Saturday, April 9, 2011
The Great Apologizer
Dr. John Coffin delivered the most dramatic moment of the NIH State of Knowledge conference with his knock out blow of XMRV (video 3:36 onwards). The consequence of his statement lasted about three seconds, tops. At this point and earlier Dr. Coffin presented moments of what only could be labeled as "high comedy" - or absurdity.
Earlier, before and after his presentation, Dr. Coffin was impressive in his lengthy, twice repeated apology for popping the bubble of XMRV. There are those who will take Dr. Coffin at face value, and accept this as a genuine apology of a “pretty good” virologist. I am certainly willing to do this, but where I have trouble is when he repeats the exact same apology for a second time. Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain would have appreciated the humor here, and seen right through it. One apology is fine, two invites skepticism or the feeling of carelessness. What is his problem? Are we supposed to believe that this man is genuinely wounded, that his feelings are hurt? What about us, what about the patients who have been left behind? They are not a dumb retrovirus, they are real people, men, women and children being destroyed. These Coffin "apologies" are a bit thick.
It was instantly obvious to me that Dr. Coffin made a little major mistake and went a “bridge too far” with his recommendation that we leave XMRV behind. Carried away by impulse, he overplayed his part. While it had a very dramatic ring to it, Dr. Coffin must know that this is slightly premature - and one wonders why he did this? Of course it was in response to the leading question advanced by Suzanne Vernon, in the controlled detached voice of the wounded lover: "Where do we go from here John?". With Suzanne Vernon's question I knew something was up. In response, Dr. Coffin's declaration to "leave XMRV behind" had an air of languidity to it, and it seemed a bit forced. Compounding the problem was that immediately after declaring it, he started his habitual "backing up" and covering his bets. One could hear the crunching of gears as he put the car in reverse while it was still moving forward. My son Nicholas and I noticed this same behavior on the part of Dr. Coffin at the FDA conference on December 14th - this habitual shiftiness that invites comic disbelief.
Back to reality: Amy Dockser Marcus has written a blog article for the Wall Street Journal that can be found here. This article presents the XMRV controversy that erupted at the NIH State of Knowledge conference in a very accurate and balanced fashion, without any editorializing.