Listening to Robert Gallo talk about viruses is a little like listening to your grandfather talk about how things have changed since he was a boy. He rambles, ruminates, digresses, is in no hurry, and you listen. It’s not just that Gallo, who pioneered the field of retrovirology at the National Institutes of Health with the discovery of the first retrovirus, went on, along with French scientists Dr. Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi at the Louis Pasteur Institute, to identify HIV. And its not just that he knows things you don’t know, firsthand. He knows things you don’t even think about. And then, it turns out, those things are interesting and pivotally relevant to why you’re here today.
And even though he may not be as old as your grandfather, he goes way back, further back than you expect.
“Let’s go back to the very, very beginning,” he said Tuesday at a program called “Getting to Zero: Translating Research into Action to End the HIV Epidemic.” If you are expecting the next sentence to have the phrase “1981” in it, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. “Viruses were first identified in the late 1880s. Virus is the Latin word for ‘poison,'” he added.
“That’s the beginning.” Coincidentally, he continued, around that same time, a little more than 100 years ago, that the field of virology was born, HIV first became a human illness. Why did it happen in Africa? Bad luck, Gallo says. Primates exist on other continents, and wherever they exist, people end up butchering them for their meat, providing the chance for blood from the animal to enter the bloodstream of the human. Why did it kindle, going from embers to flames, to pandemic? He’s an MD, but a lab scientist at heart, so he doesn’t know.
But, well, just for the fun of it, what changes followed World War II that would lead to the globalization of the virus, he asked with a shrug, before hazarding some guesses: Air travel, tourism, the sexual revolution, “the insanity of intravenous drug abuse,” and, might as well come out and say it, “the exchange of blood products internationally . . .”
Change. When things change the reach of viruses changes. Which is something, Gallo says, that calls for preparation, because you never know when things are going to change. But that’s where the problem comes in.
“Humans have a memory span of only 30 years, and I can prove it,” Gallo said. Normally he has a slide that proves it, but on this occasion, he rattles off lapses in research following the early 20th century influenza outbreak that killed more people than World War I, after polio was controlled, and how then, in the 1970s, universities (he veered from specifying which), moved to close their microbiology departments.
He got involved in the quest to identify HIV by chance, he claims. “Is that the way it should be?”
He may be exaggerating the extent to which his call to explore AIDS turned on a moment: ” I got involved because I thought Jim Curran was looking at me. It may have been ego. He said where are the virologists?”
But he continues to wonder the same thing, with concern that the next pandemic virus will be ready to “kindle” and then make its way around the world before the scientists needed to respond to it are ready.
“We need responsible, available expert virologists,” he repeats. This is why, a few years ago, Gallo co-founded Global Virus Network in 2011 to support research, training and advocacy advancing readiness and responses to viruses. In an environment of funding cuts for biomedical research, including at the National Institutes of Health, where he began, he worries. “I came to NIH awestruck. I would have paid to work there. You don’t see that anymore.”
Kent Hill and Gloria Ekpo of World Vision, Jeffrey Jordan of Catholic Medical Missionary Board, Benny Kottiri and Marta Levitt of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rene Ekpini of UNICEF, and Mwayabo Jean Claude Kazadi of Catholic Relief Services, also spoke at the event which was sponsored by the Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, InterAction, as well as World Vision and Catholic Medical Missionary Board.