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AIDS: the virus that causes it has been discovered for 40 years – Rádio Itatiaia

AIDS: the virus that causes it has been discovered for 40 years – Rádio Itatiaia

40 years ago, a team from the Pasteur Institute in France discovered the virus that causes AIDS, which marks the first stage in fighting an epidemic that has already left more than 40 million deaths.

The “isolation” of the new virus was reported on May 20, 1983 in an article published in the American journal Science.

The discovery’s authors – Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, Jean-Claude Cherman and Luc Montagnier – struck a cautious tone: French virologists wrote that the virus “could be implicated in several disease syndromes, including AIDS.”

AIDS research was just beginning. The disease was new and posed many mysteries.

“4H disease”

The first alerts came from the United States two years earlier. In the summer of 1981, rare diseases such as pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma were reported among young American homosexuals.

Doctors wondered why the “opportunistic” infections usually reserved for people with osteoporosis would appear in young, healthy gay men.

American experts spoke of an “epidemic among gay men and drug users.” The disease had no name and was spreading.

Haitians were also affected. The term “H3 disease” was coined in reference to “homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians”.

Soon a fourth “H” is added: hemophiliacs, also infected, which changed the reference to “the disease of the four Hs”.

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The term “AIDS” (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) came into use in September 1982.

The retroviral hypothesis

The cause of AIDS is still unknown. Some, like Roberto Gallo, the leading American expert on cancer-causing viruses, have been researching “retroviruses.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris, a viral oncology laboratory run by Luc Montagnier, of the Pasteur Institute, has also started.

In early 1983, Parisian infection scientist Willy Rosenbaum collected a sample of lymph nodes from a patient in the early stages of AIDS at the Petit-Salpetriere Hospital.

His sample arrived on January 3rd in the laboratory benches of the Pasteur Institute. “I got down to business,” Montagnier, who died in 2022, said in his book On Viruses and Men.

With Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Cherman, he discovered a new retrovirus which he named LAV for Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus.

“We isolated the virus and showed that it is a retrovirus, but we are still not sure that it is the cause of AIDS,” Barry-Sinussi told AFP.

“nobody believed”

The publication of this discovery in Science in May was met with skepticism, notably by Gallo.

Pasteur’s team was increasingly certain that their LAV was responsible for AIDS. Montagnier presented data along these lines in September 1983 to a number of specialists, including Gallo.

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“For a year we knew we had the right virus…but no one believed us and our publications were rejected,” Munener recalled.

In the spring of 1984, Gallo submitted a series of articles announcing the discovery of a new retrovirus, HTLV-3, that had been presented as a “possible cause” of AIDS. On April 23, US Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler made the announcement officially alongside Gallo.

That same day, Gallo filed a US patent application for an AIDS test based on his discovery, which was quickly granted. A similar request previously made by Pasteur was denied after the discovery of LAV.

However, Gallo and Muntainer quickly agreed that HTLV-3 and LAV were probably the same organism.

Evidence of this emerged in January 1985. The new HIV virus, human immunodeficiency virus, was finally named in 1986.

France and the United States contested the paternity of the discovery until 1987, the date of a bilateral agreement whereby Gallo and Montagnier were named “co-discoverers” of HIV.

The dispute was not merely a matter of scientific honour, but above all a financial one, due to the copyright of the detection tests derived from the discoveries.

The real denouement came in 2008, when the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to the French Montagnier and Barry-Sinussi for the “discovery” of HIV.

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