I arrived in Atlanta a day early to get oriented to what would become the pre-eminent annual convention of scientists, behavioral researchers, health education specialists, activists, and the media. Sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization, more than 2,000 participants had registered for the four-day event. Although the conference was a prestigious affair, President Ronald Reagan did not attend, as became the rule for heads of state at future international AIDS conferences. But then, four years had passed and 10,000 Americans were AIDS-infected and Reagan had still not voiced the word “AIDS.”
No one warned me about Atlanta at that time of the year. San Francisco has its shape-obliterating fog, but the Georgia city was thickly layered with pollen from surrounding pine, oak, and mulberry trees, and various grasses as well. I hadn’t suffered like this with the barrage of explosive sneezing, sniffling, soaked tissues, poor sleep and fatigue as I did with the Atlanta pollen.
I covered the Atlanta AIDS conference as a reporter for the LGBTQ newspaper Coming Up! in San Francisco. Afterwards I stitched together a national readership by syndicalizing my articles in other media that served New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix, Portland, and Oakland. I had worked the “AIDS beat” for nearly three years before I registered for the Atlanta conference. More importantly, I began collaborating in mid-1982 with Mark Feldman, one of the first 50 men in San Francisco diagnosed with AIDS. We began writing about his experience of having “the condition.” The stigma and pain, depression and defiance, the horrors, and the treasured calm periods of relief and joy. Mark Feldman was the first to coin the term “People with AIDS (PWA).” This became a fundamental aspect of his message; he wanted to counter the notion that those with the disease were “victims,” “helpless,” and to be pitied. Mark went on to become one of the best known PWA speakers in that early wave of AIDS in 1981-1985. He died of AIDS at age 31 on June 2, 1983. The experience of being present with Mark and loving him changed me in ways I try to understand fully even today.
I don’t know the backstory on why Atlanta was selected to host this stand-out AIDS conference, but the city had the Centers for Disease Control within its boundaries. The CDC connection was likely enough. The U.S. bid for sponsorship easily drew upon the prestige of the vast federal bureaucracy; including the CDC, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Those realms of scientific expertise included Robert Gallo, MD, the prominent virologist who misappropriated credit for being the first to identify the AIDS virus.
U.S. Scientist Takes Credit for French Discovery of AIDS Virus
For those unfamiliar with the scandal triggered by Robert Gallo’s lab, the episode was a dark period in the history of AIDS science. Gallo and his colleagues, purposefully or not, misidentified the virus sample shared with him by researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and called it their own. Drs. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier had already announced in May 1983 that they identified the AIDS virus which they named “Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus, LAV.” But wait, Gallo declared that he was the first in the world to identify the AIDS virus. He named it HTLV-3.
In reality he had “identified” the already discovered French LAV that had been shared with him. That was a mistake from the start; it risked cross-contamination. Almost a full year after the French announced in a medical journal their discovery of LAV, Gallo reported his own “discovery” of HTLV-3 in Science in May 1984. He failed to mention the earlier French finding. With high stakes of the Nobel Prize, worldwide fame, millions of dollars in revenue from sales of the eventual antibody test, and national pride, the U.S. government initially attributed sole discover to Gallo and, later at the Atlanta conference, to the “discoverers in France and the U.S.”
At the conference, Gallo advised his colleagues, “Science becomes debased when nationalism and chauvinism come with competition.”
First American to Independently Identify the AIDS Virus
Jay A. Levy, MD, University of California San Francisco Professor of Medicine and Director of the Laboratory for Tumor and AIDS Virus Research, deserves the honor and accolades for being the first American to independently identify the AIDS virus ((meaning he did so without having the French drop it on his laboratory bench). In early May 1984 Levy isolated what he named AIDS Associated Retrovirus, or ARV. Levy’s discovery ranks him as the second worldwide and the first American to discover the virus that caused the worst epidemic of illness and death in the 21st century. Granted that COVID-19 may soon claim that distinction).
Jay Levy’s ARV discovery was recognized at the 1985 Atlanta conference only in presentations and papers by himself or his team. He is among the most under-reported and under-appreciated of medical science pioneers. Jay Levy continues his lab work at UCSF today.
Quick Notes from the Atlanta Conference
· The lag time between AIDS infection and development of symptoms may be more like seven to ten years rather than the five years earlier believed.
· AIDS-infected individuals may remain capable of infecting others for several years after their initial exposure.
· One study suggested that closure of gay bathhouses may have little impact on the spread of AIDS. (San Francisco had ordered 14 such establishments to close in October 1984).
Viewing Note: These articles appear on my website, michaelhelquist.com, as part of my “Politics and Passions Blog” on the left side of the Home page.