.
To #1: We would have to make assumptions about the individual motives of each and everyone involved. These individual reasons might exists, and one could come up with something for all of them – it might become a long text. It was this lack of explanations that brought me to think in the direction of this blog-post in the first place.

#2: Or, we could assume that everybody involved came (without knowing Fictional Gallo) independently to the same conclusion, to act like Fictional Gallo. We could assume that Fiction Gallo was fictional with regards to the Robert Gallo, but not with regards to practices of the business – maybe  the dishonest scientists took their own actions, and projected them on Fictional Gallo?

#3: We might assume that it could be possible, that Judy Mikovits assumed – erroneously – that the Fictional Gallo was an accurate portrayal of the real Robert Gallo. And she might have assumed (again, erroneously) that the scientific community, which condoned or ignored the behavior of Fictional Gallo would condone her behavior too. And it could be possible that Francis Ruscetti or Harvey Alter harbored – independently – similar, erroneous, thoughts, when they joined the Gold Rush to find the hypothetical pathogen that causes CFS.

#4: Or, alternatively: We could assume that the Fictional Gallo was not fictional but instead a more or less accurate portrayal of the actual Robert Gallo. And that this was common knowledge among those who either knew the real Robert Gallo, or worked with people who knew him. Occam's Razor would say that #4 makes fewer assumptions while it would explain what we have seen – it is, as if Judy Mikovits took article "Lab Rat" out of Spy Magazine, plucked this Fictional Gallo out of the article, breathed life into this him – to make him material reality, to validate the reports from John Crewdson and Seth Roberts.

And as a another passing note: It appears to me that Occam's Razor, properly applied, would make minced meat from the Official Gallo Narrative.

The rotten farce that hit the WPI was most certainly not a bolt out of the blue – it was fostered in the context of what I termed here the "Fictional Gallo". Whatever the people at the WPI and NCI did, it does not explain the behavior of the others involved – unlike the account of the Fictional Gallo, who quite evidently seems to have laid the ground for what we have seen here.

Another thing that could be used to test accuracy the  Fictional Gallo hypothesis is the following: Surely someone else has tried to "Pull a Gallo" before Mikovits and Ruscetti. The countless pathogens fingered in MS come to my mind – not all will be a case of confirmation bias and unintended bad science. The people who came out of Gallo's lab are certainly prime candidates. E.g. the work of Francis Ruscetti has certainly not received the attention it deserves. Alas, his research is for other busy-bodies to explore – this task is not mine. Most certainly not all scientists in that area are active spreaders of rumor viruses, but surely Judy Mikovits isn't the only one. But it might be necessary to reroute the Potomac River to wash out the filth from the stables in Bethesda.

This vulture culture may very well have existed independently of Robert Gallo – but the events surrounding the discovery of HIV were certainly an catalyzing moment. Not only made it cleat that there were no negative consequences whatsoever to be feared, but there were was prestige, influence and money actually to be gained by exhibiting such a behavior. Oh, what a shallow mind, who enjoys being praised as an extraordinary scientist, when in reality he is nothing more than a scientific con artist, and vain at that. At least Robert Gallo has some money and prestige as comfort.

My view is that Robert Gallo has a claim to be the discoverer of HIV if and only if (iff) Luc Montagnier has not. It is my opinion, had Gallo worked in France and Montagnier in the US, then Gallo would have been nothing but a footnote in the discovery of HIV.

It is my impression that criticism of Robert Gallo is something that is not done in the US. Criticism of Robert Gallo seems to be akin to HIV denialism, in the eyes of some. I fully expect that some will equal this blog-post with HIV denialism. The tragedy is that exactly this sacrosanct position of Gallo, which made the HIV denialism possible in the first place.

As far as I know Robert Gallo never denied AIDS (although he he showed some homophobic inclinations), but Gallo was the first to deny HIV. While it was Montagnier who discovered HIV (under the name LAV), it was Gallo who against reality for a long time very rigoursly insisted that it was "his" HTLV – first Gallo claimed to have found HTLV-I, then he took Montagniers' LAV and called it HTLV-III, thereby even insisting that it was a different genus than it actually was. It was Gallo's denial of HIV/LAV that did cost the fight against HIV/AIDS at least a year – you do the math on how many people could have been potentially saved had the spread of HIV been curtailed a year earlier. (And that is not counting the damage HIV denial does, which is directly fueled in no small part by Gallo's actions.)

Now, why CFS? The estimated prevalence of CFS (or ME or PVFS) is about 0.5% of the population. If one uses relaxed criteria (like the empirical), the prevalence rises to 2-3%. Up to 10% of the population are reported to suffer from chronic fatigue (CF, without the S). And that my friends, is a huge market for tests, 20 to 30 Million people in the US alone. And someone who has no understanding of CFS could assume that if one virus causes CFS, then many more of those 10% with CF might be affected of this one virus as well. I think it was a wager by Mikovits/Lombardi/Ruscetti (albeit a not very scientific wager at that, in my not so humble opinion), that with enough publicity this one virus would be found, and their patent might cover tests for this one virus. And who knows, maybe they could count on having captured the government in any upcoming patent dispute? Back then it was Ronald Reagan who took sides for Robert Gallo – who might be the next president to side with scientific hacks? Having captured part of the patient community is surely helpful in letting them write letters to Washington.

Only, it looks like different pathogens can cause CF(S). Tough luck for patients, and tough luck for wagering scientific con artists (though any bullshitting CFS quacks can continue their businesses selling supplements, herbs and psychobabble – for now). It might pay off for patients, in case Lipkin finds something. This wager might not pay off for the con artists scientists involved, even if Lipkin finds something (we'll have to see how this will unfold). But do they have anything to actually fear? Is there any actual form of investigation and punishment that might have to fear? What will dissuade prospective scientific con artists from reading Seth Roberts' article "Lab Rat" and deciding to do what Fictional Gallo did?

(And then there are voices that say that maybe Ruscetti's people might be more involved in the Lipkin study than might be good for that study)

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