The good news (if one can use that term with regard to a disease that is at once incurable and deadly) is that the spread of AIDS has slowed down, even among homosexual men, that it no longer threatens to "break out" in any major way into the heterosexual community and that there are promising treatments (though no cures) in the research pipeline.

The bad news is that this modest progress, by isolating promiscuous gays and black and Hispanic intravenous drug abusers as the groups chiefly at risk of infection, threatens to reduce public concern -- and perhaps public funding -- for AIDS research.

Top officials of the Department of Health and Human Services talked to a small group of reporters on the state of AIDS progress at a Tuesday morning breakfast meeting.

The officials -- Secretary Otis R. Bowen, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Dr. Peter Fischinger, the department's AIDS coordinator -- didn't imagine that they were offering any startling news. Indeed, Bowen went out of his way to make clear that he didn't consider the meeting a briefing, since he had no real information to report, and that he wasn't expecting any headlines. It was simply another of a series of meetings in observance of AIDS Awareness and Prevention Month.

Still, what they reported could have far-reaching and unintended consequences.

AIDS in America has been primarily a disease of male homosexuals. But without suggesting for a moment that the federal government is indifferent to the life-and-death interests of homosexuals, it seems likely that one reason for the major increase in AIDS research funding was the fear that the disease was leaching into the general population and was due for a potentially catastrophic "breakout."

That fear may soon abate. Koop, who once estimated that by 1990, some 10 percent of AIDS victims would be heterosexuals -- a 20-fold increase -- said this week that "it does not appear there will be a heterosexual explosion."

In addition, he said, "Not many new people are coming into the picture from the homosexual community, and indeed for the first time, surveillance done by the Centers for Disease Control and the city of San Francisco {reveals that} the incidence of new cases among homosexuals dropped in September.

"The bottom line is that if you are going to contain AIDS in the United States, you've got to contain IV drug abuse."

Secretary Bowen may have been a bit out of date when he reflected the earlier fear. "AIDS may have started out as a male homosexual problem," he said, "but that is shifting as the homosexual population responds to information {regarding 'safe sex'}. What's happening now is that a prostitute will give the infection to a male, the male will go back home and give it to his wife, and his wife will bear a child with the disease."

That happens, of course, but probably not as frequently as was once feared, according to an impressively researched article in the November issue of Commentary magazine. Indeed, says the author, Michael A. Fumento, not counting pregnant mothers who pass the disease to their unborn children, tertiary heterosexual transmission of AIDS of the sort described by Bowen is, "isolated incidents aside, simply . . . not happening."

The simple fact is that the overwhelming means by which AIDS is transmitted are through blood exchanges (transfusions, shared needles, etc.) and anal intercourse (condoms help, but offer no guarantee of safety). With greatly improved techniques for screening donated blood, the two groups remaining greatly at risk are homosexual men and intravenous drug abusers, disproportionately black and Hispanic.

Will that fact reduce public sympathy, and therefore public funding, for AIDS sufferers? Koop hopes not. Funding is not in the direct control of the public, he suggests, but sympathy is.

"There are people in hospitals who have no visitors, who never see the sky except through hospital windows; people at home who need help in bringing the groceries in."

AIDS, Koop reminds, is not transmitted through casual contact. You don't get it by holding out a helping hand.