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By early 1984, the Reagan adminis-
tration had spent three years being
accused of inaction on AIDS—ever
since the Centers for Disease Control first
began tracking cases. Now the adminis-
tration was keen to trumpet its progress.
To have heard Margaret Heckler tell it at
her April 23 news conference, it was all over
but the shouting. Only a year earlier, said
the secretary of health and human services,
she had “made the conquest of AIDS the
federal government’s number-one priority.”
And now not only had the “probable cause”
of acquired immune deficiency syndrome
been found; it had also become possible—
thanks to a newly developed blood test—to
identify AIDS victims and AIDS-tainted
blood “with essentially 100 percent cer-
tainty.” And to top this dazzling array of
accomplishments, Heckler announced that a
preventive vaccine should be “ready for test-
ing in approximately two years.”
Science journalist Judith Randal, in a
column for TR, had her doubts:
Not so fast, madam secretary. The truth
is that the cause of AIDS may or may not
have been found. And there is no evidence
that anything discovered to date will make
a dime’s worth of difference to people who
already have AIDS or get it in the next few
years. Even the blood test is not yet a fait
accompli. And as for the vaccine, only the
wildest of optimists expect it to be a reality
before the end of the decade.
Heckler was right about research-
ers’ having identified the cause of AIDS,
but that was far from clear at the time.
National Institutes of Health researcher
Robert Gallo had identified a virus that
he called HTLV-III, and a French group
led by Luc Montagnier had found one
dubbed LAV a year earlier. They were the
same virus (it was renamed HIV in 1986),
but the competing claims would not be
sorted out until 1987, when the research-
ers grudgingly shared credit—and royal-
ties on the patent for the blood test, which
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
approved in 1985.
Meanwhile, as Randal pointed out,
Heckler’s predictions about a vac-
cine were wildly overoptimistic, mostly
because of the nature of the viruses that
researchers were focusing on.
Although we don’t know precisely which
virus is responsible for AIDS, scientists are
fairly certain that the disease involves a spe-
cial class of viruses, known as retroviruses
(to which both HTLV-III and LAV belong).
The genes of most viruses are made of DNA,
which then makes RNA. But in retroviruses
the reverse occurs, and the genes are made of
RNA, which then makes DNA.
Making a vaccine for a virus—let alone a
retrovirus—is difficult and time consuming.
The virus must be grown in laboratory cul-
ture and used intact to make a product that
will generate antibodies, the molecules in the
body’s immune system that attack foreign
substances. To make sure the vaccine won’t
cause the disease, weakened or dead strains
of the virus must be developed. ...
Once (and if) that is accomplished, animal
tests must then be conducted to show that the
AIDS virus actually causes the disease, and
that the vaccine is capable of safely neutral-
izing it. Human field trials are also required
before the vaccine can be widely used. All this
suggests that an AIDS vaccine is probably
six to eight years away ... .
Obviously, Randal was being overly
optimistic about a vaccine herself. But
she advocated trying to help those
already affected, an approach that many
researchers take today (see “Can AIDS Be
Cured?” p. 44).
In the meantime, no one is known to have
recovered from AIDS, and the problem is not
going away. The number of cases contin-
ues to double about every six months, and
because the incubation period is so long, a lot
more cases are certainly in the pipeline. Since
more than 4,600 AIDS patients have been
diagnosed in the United States alone, that
means there could well be 100,000 or more in
this country before the end of the decade.
Granted, treatment may very well have
improved by that time. But this, too, is
unpredictable. A year ago researchers held
great hope for one type of interferon as well
as a drug called interleukin two. However,
neither medication is panning out. With a
disease as complex as this one, the light at the
end of the tunnel has a nasty habit of flicker-
ing brightly and then going dim.
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26 years ago in tr
The Long Fight Ahead
When researchers Found the
cause oF aids in the early ’80s,
their Work had only just begun
By MATT MAHONey
s loW burn In 1984, some thought an
AIDS vaccine was only a few years away.
July10 YearsAgo 88
6/3/10 10:14:34 AM
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