LOS ANGELES: Inquiry Finds AIDS Study Doesn’t Target Poor Blacks
The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has concluded that a National Institutes of Health-funded county HIV testing program "does not single out poor African Americans for tests from which they might contract AIDS," the Los Angeles Times reports. The study's purpose is to identify subjects for a period of extended monitoring and counseling which may eventually "lay the groundwork for testing future AIDS vaccines," county investigators and NIH officials say. The subjects, some "600 gay men who are black, Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander, as well as 200 heterosexual women ... at high risk of acquiring the AIDS virus through sexual or other habits," will be studied across a period of several years. Those subjects "who acquire the AIDS virus will be compared with those who didn't, to see how their lifestyles differed." Officials said that some of the subjects might be asked to participate "in some future vaccine trial, when and if the federal government determines that human test subjects are needed in Los Angeles." However, "all test subjects would have to be fully informed of any risks they might incur."
Not Guinea Pigs
The department's findings are intended to assuage County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's concern, expressed last week, that her constituents in two public housing projects in Watts were "at risk of being unwittingly drawn into a secretive, federally financed program to test AIDS vaccines." Burke had compared this prospect to "one of the most notorious racial injustices in American history" -- 1930s experiments in Tuskegee, AL, in which Southern blacks were allowed to develop end-stage syphilis so that scientists could covertly study the progression of that disease. Dr. Peter Kerndt of the L.A. County Health Department and County-USC Medical Center, who is responsible for identifying and monitoring the study subjects for the NIH, pledged that "if the community felt that this project was inappropriate or harmful" he would end it. The Times reports that an NIH emissary will be traveling to Los Angeles next week to "allay the South Los Angeles community's concerns about the study."
"[W]hile health officials say there is no reason to be concerned that anyone may contract AIDS in the course of such a study," there were "serious questions raised about Kerndt's conduct of the research project." The investigation found that Kerndt "failed to obtain the permission of -- or even notify -- his superiors before committing public resources to a federal research project." They also said that his application for the project "implied that the research would be done under the auspices of the county health department," when "Kerndt was acting on behalf of a nonprofit consortium of doctors affiliated with County-USC Medical Center, where he also teaches." County Supervisor Burke said that the "project should have been cleared by both Health Services Director Mark Finucane and the Board of Supervisors." However, Kerndt said that "he has taken great pains to involve the community in all phases of the project." In addition, an NIH official noted the "most local public health agencies traditionally set up" nonprofit organizations "to conduct research studies for NIH" (Meyer, 1/30).