30 Years of HIV: but who made the discovery?

It has been 30 years to the day since Dr Robert Gallo, MD and colleagues from the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland announced at a press conference that they had discovered the cause of AIDS: HIV

Gallo’s announcement 30 years ago came at a trying time across the world as the only recently described AIDS was sweeping across the west and claiming thousands of lives. There was a rush to identify the culprit, with Pasteur Institute virologist Dr. Luc Montaigner claiming also to have isolated the cause of AIDS. After discussion, the two researchers decided that Montaigner’s lymphadenopathy virus (LAV) virus and Gallo’s HTLV-III (later known as HIV) were in fact strains of the same virus.

The two decided to make the announcement together. But pressure from the US government, of which Ronald Regan was president at the time, to come be the first to discover the cause of AIDS, Gallo was pushed into announcing his findings before Montaigner.

At the time Gallo had 48 isolates of HTLV-III, whereas Montaigner had just one isolate of LAV. Gallo had also manager to grow 4 of the HTLV-III isolates to grow in the lab which gave him the edge in research into possible blood tests for patients.

But this wasn’t the end of the matter. Montaigner and the French government were rightly angry with the US and in an attempt to wrestle the commercial rights away from the US, they sued the White House. Two years later the matter was settled, and the French and American presidents agreed to give equal credit to Gallo and Montaigner for the discovery of HIV.

But this unfortunately wasn’t the end of the matter. In 2008 Montaigner and a colleague were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for ‘their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus’. There was no mention of Gallo, who said that he was ‘surprised’ and ‘disappointed’, but still he congratulated them.

But whilst many would see the awarding of a Nobel Prize to Montaigner as the clincher in the debate, it remains that this article has been written because today, across the press, people are talking about the day that HIV was discovered, that is, the day that Dr Gallo announced it.

Read more about the dispute here.

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Comments 4

  1. MalariaFree

    Thank you for your informative article. As a side comment, I think readers will appreciate if you could ensure that your writing is free of glaring grammatical and sentence structure errors. It will definitely make it easier to read. Thanks and no offense intended.

  2. Ed Rybicki

    Cameron: nice article! I remember being a young virology lecturer in the period when GRID became AIDS, and was found to be caused by HTLV III which became HIV-1 and then -2.

    Exciting times…and we’re still living through them! As a very minor point, I think you might have mentioned Max Essex, who effectively co-discovered the virus, but seems to have been forgotten?

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