2 experts doubt accuracy of report of new virus causing an AIDS-like illness Fear is unwarranted, leading scientists say

August 02, 1992|By Lawrence K. Altman | Lawrence K. Altman,New York Times News Service

PARIS -- Two prominent scientists have cast doubt on the significance of a report that a possible new virus causes an AIDS-like disease.

The report, which is being published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was submitted by Dr. Sudhir Gupta of the University of California at Irvine, has stirred fear that a potentially fatal human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may be transmitted from person to person and through the nation's blood supply.

Dr. Ludwik Gross, the 88-year-old National Academy of Sciences member from New York who sponsored Dr. Gupta's report in the science academy's proceedings, now questions the wisdom of having done so.

Dr. Gross said in an interview that he "wanted to brake the scare" from publicity about the report and allay "unwarranted conclusions" that led the public to fear that an AIDS-like virus was on the loose.

"Too much has been made of the finding," he said, adding that he doubted that the illnesses discussed in the report had any link to AIDS.

Dr. Gross' caution adds an unusual twist to the bizarre tale of AIDS-like cases that was recounted last month at an international AIDS conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where U.S. and European scientists spoke about a few dozen cases of an AIDS-like illness among people who showed no evidence of infection with HIV-1 or HIV-2.

Preliminary reports from three scientists who hinted of the detection of a possible new virus among such cases aroused widespread concern.

Given the alarming reaction to Dr. Gupta's paper, Dr. Gross said that he would prefer now not to have sponsored it but that he would not withdraw his support because "there is no way I could do that."

Summarizing his reservations about the significance of Dr. Gupta's findings, Dr. Gross predicted that "in three years we won't hear anything about it; it will be gone."

Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French researcher who played crucial rolesin the discovery of the two viruses -- HIV-1 and HIV-2 -- that cause AIDS, said in an interview at the Pasteur Institute here that he shared Dr. Gross' concern and doubts.

"It's interesting work, and it should have been published, but I don't see why there has been so much excitement built up around it," Dr. Montagnier said. He said the link to an AIDS-like syndrome "is the weakest point; there is no evidence of such an association."

Dr. Gross said he had decided to exercise a privilege of membership in the National Academy of Sciences in introducing Dr. Gupta's paper to the proceedings after the findings were reviewed by two independent researchers. Although the reviewers expressed reservations about Dr. Gupta's technique and scientificcontrols, they recommended publication because, they said, the findings were fascinating.

An earlier version of the paper had been rejected by the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Gupta said. He said that after he heard that another scientist had sent a paper about a possible new AIDS-like virus to a different journal, he went to the Academy of Sciences' office in Washington to check the proofs of his article so it could be published in August instead of September.

The academy released Dr. Gupta's paper last week before its scheduled publication on Aug. 15 in response to an urgent request from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a federal health official, at the meeting in Amsterdam. Dr. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said no time should be wasted in checking out reports that a new virus might be causing some mysterious AIDS-like cases.

Dr. Gupta reported that he had detected a virus unlike any of the known human retroviruses in a 66-year-old woman with an AIDS-like illness. Her only apparent risk factor was a blood transfusion she received in 1949 or 1950. Dr. Gupta said he had also found the virus in the woman's healthy 38-year-old daughter.

In a news release, the National Academy of Sciences described Dr. Gupta's findings as a newly discovered virus possibly linked to AIDS.

But Dr. Gupta insisted in an interview that he has not said that the virus is new or linked to AIDS. He said he did not know how the virus was transmitted.

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