French Suing U.S. in Fight for Royalties on AIDS Test

Times Staff Writer

A long-simmering transatlantic feud over who will receive royalties on a test for the AIDS virus erupted into a legal battle Friday when French scientists filed suit in the United States seeking recognition of their claim that they discovered the virus before their American counterparts.

A victory in the patent dispute could result in millions of dollars in royalties from drug companies licensed to manufacture the blood test, which detects antibodies to the deadly disease.

The Pasteur Institute issued a statement in Paris that said it hoped to protect its rights “for commercial and financial applications” and that not to do so “would create a dangerous precedent threatening scientific ethics.” The litigation was filed here late Thursday in the U.S. Court of Claims, which hears suits against the federal government.


The French in 1983 were the first to publish a paper on the virus, said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the U.S. scientist credited with discovering the virus, known in this country as HTLV-III and in France as LAV. But, he asserted Friday in an interview, “they got the idea from us” through an exchange of information and now want to “rewrite history for self-serving reasons.”

“The idea and the technology came from us,” said Gallo, chief of the tumor cell biology laboratory at the National Cancer Institute and a pioneer in the study of human retroviruses, which differ from ordinary viruses. “I was the first to suggest it was a retrovirus.”

He continued: “We had this virus in 1982. We didn’t publish on purpose because we didn’t understand it well enough to stick our necks out. To me, ‘discovery’ is a complicated word. Who first reported discovery of a virus? They did. But if the idea comes first--that was us.

“Yes, they made a contribution,” he said. “But should they get credit? They’ve already gotten more than they deserve.”

The Pasteur Institute, where the late actor Rock Hudson sought treatment during his highly publicized fight against AIDS, said in its statement that it had tried for several months “to reach a solution based on a negotiated compromise.”

‘Negative Response’

It said that its director, Raymond Dedonder, traveled to the United States for discussions with officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health and “he received a negative response.”


“The Pasteur Institute went out of its way to resolve this so there would be shared recognition, so the people involved could get on with the business of curing the damned disease,” said James B. Swire, an attorney with Townley & Updike, a New York law firm that represents the institute. “Pasteur finally threw up its hands and did what it didn’t want to do. It felt it had no alternative.”

The Pasteur statement said that a three-man team headed by French researcher Luc Montagnier identified LAV, or lymphadenopathy associated virus, in January, 1983. The next December, the institute said, the French requested that the U.S. Patent Office register the test they developed to determine the presence of the virus.

But, the institute said, although the U.S. Patent Office took no action on its application, a similar request filed by the National Institutes of Health four months later was quickly approved.

U.S. Gets 5% Royalty

The federal government, which holds the patent, has since licensed five U.S. drug companies to develop and mass-produce test kits to screen for HTLV-III antibodies. These companies are required to pay the government royalties amounting to 5% of the profits from sales of the kit.

Should France win the lawsuit, royalties would be awarded to the Pasteur Institute, a nonprofit facility. In the United States, most of the money would go to the U.S. Treasury, although Gallo is expected to receive a small share.

Gallo said Friday that “all this bickering is hindering the progress” in the fight against the disease. “It enormously damages efforts against AIDS,” he said. “It hurts on multiple levels.”


Everybody Called Losers

Le Monde, the most influential newspaper in France, commented: “A shadow has now fallen on a Franco-American collaboration (in medicine) that dates almost a century and that one had hoped would transcend these types of (money) considerations. All the actors in this tragic-comedy are going to be losers, and they know it.”

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, destroys the body’s immune system, leaving it powerless against otherwise rare infections. It is transmitted primarily through sexual contact and the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles. Those at highest risk include male homosexuals and bisexuals, intravenous drug users and their steady sexual partners. As of Monday, there were 15,403 reported cases and 7,827 deaths.