Five names have been suggested since 1983 as technical titles for the AIDS virus as part of a scientific battle involving prestige, prizes and profits. Now, in the latest move in this complicated name game, a committee of prominent scientists has come up with a compromise.
After a year-long struggle, a majority of the committee has voted to call the virus the Human Immune-Deficiency Virus, or HIV, according to several participants.
Already, however, some of the top scientists on the committee, including Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute, say they will not use it.
On the other hand, competing French researcher Luc Montagnier was so eager to spread the name he announced it prematurely, an action that has started new rumors and may destroy the delicate compromise.
While concern about the virus' name may seem trivial in the worldwide war against acquired immune deficiency syndrome, it is an important symbol in the medical research community. The dispute is part of a wider controversy, involving back-biting rumors, publicity campaigns and court suits, between two competing groups of American and French researchers over who discovered the virus, who proved its relationship to AIDS, who borrowed whose results and who should be allowed to make and sell blood tests to screen for signs of AIDS infection.
The French group, headed by Montagnier at the Institut Pasteur in Paris has until now called the virus LAV (for Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus). The National Cancer Institute laboratory led by Gallo has stood by its name, HTLV-3 (for Human T-Cell Lymphotropic Virus). A third researcher, Dr. Jay Levy of the University of California, has called it ARV (for AIDS-Related Virus).
A few weeks ago, the name game became further complicated by nearly simultaneous, separate transcontinental announcements by Pasteur and Harvard University researchers of new AIDS-related viruses. Montagnier called his LAV-2, while Harvard's Dr. Max Essex followed the Gallo classification system and called his HTLV-4.
Because NIH laboratories have led the world in AIDS research, by volume of publications if nothing else, the name of HTLV, sometimes followed by LAV, has dominated scientific literature and discussion. Use of LAV alone, Montagnier's invention, has run a distant second. Several scientists suggested in interviews that almost any name that was not HTLV would be a gain for Montagnier and his French colleagues.
In the midst of this, the official committee weighed in. The 13-member panel of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses, headed by Dr. Harold Varmus of the University of California at San Francisco, sought a neutral, scientifically correct name acceptable to the various camps. A fragile compromise was struck and the group planned to publish a letter soon in prominent scientific journals.
On Wednesday, the French virologist visited the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health, Gallo's home turf, and gave a standing-room-only lecture to an audience of more than 200, including many from Gallo's laboratory of tumor cell biology, but not Gallo.
After giving homage to "this magnificent institution," Montagnier opened his talk with a grin and the surprising news that "as you know there are still several names" for the AIDS virus, but "soon" they will be called by the "same name," Human Immune-Deficiency Virus, or HIV.
Chairman Varmus said yesterday he was angered by the premature announcement of the name this week by Montagnier and said it threatened to undo the compromise.
"Everyone agrees that no name is a perfect name," Gallo said. He said Montagnier appeared to be "jumping on the new name right away" but that the recommended name was "purely advisory" and he will continue to use HTLV-3 in his papers. Essex said by telephone from Boston that he, too, declined to support the new name.
Despite Montagnier's friendly visit to the NIH campus, relations have been severely strained by a suit brought in December by the Pasteur Institute against the U.S. government.
The struggle dates from the spring of 1983, when the NIH group named the HTLV group of viruses as logical candidates to be the cause of AIDS and the Pasteur group simultaneously reported finding a new virus in one pre-AIDS patient. By the following spring, Gallo's group published numerous papers that it had found the causative virus, worked out a way to grow it and study itand was readying a blood test to detect signs of AIDS virus infection.
During those early years, the NIH and Pasteur facilities exchanged laboratory material and chemicals, including the viruses. But eventually members of the French group began to claim that they had not only found the virus first but that Gallo's team had either secretly taken the French virus and called it their own or used the virus to help make, patent and market the profitable blood test, said Pasteur's New York lawyer James Swire. Swire said the French have sued the United States for over $1 million in damages.
The suit not only asks for a share in profits on the blood test, but asks the court to declare the French the discoverers of the AIDS virus and to expunge any statement to the contrary from the records of U.S. labs.
Pasteur has also hired a New York public relations firm, Carl Byoir & Associates Inc., to represent it in this country.
U.S. officials and scientists have disputed the Pasteur charges. Gallo said he has "solid evidence" of his group's independent work with the virus in late 1982 and 1983 and complained that "public relations firms and lawyers are trying to cause us embarrassment."
But pressures of the suit are having "a detrimental effect on science. It has had a miserable effect on the morale here," said Gallo and others in his laboratory.
After Montagnier's lecture at NIH ended Wednesday, a white-haired, white-bearded scientist in the audience, resting on his cane, noted that scientific infighting was "regrettable, but it's nothing new."
Dr. Albert Sabin, renowned creator of the oral polio virus vaccine, knows from experience. He and Dr. Jonas Salk, discover of the first killed polio vaccine, have been battling the merits of their vaccines more than 25 years.