50 want to take AIDS virus in bid to create vaccine 'Guinea pigs' offer selves for experiment, saying research is too slow

September 25, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- It is a terrifying proposition: Inject yourself with a weakened AIDS virus in the hope it will become not the deadly disease, but create the vaccine for it.

At least 50 uninfected doctors and activists this week offered themselves up as human guinea pigs, largely to protest the glacial pace of vaccine research.

The risks are enormous. The science is unclear. And, should the government approve such a trial, it is almost certain that some of the volunteers will become ill with the human immunodeficiency virus, suffer and die.

But, with 8,000 people a day becoming infected with HIV -- most in countries with no access to life-saving drugs -- and no way to stop the global AIDS pandemic without a vaccine, that's a risk many volunteers say they are willing to take. They are meeting today with hesitant government officials and scientists to try to persuade them to approve the trial.

Among the volunteers are Dr. Bernard Hirschel, chairman of the 12th World AIDS Conference in Geneva, and Jose Zuniga, who was drummed out of the Army for acknowledging he is gay.

And then there is Helen Miramonter, a nurse at the University of California, San Francisco. Mother of six, two of whom are gay, and grandmother of 10. She is willing to put her life on the line.

"I'm 66, and a widow, so the decision was mine alone. I have lived a full and happy life. I hope to live a lot longer because I have a lot more work to do. But we've got young people, 15-year-olds, being infected every day," she said. "We're talking about wiping out whole societies of young people just beginning their productive life. I don't think people understand the profound effect of this epidemic."

The decision to volunteer came quickly. In the early fearful days of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, when people were unwilling to touch AIDS patients or breathe the same air, she volunteered to nurse them in intensive care units. Now she sits on the president's advisory council on HIV and AIDS.

That doesn't mean she is not without fear. She has spilled infected blood on herself. And she was one of the first to volunteer to test a then-unknown vaccine for hepatitis B, often a complication of the AIDS virus.

"It is terrifying for people, but this is just part of my responsibility, my role as a nurse," Miramonter said. "Maybe that sounds Pollyanna or Mother Teresa. I'm not. I just feel that committed. And I'm part of an older generation, one that believes it's your duty to turn around and take care of the next."

And the only way to do that with AIDS, is to risk human lives in a vaccine trial. "Even trial failures give us answers," she said. Even if she is that failure. "I'll have no regrets."

Although President Clinton in May called for a new "Manhattan Project" to develop an AIDS vaccine within 10 years, few companies are involved in developing one. And the AIDS virus is so complicated that most vaccine research only raises more questions.

"While we all laud the altruistic motives of the people who want to volunteer, from the perspective of the substantial safety issue raised, this is premature," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institutes of Health's AIDS section. "Ultimately, we may be at a point where we want to do that. But in September 1997, we're just not there."

But Dr. Charles Farthing, 44, a Los Angeles doctor who has cared for HIV and AIDS patients with increasing frustration, disagrees. It was he who began calling for human volunteers last month -- and volunteered himself -- to spotlight what he calls "timidity" in the scientific community.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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