Rivals Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier launch joint vaccine project

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

Rival researchers Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier – who fought a long battle over recognition for discovering HIV and the resulting blood tests – have buried their past differences and agreed to collaborate on developing an HIV vaccine.

Dr Montagnier, 69, formerly of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, approached Dr Gallo, 64, a few years ago and cynics point out that the timing of their agreement suits Dr Gallo by distracting attention from a damning new book called ‘Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-Up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo’, by Chicago Tribune journalist John Crewdson.

However, the two men had other explanations for their collaboration. Dr Gallo, who heads the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, USA, said: “A whole lot of people say ‘why can’t you guys collaborate? Why can’t you work together to try to solve the problem?’ It will stop a lot of that.”

Dr Montagnier, president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, said: “If we join our efforts it will be more credible for fund-raising.”

Dr Gallo says he finally took up Dr Montagnier’s invitation to collaborate because the Frenchman’s organisation had established testing sites in the Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire and he saw collaboration as a way of speeding up the testing of vaccines his laboratory is developing.

The two scientists fell out after the discovery in 1983 of HIV, for which both claimed credit. Eventually they agreed to share recognition but it is thought the row deprived both men of winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine because the prize committee dislikes controversy.

The scientists still have their professional differences with Dr Gallo developing vaccines by attaching HIV genes to salmonella bacteria, while Dr Montagnier believes the best way to develop a useful vaccine is to make it out of pieces of HIV’s proteins.

Key to the rapprochement has been the Italian researcher Vittorio Colizzi at the University of Rome, who has worked with both men and whose lab will be used for much of their joint enterprise.

Dr Montagnier insisted that the pair have the highest motives for their collaboration, and went on to dismiss claims that they were trying to soothe the Nobel Prize Committee: “If the prize comes, it will come too late. I would have preferred it to have come earlier, and then I think it could have given us more influence to do something in Africa.”

The new project will be called the Programme for International Viral Collaboration and will be co-directed by the two scientists. It will be created under Dr Montagnier’s foundation, which itself works under the auspices of UNESCO. It will develop an international research network involving laboratories in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, as well as Italy, Cameroon and the Côte d’Ivoire.

AIDS is now seen as the greatest epidemic and deadliest disease in history, surpassing the bubonic plague of the 14th Century. Dr Montagnier said: “HIV/AIDS is presently the greatest of threats to mankind and, unlike the plague, it will not go away. This will occur only when medical science develops a treatment accessible to all and a successful vaccine to prevent infection.”

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