by Tom Keske © 2000
 Posted on RemarQ 6/16/00

   Jun 16, 08:55 PM
Tom Keske
   Message 1 of 1
Los Alamos and HIV Murder Mysteries

The media does not typically give a good sense of the interconnections between people and events. Sometimes, you need to connect the dots in order to see the big picture.

Los Alamos researcher Bette Korber, whose molecular clock study derived an HIV origin date around 1930, is an example.

It is a good test of how much you are on your toes- This is not the first time that Korber's research has figured in a major episode of gay/AIDS history.

Do you know when the first time was?

There was a politically charged case of Dr. David Acer, a Florida gay dentist, who died in 1990, and was accused of deliberately infecting 6 of his patients with HIV.

The most famous was Kimberly Bergalis, who became a cause celebre for the homophobic far-right. The case became one of the ugliest chapters of the AIDS epidemic to date. What really happened is still a subject of controversy and mystery.

Bergalis claimed to be a virgin, and to have used no drugs. She was perfect for exploitation by the arch-homophobe Congressmen William Dannemeyer and Dan Burton, who enlisted her in their legislative fight for mandatory AIDS testing.


Dannemeyer, a friend of Ronald Reagan, was notorious in the gay community. One of the reasons was his association with Dr. Paul Cameron, who has advocated forced closure of all gay establishments, and who has suggested execution of gays. Dannemeyer later removed Cameron from his staff, but never repudiated him, saying that critics of Cameron had "lost their moral compass."

Kimberly Bergalis said that passage of the Dannemeyer bill was "her dying wish."

Senator Jesse Helms was also in the act, with bills mandating $10,000 fines on HIV-infected health care works who did not reveal their infections. Helms also quipped that people like Dr. Acer should be


Acer's former patients files lawsuits.

The CDC testified in court on behalf of the plaintiffs. They offered a controversial and unproven new proposition: that HIV could be used in a manner akin to "DNA fingerprinting", to determine if one specific person was responsible for infecting another specific person [1].

It is exceedingly rare (and rather questionable) for government scientists to take sides in private litigation. Dr. James Mullins, one scientist hired by the CDC was paid $1000 per day as an expert witness for Acer's accusers [2].

The CDC claimed that Acer's patients were infected with an HIV strain close enough to Acer's own HIV, to justify a conclusion of his guilt.

To perform the phylogenetic analysis and compare Acer's HIV with that of his patients, the CDC enlisted none other than Los Alamos Labs and Bette Korber.


Is it really likely that HIV is so unique per person, that you could use it to determine guilt or innocence?

HIV produces roughly one mutation every time an individual virus reproduces.

HIV genetic variability within a single person can be as much as 20% [3]. As a frame of reference, the genetic percentage differences between humans and chimpanzees is only about 3% [4].

It might therefore seem that you would have a difficult time proving that two different, individual viruses had necessarily come from the same person, much less had been transmitted from one specific person to another specific person.

On the other hand, if you look only at *major* strains, rather than individual mutations, then there are only on the order of 160 strains (at least, this was the number compared in Korber's "molecular clock" study). If you consider 160 major strains among some 30 million infected people worldwide, what is the likelihood that you could incriminate a specific individual?

Either way that you look at it, the proposition might seem a bit dubious.

Helping to bias the study was the fact that the CDC study did not pick "controls" from the same local area where Acer worked. It makes sense that viral similarity might highest in a limited geographical region. The CDC did not choose to do this, on the argument that Acer might have infected other people in the vicinity, as well.

The idea of one man being responsible for the specific HIV genetic sequences within an entire geographical area seems a bit unreasonable.

In spite of the fact that HIV mutates so constantly, the CDC repeated referred only to a single strain of virus- from Acer- an impossibility, given the virtual certainly of genetic variation [6]

Dr. Lionel Resnick, a Miami virologist was skeptical of the CDC's theory, and protested. He identified 5 individuals with no connection to Acer, yet who had strains virtually identical to Acer's. The CDC did not respond [6].

Dr. Ronald Debry, a biologist at Duke University, said that the CDC "overestimated the strength, the certainty that they attached to the DNA evidence." [6]

The "60 Minutes" TV show of 6/19/94 was highly critical of the CDC's methodology [2].

Harold Jaffe, a CDC official, was unable to answer with certainty when Mike Wallace asked, "So you're saying with absolute certainty that the DNA sequencing proves that Dr. Acer infected those six patients?"


There are certain ironies to the Bergalis case. Dr. Leonard Horowitz, author of "Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola", which argues that AIDS is probably man-made, had also previously investigated Acer and Bergalis. He concluded that Acer was guilty, and was seeking revenge, because Acer was motivated by a belief that the U.S. government had caused AIDS.

Horowitz thought that Acer was guilty, but was probably correct in his beliefs about AIDS origin.

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Elinor Burkett [6], on the other hand, thought that AIDS occurred naturally, but that the case was inconclusive against Acer.


The mysterious, young, brown-eyed, dark-haired Korber has played a role in another murder mystery, as well.

Korber testified for the defense in a Louisiana murder trial. A young woman, Janice Trahan Allen, accused her former lover, a doctor, of purposefully injecting her with HIV+
blood from another patient. Korber testified as a witness for the defense, based on a similar phylogenetic analysis.

Korber's side lost in this court case. The doctor was found guilty of murder and faces 15 to 50 years in prison.


The evidence is probably inconclusive whether Acer was guilty or innocent. However, regardless of his ultimate guilt or innocence, the CDC's role was extremely dubious. The merits of Korber's analysis, as applied to this case, were also very questionable.

Court cases of this kind are apt to become more common. There is a risk when lives in the balance, and must depend on such an arcane field. It is important to determine the real merits of this type of analysis, just as it was important to determine the reliability of polygraph evidence.

Phylogenetic analysis of virus strains is significantly different, and far more subject to question, than the well-proven "DNA fingerprinting" technology.

The questionable use of phylogenetic analysis in the Florida case might raise some question as to how much the "molecular clock" study might be trustworthy, as well.

Los Alamos has a history of secret research on behalf of the DOD. Their first major undertaking was in the ultra-secret Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb in World War II.

Clearly, there are still elements of intrigue in the lab.

Should the gay community really trust an organization to be non-political, when their primary customers would be include the CIA and the homophobic military establishment?

Los Alamos answers to the government, and politics is what the government is all about. Propaganda is much of what politics is all about.

Was Los Alamos essentially working at the behest of people like Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer, when it entered the politically charged case of the gay Florida dentist?

Is it possible that the CDC was allowing some sloppy science for the sake of manipulating a naive public, and tossing some red meat to far-right conservatives, to help further their political agenda?

It would make sense for the gay community and for PWAs to look at these types of questions, very carefully.

Tom Keske
Boston, Mass.

[1] CDC HIV/AIDS Prevention Bulletin, March 9, 1993

[2] The 1990 Florida Dental Investigation: Is the Case Really Closed?
Stephen Barr, MA

[3] The fastest genome evolution ever described: HIV variation in situ.


[5] Cyber-Sleuths

[6] "The Gravest Show on Earth", Elinor Burkett, 1995,
Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-74537-3.
Burkett was a journalist for the Miami Herald,
and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for this book.