XI. First attempts to halt the epidemic
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First attempts to halt the epidemic 109  Chapter XI First attempts to halt the epidemic One person can make a difference and everyone should try. — John F. Kennedy Two irons in the fire: Bristol-Myers and Janssen De Clercq and Holý’s article about the acyclic nucleoside phosphonates appeared in Nature on October 2, 1986. It was a follow-up to one of their first articles. This time it was even more authoritative: a new class of antiviral compounds was born. Their antiviral activity was captured in Sakuma’s assays and a friendly opthalmologue in Leuven had tested them on eye infections in rabbits. The authors received praise from all sides and were courted even more intensely by Bristol-Myers. Talks to acquire a license became more pressing . In order to study the compounds, Bristol-Myers had to copy a few samples. Holý provided them with guidance while De Clercq tested and analyzed the copies. They enjoyed all the niceties that were thoughtfully arranged for them on their visits to the new research facilities in Wallingford, Connecticut: limos waiting at the airport and relaxation time to practice his favorite sport, squash. De Clercq nevertheless remained wary after the d4T episode. But John Martin was so enthusiastic and prophesized: “You will develop something much stronger than d4T. You have phosphonates!”. As for Tony Holý, every time he visited Wallingford, he went on a shopping spree at the hardware stores. He was always on the lookout for the latest gadgets and tools. Bristol-Myers executives knew Holý was fond of playing pool, so a billiard table was reserved for him and his assistant. Law enforcement officials kept circling around John Martin. They wanted to know what Holý was up to in the United States. They were particularly worried about him taking pictures everywhere with his little camera. 110 Cold War Triangle Martin’s mundane responses to their questions, “This time he bought a fancy screwdriver,” exasperated them. Meanwhile the Rega Institute was expanding Rudi’s AIDS lab with the tremendous support of Jan Desmyter who acted as an all-in-one spokesman , broker and promoter. The activity at the Rega Institute sparked the interest of the legendary Belgian drug maker, Paul Janssen. He had been a friend of Piet De Somer. Both had inspired each other with their ever expanding curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for novelties. Both relentlessly pursued their staff with the same question “Is there anything new to report?”.1 They had an unwritten gentleman’s agreement not to approach each other’s collaborators. Now that De Somer had passed away, “Dr. Paul,” as he was affectionately called by his assistants, invited Erik De Clercq to his stronghold not far from Antwerp. Beersewasthesmalltownthathostedthepharmainstallationsandseveral of the office buildings where Paul Janssen had started his company in 1956. He merged it five years later with Johnson & Johnson to allow his laboratory potential to grow.2 In less than twenty years time he had motivated some 1,300 young people to join his company. He hired them not on the basis of their school or academic degrees but on the basis of their ability to memorize. Next he helped his newly hired men and women expand their knowledge in one or another field, sending them to academic courses and asking them to focus on a specific subject until they became expert medicinal researchers. Even though Janssen pharmaceutical belonged to an American group, it was and still is the pride of Belgium. By the time De Clercq went to visit Paul Janssen on a grey November day in 1986, his company had already invented more than fifty drugs, five of which had been posted on the WHO’s list of essential medicines. Janssen had also acquired world fame with the opening of his plant in China, being the first western pharmaceutical company to set up a factory in the People’s Republic of China.3 Janssen was unable to bring HIV inside his facilities, at that time the virus was still considered too dangerous and AIDS was surrounded by all kinds of taboos. The general public placed the blame for the spread of AIDS squarely on the gay community and anger mounted as more people died. However, Janssen, who had travelled in Africa knew better. He was shocked and obsessed by what he had seen there. First attempts to halt the epidemic 111  Erik De Clercq knew Janssen only superficially at that time. He had met him socially at functions organized by De...


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