The 16th International Symposium on HIV & Emerging Infectious Diseases was held in Marseilles on 24-26 March 2010. Our intrepid PR man, Martin Barnes, provides a Rethinkers’-eye view, with editorial assistance of friends Georg and Stefan.
The keynote speaker was — who else, in France? — Robert Gallo. A cartoonist’s take on that:
The atmosphere seemed to our observers that of a HALL OF ZOMBIES:
“We thought we were prepared.
We had our AIDS Trap brochures in English and French, we had a special ‘Gallo Gorilla’ page ready.
The AIDS industry meeting in Marseilles was sponsored by a group of pharmaceutical companies. [Ed.: What a surprise!]
We arrived at 9 am and cased out the huge conference building. The auditorium was perfect. We had red balloons and a helium tank. There was a balcony above. We could attach our literature to the balloons and release them when Gallo began to speak.
But first we had to get a feel for what was going on. I circulated among the pharma booths. There were pretty girls with bright literature. One booth had 8 different AIDS drugs. I asked how many you had to take. She said 3. I asked if it mattered which 3. She said no. I asked if there was liver damage as a side effect. She said no. [Liver damage is the #1 cause of death for those on AIDS medicines!]
The attendees started to arrive. Hundreds of them. All ages, all gender, all colors. A few serious academic professor types, but most in mid-thirties, most French speaking. All people making their living on AIDS. We began to hand out our literature, such as Henry Bauer’s recent paper on HIV-testing.
Georg ran into a German radio journalist from Deutschlandfunk DLF and asked whether he was looking forward to listening to the keynote. He said, ‘Not really.’ Does he like Gallo? ‘Not really, I have interviewed him multiple times in the past, he always was very unfriendly and arrogant.’ Georg handed him a printout of Janine Roberts’ analysis from her website and the letter to Science from the Rethinking AIDS homepage. They agreed to get back in touch once back in Germany.
The invited speakers were AIDS doctors and researchers. Each time they would talk about their experiments with this or that new AIDS drug and how it was working. There was one talk about AIDS and aging, how do you keep up with AIDS problems and confounding old-age problems? A guy from WHO was there. He started off with a picture of a pig and spent the whole time defending what had happened with the swine-flu debacle.
I asked a speaker from Australia how he knew the AIDS virus was pathogenic. He said those studies were done years ago in the mid-80s. HIV infects lymphocytes, which in turn emit toxins that kill neurons: AIDS dementia. I asked how did he know HIV was there. He said p24 and gp120, ‘gp120 kills neurons in vitro.’ (These proteins are not specific to HIV!)
There was a doctor from a London hospital who kept talking about viremia. Afterwards I asked how he measured viremia. He didn’t answer. I said was it viral load? He said it was a standard survey technology. I said was he aware of criticisms of the viral load technology? He nodded sheepishly and turned away.
Another speaker had a slide showing that of patients with cirrhosis of the liver after high alcohol use, some 80% had Hepatitis E. (We should develop a vaccine or treatment for this deadly virus now — more money for the pharmas!)
It was lunch time and we had a pow-wow. Should we go ahead with plan A? We weren’t detecting any openings whatsoever for an alternative message. The only sort of intellectual exchange was, ‘You have talked about interleukin 2, interleukin 5, interleukin 7, interleukin 11. Why have you been ignoring interleukin 6?’ There simply was no critical thought on the HIV/AIDS paradigm to build on.
We just couldn’t go through with it. The whole conference was like a meeting of zombies practicing a religion. If we were to shower them with leaflets they would conclude the information came from the devil. The only way to make inroads at a conference like that was to have already established an alternative platform with professionals that the attendees could look to for competing information. Luc Montagnier needed to be there saying a healthy immune system can clear HIV, and anti-oxidant papaya juice helps.
It was time for Gallo to speak: ‘HIV Vaccine of the Future.’ He said, Look guys, the only way to really stop this thing is with a vaccine. Medicines help but they are not the answer. The history of vaccine-trial failures has been bad for keeping us funded. But I have an idea. We’ve got to get a vaccine that hits fast and hard. If HIV gets to the viremia stage, it’s embedded in the cells and then it’s too late. The recent Army trial in Thailand gives us hope. For the first three months the vaccine was effective. It wasn’t until they reached six months that the vaccinated group was the same as the controls. This matches some data we have developed at my institute. The gp120 envelope is flexible and folds onto the C4i antibody. If we could just figure out how to get the antibody to last longer we will have the answer.
(The old snake-oil salesman was still at it after 25 years. After 63 unsuccessful attempts at finding a vaccine, wouldn’t this be throwing good money after bad?)
Polite applause. One innocuous question. Then Gallo says, ‘Are there no more questions? This is a record. I have finished 6 minutes early!’
It was show time for Plan B. We rushed out ahead of the crowd to grab our balloons to hand out as people departed. We noticed as we left that our surreptitious table of literature had been cleared. They knew we were here! As we began to hand out balloons they sent an emissary. ‘The conference organizers request that you leave the premises.’
Well, afterwards at least we had a nice dinner at an Indienne restaurant in the old town of Marseilles. I had renewed respect for the power of a meme made of fear and obscure biology to create a money-machine juggernaut that goes and goes and doesn’t stop.