It’s been 30 years since scientists announced the cause of AIDS: a shifty retrovirus that would come to be known as HIV.
More than 1,750 Americans had already died from the rare infections and cancers caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, health officials said at the time, and another 2,300 people were living with AIDS.
“The probable cause of AIDS has been found,” Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler said in the April 23, 1984 press conference alongside scientist Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute. “Not only has the agent been identified but a new process has been developed to mass produce this virus.”
The new process led to a blood test that could “identify AIDS victims with 100 percent certainty,” Heckler said. At least 80 Americans had already died from HIV-tainted blood transfusions since AIDS cases emerged in 1981.
The ability to produce large quantities of the virus also raised hopes for a vaccine, which government officials said could take at least two years to design.
“If a man thinks that he has eight months to a year to live and you tell him that it’s going to be two or three years before the vaccine comes out, you know, it doesn’t give him a hell of a lot to hold onto,” Bob Cecchi, assistant director of the New York City-based organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said at the time.
Researchers today are still trying to find a vaccine to prevent HIV, but advances in treating the infection have led to a steep decline in AIDS deaths. An estimated 1,148,200 Americans are living with HIV, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, more than 636,000 Americans had died from AIDS since 1981.