MSNBC brings us a reminder of a dark time in the history of the gay community. After three years of a new, unnamed plague that devastated people’s immune system, science finally began to understand the virus that caused AIDS. In a hastily called press conference Margaret Heckler, the Health and Human Services Secretary announced that the cause of AIDS had been discovered.
“First, the probable cause of AIDS has been found: a variant of a known human cancer virus. Second, not only has the agent been identified, but a new process has been developed to mass produce this virus. Thirdly, with the discovery of both the virus and this new process, we now have a blood test for AIDS. With a blood test, we can identify AIDS victims with essentially 100% certainty.”
That was Margaret Heckler, President Ronald Reagan’s Health and Human Services Secretary, rocking the world 30 years ago this morning. Her hastily arranged press conference was full of blunders—she jumped the gun by several weeks because of a press leak, claimed U.S. credit for what was partly a French discovery, misidentified the newly discovered virus, and predicted that a vaccine would be ready within two years (we still don’t have one). Yet the announcement had epochal impact. It revealed the source of what would soon become one of the worst plagues in human history, and it sparked scientific and social revolutions that are still playing out today.
Three years earlier, in the spring of 1981, a ghastly new disease had exploded in the gay communities of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It eviscerated people’s immune systems, allowing normally harmless pathogens to consume them. Though initially dismissed as a “gay plague,” it had begun killing hemophiliacs and injection drug users, as well as their partners and newborns, and it was spreading worldwide.
By isolating the culpable virus, and developing a reliable test for it, researchers had suddenly cleared a path from superstition to reason. Almost overnight, the discovery helped scientists explain how AIDS spread and how it did not. It enabled rich countries to secure their blood supplies and reduce hospital infections. And though science has yet to produce an effective vaccine, it has made the infection survivable. The first anti-HIV medication, a failed cancer drug called AZT, reached the market in 1986, and by 1996 a three-drug cocktail had turned a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition.