How the first HIV case was uncovered

Written by By Azad Zahid, CNN

The first known case of HIV reported in the late 1980s came from China and India, not from the US, a new study suggests.

The record-breaking study was published on April 22 in the journal Cell Reports, and by combining DNA and protein samples and matching them up to clinical and phylogenetic data, a renowned Arizona biochemistry professor says that rather than conducting a mass testing program of thousands, a team of researchers found the case in an examination of a vendor in the Chinese wet market city of Wuhan.

“What was surprising is that so early on, almost half a century ago, our DNA and protein source test supported the conclusion that the case was not from the US but from Wuhan,” said co-author Philip Mehmet of the department of microbiology at Arizona State University’s Foltz College of Medicine.

Dr. Philip Mehmet is a professor of microbiology at Arizona State University. Credit: Courtesy Arizona State University

“This is a second kind of evidence that has emerged from the population from Wuhan, and it’s very interesting that such a thing has never come up before. From a layman’s perspective it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a lot of medical coverage or scientific coverage of the fact that the first case came from the Wuhan area.

“It’s really a phenomenon that’s very much underreported and we felt that this was very interesting to tell.”

The finding challenges the conclusions of a World Health Organization study, which was published in 1991 and concluded that an HIV epidemic had begun to emerge in the mid-1970s. In their paper, the authors of the first study write that this event led to widespread changes in economic, political and scientific paradigms regarding how and when HIV was allowed to evolve into full-blown AIDS.

Dr. Philip Mehmet says that rather than conducting a mass testing program of thousands, a team of researchers found the case in an examination of a vendor in the Chinese wet market city of Wuhan. Credit: Courtesy Arizona State University

According to the second study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 1991, an HIV epidemic in Singapore and the US became the subject of much scientific attention and speculation in the decade following.

“The issue is the identification of a number of individuals in the New York metropolitan area as having AIDS, although it was not confirmed by an autopsy or DNA, it was in fact a case that most people would argue should have been called AIDS,” said co-author Reema Kapoor of ASU.

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