Doctors wondered why these “opportunistic” infections, which usually affect people of very poor health, are so common among young gay men who are still healthy.
The discovery by a team from the French Pasteur Institute of the AIDS virus 40 years ago was the first step in a fierce battle with this epidemic that led to the death of 40 million people.
An article published in the scientific journal “Science” on May 20, 1983 confirmed the “isolation” of the new virus.
However, the authors of the discovery, scientists Françoise Barry-Senoussi, Jean-Claude Sherman and Luc Montagnier, chose to adopt a cautious tone in the article, writing that this virus “could play a role in a number of disease syndromes, including AIDS.”
AIDS-related research was at the beginning of its path, as the new disease involved many mysteries.
“The Four H Disease”
The first alerts were issued two years earlier in the United States, when, in the summer of 1981, rare diseases such as lung cysts and Kaposi’s sarcoma were recorded among homosexual American youth.
Doctors wondered why these “opportunistic” infections, which usually affect people of very poor health, are so common among young gay men who are still in good health.
American experts noted that “an epidemic is spreading among gay men and drug addicts.” This disease did not yet have a name, but it was spreading.
It was noted that Haitians were also affected. He started talking about the “three H disease,” the first letter of which stands for homosexuals, heroin addicts, and Haitians.
Soon, a fourth letter H was added to refer to people with hemophilia, who were also found to be at risk of this disease, so it became known as the “four H disease.”
As for the term AIDS, composed of the initial letters of the phrase “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”, it began to be used as of September 1982.
The retroviral hypothesis
The cause of AIDS is not yet known. And some started talking about being a “retrovirus”, including the great American specialist in this type of cancer-causing virus, Robert Gallo.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris, the viral-oncology laboratory directed by Luc Montagnier at the Institut Pasteur is also operating.
At the beginning of 1983, the Parisian infectious disease specialist Willy Rosenbaum at the Pitiers-Salpetriere Hospital took a biopsy from the lymph nodes of a patient with an early stage of AIDS.
On January 3, the laboratory of the Pasteur Institute began working on its examination. Montagnier, who died in 2022, recounted in his book “On Viruses and Humans”: “When night fell (…), I started working.”
With Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Sherman, he discovered a new retrovirus, which he tentatively named Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV).
“We isolated the virus and proved that it is a retrovirus, but we are not yet sure that it is the cause of AIDS,” Senussi told AFP.
‘Nobody believed us’
Publication of the discovery in May in Science was met with skepticism from some, notably Robert Gallo.
As for the team of the “Institut Pasteur”, it is strengthened in its conviction that LAV is responsible for AIDS. Montagnier presented statements to this effect in September 1983 to a group of experts, including Gallo, but the interaction was limited.
Montagnier said, “We knew for a year that we had discovered the right virus (…) but no one believed us, and our publications were rejected.”
Gallo’s announcement in the spring of 1984 caused a sensation, as he published a series of articles in which he reported that he had discovered a new retrovirus, HTLV-3, which he considered the “probable cause” of AIDS.
On April 23, US Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler officially announced that Robert Gallo had found the “likely” cause of AIDS.
On the same day, Gallo filed a patent application in the United States for an HIV screening test, based on his discovery, which he received promptly. A similar request made earlier by the Pasteur Institute after its discovery of LAV was rejected.
But Gallo and Montagnier soon agreed that HTLV-3 was the same as LAV.
After giving evidence of being one virus in January 1985, the new virus was named in 1986 as human immunodeficiency virus.
There was a great controversy over identifying the real discoverer of the virus, which ended in a temporary diplomatic solution in 1987, with the United States and France signing a settlement in which Gallo and Montagnier were officially described as “partners in the discovery.”
And this dispute was not just a matter of moral pride in the medical achievement, but rather an issue of great importance in determining who is authorized to obtain the revenues related to the virus detection tests.
But the real conclusion came two decades later, with the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded not to Gallo but to the French Montagnier and Barry-Sinussi alone for their “discovery” of HIV.