AIDS Virus Is Discovered Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

French and U.S. officials announced that scientists in their respective countries had isolated what was believed to be the virus, or pathogen, that causes AIDS: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The question of which team from which country was the first to isolate and name a virus, however, spurred years of intense international debate. The French, who isolated a virus as early as January of 1983, had been reluctant to make their announcement because they were unsure of the sufficiency of their findings.

Summary of Event

By 1984, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Centers for Disease Control;and early AIDS research[early AIDS research] had recorded four thousand cases of AIDS since it began tracking the disease in 1981. Despite the best efforts of physicians, half of the patients diagnosed had died already. With various hypotheses about how the virus was spread, many people were concerned for their health. Scientists remained baffled by the long-lasting disease, which presented the unique challenge of a long delay between exposure to the causal agent and the onset, years later, of immune system failure. [kw]AIDS Virus Is Discovered (Spring, 1984) [kw]Virus Is Discovered, AIDS (Spring, 1984) AIDS virus;discovery of HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];discovery of HIV[HIV] AIDS research;early years of [c]HIV-AIDS;Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered[1580] [c]Science;Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered[1580] [c]Health and medicine;Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered[1580] [c]Organizations and institutions;Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered[1580] [c]Government and politics;Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered[1580] Gallo, Robert Heckler, Margaret M. Montagnier, Luc Levy, Jay A.

An early schematic of HIV.

(Courtesy, National Institutes of Health)

In April, 1984, French scientists announced the discovery of a virus called lymphadenopathy-associated virus Lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV), identified as a possible cause of AIDS. They had isolated the virus in January of 1983. This team, led by virologist Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, Pasteur Institute, and HIV-AIDS research was optimistic but cautious. Montagnier and colleagues judged their findings insufficient to claim definitively that LAV caused AIDS.

In a press conference one week later, Secretary Margaret Heckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that U.S. scientists had uncovered the virus that, evidence suggested, was the causal pathogen for the disease. She reported that the virus was not LAV, as the French team thought; rather, it was a variant of a known human cancer virus, the human T-cell leukemia/lymphotrophic virus type III Human T-cell leukemia/lymphotrophic virus type III[Human T cell leukemia lymphotrophic virus type 03] (HTLV-III), which had been discovered by Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health. National Institutes of Health;and AIDS research[AIDS research] (Gallo already had applied to patent HTLV-III with the U.S. Patent Office.) Heckler stated further that her hope was that a blood test would be developed within six months and that a vaccine would be ready for testing within two years.

The intent of Heckler’s statement likely was to provide hope in the face of uncertainty. She characterized Gallo’s findings as “the triumph of science over a dreaded disease.” Her statement, however, contained scientific and historical inaccuracies, which would come to cause a major international rift in the field of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) research for years to come. The primary contention resulting from Heckler’s announcement was the question of who, in fact, should be rightfully credited with discovering the virus that causes AIDS, and thus, who should reap the benefits: Montagnier or Gallo, France or the United States? Earlier, the labs of Gallo and Montagnier had shared blood samples and preliminary data, so before this announcement, they were collaborators to some degree. Later, however, legal debates changed them into adversaries.

It was clear, through the use of electron microscopy, that the respective viruses they found were different. Although hotly debated in the public sphere, what remained scientifically unclear, initially, was the question, Which scientist’s findings were accurate? At stake were the reputations of Gallo and Montagnier within the scientific community as well as the extent of the contribution to science and medicine made by their respective countries. Furthermore, discovering and patenting the pathogen that would almost certainly serve as the basis for an AIDS test could yield a significant personal profit.

To address the legal and scientific furor that ensued, U.S. president Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald and French prime minister Jacques Chirac Chirac, Jacques announced jointly in 1987 that Gallo and Montagnier would be considered the codiscoverers of HIV. This was the first instance of scientific debate settled publicly at the highest level of government. Eventually, Gallo and Montagnier would come forward with their own accounts of what happened. Despite considerable evidence, and likely because of the public debate, more than a decade would pass before there was widespread agreement that HIV is the cause of AIDS.


Although identifying and isolating the pathogen responsible for causing AIDS was an important first step in the battle against this virus, a final victory over AIDS remains elusive. A blood test Blood tests, HIV for HIV infection was developed and became available commercially in the summer of 1985, contrary to Heckler’s hope that a test would be developed within six months (meaning early 1985). Since the mid-1980’s, a number of possible vaccines have been tested, but all have been found to be ineffective in controlling the spread of the disease.

In hindsight, it is known that Heckler’s 1984 statement was naively optimistic at best, according to Gallo, and, more gravely, a brazen attempt to best the French and garner undue praise and royalties for the United States, according to Montagnier. Undeniably, Gallo’s earlier, basic scientific work was foundational because it developed the techniques required to isolate and cultivate in the lab quantities of HIV necessary for an adequate study of the virus; that is, Gallo’s earlier work made possible the widespread discovery of HIV. However, it was Montagnier who first correctly identified the virus that causes AIDS, which had been renamed “HIV,” from HTLV-III, in 1986.

Independently and simultaneously, Jay Levy of the University of California, San Francisco, confirmed the presence of HIV in patients displaying AIDS symptoms as well as patients who were asymptomatic HIV carriers. Levy managed to avoid the public controversy and thus his contributions are usually overlooked. Rancorous public and scientific debate ensued, which called into question the specific discovery of the cause of AIDS, shaking the scientific method’s confident reliance on logic.

The significance of identifying the HIV pathogen cannot be overstated, however. With this knowledge, the scientific community proved definitively that HIV causes AIDS (debates continue, however). Scientists and others developed an accurate HIV test, safeguarded the blood supply, and began to squelch the hysteria about modes of transmission. AIDS virus;discovery of HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];discovery of HIV[HIV] AIDS research;early years of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fan, Hung, Ross F. Conner, and Luis P. Villarreal. AIDS: Science and Society. 4th ed. Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Biology of AIDS. 4th ed. Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrett, Laurie. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Kenneth H., and H. F. Pizer, eds. The Emergence of AIDS: The Impact on Immunology, Microbiology, and Public Health. Washington, D.C.: American Public Health Association, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snow, Bill, ed. HIV Vaccine Handbook: Community Perspectives on Participating in Research, Advocacy, and Progress. New York: AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wain-Hobson, S., J. P. Vartanian, M. Henry, N. Chenciner, et al. “LAV Revisited: Origins of the Early HIV-1 Isolates from Institut Pasteur.” Science 252 (1991): 961-964.

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

October 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

September, 1986: AZT Treats People with AIDS

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded

June 25, 1993: Clinton Appoints First AIDS Czar

Categories: History Content