Robert Gallo, the eminent virologist best known as co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, says the world needs a system to confront viral disease that’s free of politics and primed to quickly warn nations about new threats as if “the bad Martians are coming.” The uneven and politicized response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a worldwide toll approaching 3 million, including more than 567,000 deaths in the United States, proves Gallo’s point.
And while it might sound self-serving of him to promote the Global Virus Network that he cofounded as just the organization for this big role, it’s hard to argue against it, given the horror of the last year.
Gallo, who turned 84 last month, comes at this with big credentials and celebrity. He directs the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and serves as international scientific adviser to the GVN. That’s an alliance of 62 virology centers in 34 countries. The GVN is not political, not tied to any government, Gallo says; it’s all about what the world needs — sound science.
In an interview Thursday, he pushed the GVN as a special resource that could serve as the World Health Organization’s virology arm, sharing research and training more virologists, who will be needed in the future. “The world has to be linked in a pandemic,” he said. “We need to be working together. That was not the case [in 2020], nor was there an effort to make it the case. It takes much more when you’re facing a pandemic. You can’t do this alone.”
So what do you propose?
That we have GVN experts, working with the WHO, meeting regularly, and using scientific input from the best virologists in the world covering every kind of virus that exists that is pathogenic for man. And they would report to a common government because the first question I ask, if you take the side of continuing the way we are, is, ‘What government do you want to listen to? The Swedes, who want herd immunity? Or maybe you want to listen to [former] President Trump? Or maybe [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson? Or the Brazilian government, which is disastrous? Which one?’ A pandemic requires a unified response.
You told me you didn’t want to be critical of specific players in the U.S., but what are your observations about how we’ve handled the pandemic?
The failure [to diagnose people] early on was definitely not good. It was too slow and there were too many false [test] results. And that was all over the country … and globally. I think people took for granted this would be a straightforward test and didn’t do the research. We didn’t do many things well enough, fast enough.
What about the messaging on wearing masks? Some people still don’t take that seriously.
I really don’t understand why there was a struggle over masks. I don’t know why anyone would refuse to wear one. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have [Trump] wear one. [The coronavirus] was obviously a respiratory virus that was going to transmit in the air. At the beginning, there was reluctance to accept that, and that a person who was not symptomatic was transmitting [the virus]. The Chinese were criticized for saying that because they didn’t have anything but anecdotal data. But discoveries are made with anecdotes. I can give you case scenarios for that. But to say that viruses don’t transmit asymptomatically when we’ve experienced a pandemic of HIV for 40 years [and] the bulk of HIV is transmitted in the asymptomatic period? Viruses can transmit asymptomatically — not rarely, commonly.
We have vaccines developed in record time. Now millions are being vaccinated.
We’ve made rapid progress. The Chinese, who are members of the GVN, published [data on the virus] January 10  openly and very fast and very well, and the earliest vaccines that we have are based on [data] from China. The [U.S.] government poured a lot of money into [vaccine development], and that’s good.
You were an advocate for a stopgap vaccine for the coronavirus, specifically the polio vaccine. Is that still a good idea?
The old vaccines — for polio and MMR [for measles, mumps and rubella] — will work, but they’re temporary. The advantage is that, when you inject them or give them as a pill, they’ll work in one hour. It won’t take one month. And they’re available at your drugstore — at least MMR is — and they’re available in quantity and they’re cheap. So it will be great for developing countries and for the beginning of a pandemic. They fill the gap until you have a specific vaccine. The old vaccines stimulate our innate immune system promptly, and though they’re not specific, help prevent respiratory infection.
But, where available, people should get the new vaccines, right? Will they be effective in the long term?
Yes, they need to get vaccinated. I got vaccinated. However, I have a worry that the antibodies against [the coronavirus] are not going to last. I felt that way because of the structure [of the virus].
So we’ll have to be revaccinated?
We’ll possibly be boosting again and again, as frequently or more frequently as we do for flu. Another possible scenario is that a weaker version [of the virus] dominates. It can replicate but it doesn’t cause the inflammatory part of the disease. It’s not so serious. It’s more like the seasonal flu. One thing I am sure of, we’ll have better therapy for the inflammatory disease.
There’s a new anti-inflammatory drug coming. It will be a breakthrough, and I don’t say the word breakthrough often. But this is something that will be lifesaving for people who are sick with the inflammatory part of [COVID-19]. It’s a few weeks away from being openly talked about, but I promise you it will be a lifesaving therapy. It’s going to help a lot of very sick people.