In 1981 a hitherto unknown syndrome appeared in the United States. First identified in men who have sex with men, this syndrome was subsequently seen among hemophiliacs receiving blood transfusions, injecting drug users, and Haitians. Transmission occurred through sexual contact or via contact with blood. The illness was designated as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
In 1983, Professor Luc Montagnier and his team of Professors Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Cherman, at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, identified the virus that caused the AIDS epidemic: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
In 1986, the epidemic had spread and was a major issue in France, where a few isolated teams were working on AIDS research, organization and development of which was in its infancy. On the urging of Inserm and its director Professor Philippe Lazar, the CNRS, and the Ministry of Research, the national IDS research program (PNRS) was set up in 1987 under the directorship of Professor Jean-Paul Lévy. The aim of this program was to catalog, support, and fund AIDS research in France.
In 1988, at the request of Claude Evin, the Minister for Health, Professor Claude Got conducted an audit of the fight against AIDS in France, with a view to advising the authorities on how to organize the response to the epidemic. The upshot was the creation of the French Agency for the Fight against AIDS (AFLS), the French National Agency for Research on AIDS (ANRS), and the French National AIDS Council (CNS). The remits of these three bodies were, respectively, patents, research, and ethical issues.
The ANRS, the French National Agency for Research on AIDS, was created in 1988 by the Ministry for Research and Technology, in the framework of the government plan for the fight against AIDS.
The ANRS's mission is to evaluate, stimulate, coordinate, and fund research on AIDS and on human retroviral infections, in collaboration with all organizations that participate in biological and medical research in France, in particular, the CNRS, Inserm, Institut Pasteur, universities, and hospitals.
Professor Jean-Paul Lévy was the director of the ANRS from 1988 to 1998. As he noted in 2013 in an article in The Lancet on the occasion of the 25 years of the ANRS, Professor Lévy wanted to make the ANRS more than an agency that funds research and above all one which initiates research projects. The philosophy of the ANRS at the beginning was to develop clinical research in France, and to promote and support innovative research projects. Coordinated actions were implemented for this purpose and were designed to encourage and stimulate interdisciplinary reflection, but also to coordinate research teams. "The ANRS was the only organization in France at the time that massively supported clinical trials and patient cohorts that recruited thousands of volunteers," explained Professor Jean Dormont, who was clinical trials director at the ANRS during those years and one of the scientific leaders upon whom the ANRS depended from the outset.
The other particularity of the agency is the link that was forged then, and which is still strong, between the fight against AIDS and patient groups, which have since the beginning been deeply involved in the scientific life of the ANRS and its defining of strategies.
In 1998, Professor Michel Kazatchkine succeeded Professor Jean-Paul Lévy as director of the ANRS. During his tenure, which ended in 2005, Professor Kazatchkine strove to develop research for the benefit of and in resource-limited countries. "From five projects a year in the decade 88-98, we increased to 20 a year in the following period," summarized Brigitte Bazin, who, from 1998 to 2017, headed the department for scientific research in resource-limited countries. The research supported by the ANRS in resource-limited countries is designed to underpin national public health policies. To build a genuine partnership, both political and scientific, the ANRS set up research centers in eight countries: Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Vietnam.
On 1 January 1999, the ANRS was entrusted with the organization and funding of clinical, therapeutic, and public health research into hepatitis C. Appointed director of the ANRS in 2005, Professor Jean-François Delfraissy developed viral hepatitis research and the agency was henceforth in charge of all research on viral hepatitis B and C, including basic research.
The participation of civil society and patient groups in the ANRS was heightened through a new goal: development of community-based research. Research in prevention gathered momentum, as did partnerships with international organizations.
The ANRS has been an autonomous agency within Inserm since 1 January 2012.
Professor François Dabis took over from Professor Jean-François Delfraissy as director of the ANRS in March 2017.