In Memoriam: Reinhard Kurth

Distinguished retrovirologist and calming German voice during AIDS crisis years

By Michael Dumiak

Ten years after an experiment by Reinhard Kurth and virologist Steve Norley began to probe the protective mechanism of live attenuated viruses, particularly an attenuated hybrid simian/human immunodeficiency virus, data are still being pored over at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.
The analysis continues but Kurth will not be there to finish it. Perhaps Germany’s pre-eminent retrovirologist, a longtime AIDS vaccine researcher, effective science communicator, and former scientific advisory committee chair and board member of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), Reinhard Kurth died in February following a long struggle with cancer. He was 71.

As acting director from 1996 and then president from 2001 to 2008, Kurth headed the German Ministry of Health’s Robert Koch Institute, a leading epidemiological and research center headquartered in Berlin that is responsible for disease control and prevention in the country. Previously Kurth was director of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, a government institution somewhat analogous to the US Food and Drug Administration that is responsible for the safety of medicinal products, blood safety, clinical trial approval, vaccines, and other public health issues.

Kurth was born in Dresden in 1942 and as the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel reports, he grew up in the firebombed city ruins. He later overcame tuberculosis, studied medicine and philosophy in Germany and the US, and became a clinician in 1969. He soon focused on research into the pathogenesis and immunobiology of retroviruses.

Longtime colleagues, Reinhard recruited Norley in 1987 as a postdoc. “If something sounded off the wall, he wouldn’t reject it out of hand,” Norley says. “There was a good chance he would say try it. Not just that—he would invest time and money. He was very enthusiastic about attacking the AIDS problem, and very keen on putting a large group together.” One of this group’s main focuses was the protection afforded by replicating viral vectors, work that continues today at the Koch Institute. “Sometimes he’d grin and say you expect it to start off complex and get easier. In AIDS vaccines, it started simple and got harder,” Norley recalls.

Today, there is a robust pipeline of replication-competent viral vectors being explored in HIV vaccine candidates, both pre-clinically and in clinical trials, according to Wayne Koff, IAVI’s chief scientific officer. “Reinhard was right in the center of that,” Koff says. “It’s a real loss.”

By all accounts Kurth was a rigorous scientist. He also had a calm air of rationalism, which he used in communicating complex and vital issues of science both to the general public and in the halls of government. “A lot of scientists would shy away from this or be ineffective,” says Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of HIV and co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology in Maryland, who became close friends with Kurth over 40 years. The disconnect between the research community and public policymakers is not only because of a lack of communication skills on the part of lab scientists, Gallo says, but because it is potentially risky to dive into waters made murky by politics. “Reinhard knew that someone had to, and he did it. And did it well.”

Kurth took action during the early years when HIV infection was a death sentence and fear, anger, and hysteria ran high. He was already one of the top retrovirologists in Germany when the pandemic began. This “Champion of Reason,” as Tagesspiegel called Kurth, advised the German health ministry on how to respond to HIV/AIDS, worked with patient and support groups, and pressed for a rational approach as head of the agency responsible for the country’s blood supply.

Koff recalls Kurth as a warm person and a disciplined but open scientist, not one to be satisfied with received wisdom. “Bring me data, not dogma,” Koff recalls Kurth saying. The German retrovirologist was unassuming but moved in the inner circle of AIDS vaccine research, a stalwart at Gallo’s annual research meetings. Gallo, Kurth, and Billy Hall, professor of microbiology at the University College of Dublin, co-founded the Global Virus Network to coordinate medical research and response to viral pandemic threats and viral causes of human disease.

As early as the mid-70s, Gallo says, Kurth was making his name doing immunochemistry, first under Werner Schäfer in Tübingen and then in his own lab. That’s when Gallo first got to know him. “We went to a disco, ate and drank together, and talked about retrovirology,” he says. Kurth introduced him to immunochemistry, a then-emerging field. “It was an area I barely knew existed,” Gallo says.

Gallo would eventually bring immunochemistry to his studies with animal retroviruses and, eventually, to human retrovirology. Six weeks before he died, Kurth found the strength to fly to the US and speak at Gallo’s investiture—even getting in a couple zingers. “He was the only one to roast me!”

In honor of Kurth, the Global Virus Network has launched a fund to endow a scholarship in Kurth’s name.

Michael Dumiak reports on global science, technology, and public health and is based in Berlin.