Random, anonymous blood testing for the AIDS virus could begin in the District as early as next month, Dr. Reed Tuckson, D.C. Commissioner of Public Health, said in an interview last week.

The program, which is currently under review by city attorneys, is intended to give public health officials their first direct measure of how widely the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome has spread among the citizens of Washington.

Although fewer than 800 cases of AIDS have been reported in the city, public health officials believe many more people have been infected with the virus and unknowingly may be spreading it to others. It can take years from the time of infection until any signs of AIDS appear.

The study would reveal how extensively the virus has spread and help officials plan strategies to contain it.

"I can't do my job well if I don't know how the virus is moving," Tuckson said. "You don't have to test everybody in a city." A statistically accurate sampling of various population groups can provide a clear picture, he said.

The groups to be targeted, he said, include homosexual men, women of childbearing age, intravenous drug users and prison inmates.

Under the plan, blood drawn for other medical reasons at the city's public health clinics, hospitals, drug rehabilitation centers and other locations would be tested for evidence of AIDS virus infection. Patients would not be told that their blood was being tested for AIDS. Nor would health officials know from whom individual blood samples had been taken. This would ensure the confidentiality of the patients but also make it impossible to notify infected individuals.

Details of just how the tests would be carried out -- and how many people would be sampled -- have yet to be worked out, Tuckson said. He also acknowledged that such a plan is bound to be controversial, especially because those who tested positive for antibodies to the virus would not be informed.

Some experts have argued that there is little personal benefit in knowing an infection has occurred since there is no cure for AIDS. Others say infected individuals should know, if only so they avoid infecting others. In addition, studies are under way to determine whether AZT, the only drug currently in widespread use to treat AIDS patients, can delay or prevent the onset of AIDS in symptom-free carriers.

Tuckson said the proposal is now being analyzed by the district's lawyers. "They're looking at whether I can do these tests in a blinded way without informed consent," he said.

The testing program, Tuckson said, will be "a scientific, limited study that just tells me the prevalence of the virus in the population so I can track it."

Tuckson said he would not discuss details of the plan "because this is something I just want to start to do without alarming anyone."

He said he was not planning to make any public announcements about the program. "I'll just do it. Quietly, behind the scenes."

While Tuckson believes the virus has spread widely, he admits that no one really knows how prevalent the infection is. If it has not spread widely, "I will tell {District residents} . . . that we need to now do everything in our power to make sure that {the AIDS virus} doesn't get any more widely spread."

For those seeking an AIDS test on their own to determine whether they are infected, Tuckson said: "If you test positive for the virus . . . you now have a moral and ethical responsibility to not be promiscuous, and if you ever do, by God, use a condom. If you're negative for the virus, you are the luckiest person that ever lived. You've escaped. Now whatever you do, don't ever take another chance."