On May 20, 1983, a team from the Institut Pasteur reported in the US scientific magazine “Science” on the isolation of a new virus that causes the AIDS symptoms. Determining the pathogen was the decisive step in the fight against the immune deficiency disease, from which more than 40 million people have died to date.
The new virus “could be involved in several disease syndromes, including AIDS,” the discoverers Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, Jean-Claude Chermann and Luc Montagnier formulated cautiously at the time. AIDS research was still in its infancy, and the disease seemed mysterious.
Two years earlier, doctors in the United States had reported an increase in rare diseases among homosexuals. The doctors puzzled why infections that otherwise only occurred in very weak people suddenly hit healthy young men. Research teams in different parts of the world set about investigating the exact cause of the life-threatening disease.
Some suspected it was a retrovirus, including Robert Gallo, the leading US expert on this family of cancer-causing viruses. In Paris, the Viral Oncology Laboratory headed by Luc Montagnier conducted research at the Pasteur Institute; there, on January 3, 1983, the examination of a sample from the lymph nodes of an AIDS patient began.
“When it got dark, I got to work,” said Montagnier, who died in 2022, in his book “Of Viruses and People,” describing the beginning of the research into the causes. Eventually, along with his colleagues Barre-Sinoussi and Chermann, he discovered a new retrovirus they named LAV. “But we still had no certainty that it was the cause of AIDS,” says Barre-Sinoussi. During 1983, however, they came to the conclusion that they had indeed found the AIDS virus. In September 1983, they presented their data to a handful of experts, including Gallo.
The research results were initially met with great scepticism. “For a year we knew we had the right virus,” Montagnier said 30 years later. “But nobody believed us.” Finally, in April 1984, the US government announced that retrovirus specialist Gallo had discovered the AIDS pathogen. This ultimately turned out to be the same virus that had been isolated in Paris, and in 1986 it was given the name HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
France and the United States disputed the authorship of the discovery. It was not only about the scientific honor, but also about income from the test procedure based on the discovery. In 1987, France and the United States agreed to designate Montagnier and Gallo as “co-discoverers” of the virus. In 2008, however, only Montagnier and his colleague Barre-Sinoussi were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their breakthrough, Gallo received nothing.