Newsweek Rewind: 30 Years Ago, Scientists Discovered the Cause of AIDS

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In the early 1980s, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, surged into public awareness, seemingly out of nowhere. But it had been around for years, even though it took until 1981 for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recognize the disease. In those days, AIDS was not only deadly but a medical mystery as well.

Then, on April 23, 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that Dr. Robert Gallo, then the chief of the National Cancer Institute Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology, and his colleagues had made a major discovery: the cause of AIDS. It was a virus that would come to be known as HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus.

On the 30th anniversary of his achievement, we revisited three decades of AIDS coverage in Newsweek and spoke to Gallo, now director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, about his early experiences in AIDS research and where we are now with finding a cure.

AIDS was first featured in the December 27, 1982, issue of Newsweek. In "AIDS: A Lethal Mystery Story," Larry Kramer, co-founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, described the early days of the disease as "like living in London during the Blitz, when you didn't know when the next bomb would strike."

Since April 1983, Newsweek has devoted 20 covers to HIV/AIDS. The first AIDS cover story was headlined "EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and Deadly Disease Called AIDS May Be the Public-Health Threat of the Century," by Jean Seligmann with Mariana Gosnell, Vincent Coppola, and Mary Hager. "A new and deadly disease is coursing through the country," Newsweek wrote at the time, "wasting bodies of victims, incubating in an untold number of others who have yet to show symptoms and triggering one of the most intensive investigations in medical history."

The article featured a number of mini-profiles of victims of the epidemic ("Tom Biscotto seemed to have it all…. From the moment he was diagnosed, he recalls, 'I got mad. I made plans, contacted my lawyer and arranged for a will. Then I got on with fighting this thing.'")

Gallo remembers a time when the number of scientists working on HIV/AIDS research was so small that anyone in the field would immediately be overwhelmed by the needs of the stricken. "I was working on cancer and leukemia," Gallo tells Newsweek. "But once you became involved and it became known that you were involved, the pressure was very intense to do something about it. The pressure was relentless, unyielding."

In an October 1989 ""Innovators" cover story, Newsweek named Gallo one of 25 Americans on the cutting edge in the worlds of science and technology. He was awarded the spot for discovering the virus that causes human leukemia and for first identifying the AIDS virus—although at the time the magazine also noted that this was "a claim also made by Luc Montagnier."

This controversy over proper credit for the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS was the subject of several future articles as well, including "The Aids Debate: Let's Call It a Draw" (April 13, 1987) and "A Tempest in a Test Tube" (March 18, 1991). The debate remained open all the way into the 21st century; in 2008, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Luc Montagnier and his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for their work on the discovery of HIV; Gallo was left off the award. Nonetheless, Gallo is still widely considered as one of the co-discoverers of the AIDS virus, though he still seems surprised at the level of scrutiny he underwent in the years following the initial announcement in 1984.

"[Discovering the cause of AIDS] was like a big bang—thrust in a hundred directions," Gallo recalls. "Things were never the same for me. I was quite naive and open and really learned an awful lot about a part of life that I thought I would never need to know about."

Today, the CDC estimates that more than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 6 are unaware of their infection. The incidence of new HIV infections has been relatively stable over the past few years, at about 50,000 new ones per year.

Researchers have made considerable progress since Gallo's 1984 discovery. They have been able to greatly slow the spread of HIV—in the 1980s, it seemed inevitable that the virus would sweep through and decimate populations. Today, the virus still kills millions, but the disease can be treated. And thanks to antiretroviral therapy, patients with HIV can expect to live a relatively normal life, though treatment requires lifelong medication. In two instances, doctors have even claimed that babies born with HIV may have been "cured."

Thirty years after his discovery, Gallo is still working on HIV research. In 2011, the Institute of Human Virology was awarded $23.4 million for further research into a promising HIV/AIDS preventive vaccine. Gallo seems confident that a true functional cure is attainable in the near future. A functional cure, he explains, means that the patient has an undetectable viral load and is able to lead a "reasonably" normal life, free of the burden of antiretroviral drugs, and with a normal life expectancy.

"We don't have it yet," he says. "I think it's doable in the next decade, hopefully earlier."