U.S. to weigh French AIDS test claims

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Clinton administration officials have agreed to reopen discussions on an 8-year-old claim by a French research institute that U.S. scientists appropriated its discovery of the AIDS virus and its invention of the widely used AIDS blood test.

The willingness to consider the French claims was contained in a letter last week from Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, to his French counterpart, Dr. Maxime Schwartz, who heads the Pasteur Institute of Paris.


The letter, delivered last Thursday, represents an unexpected change from the position Dr. Varmus expressed only two weeks ago, when he urged Pasteur to cease its appeals for a larger share of royalties produced by the U.S. patent on the test for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The French are seeking to increase their share from $2 million to $4 million a year.

Dr. Varmus also appeared to open the door to revising the history of the discovery of the AIDS virus, telling Dr. Schwartz he was "entirely open to taking steps" toward a formal acknowledgment that the virus used by U.S. government scientists to develop the American AIDS test was the same one lent to them by Pasteur in 1983. As late as last Monday the U.S. position, according to a senior official of the Department of Health and Human Services, was that "the French knew what they were doing" when they agreed to settle the dispute in 1987 in return for a share of the patent royalties. HHS sources said Friday that position was no longer immutable.


The Chicago Tribune reported last week that a two-year investigation by the HHS inspector general's office had found no evidence to support the government's long-standing claim that the AIDS test was invented at the NIH.

Among other things, the patent examiner who granted HHS the 1985 patent on the test told investigators she would not have done so had she known French scientists already had developed such a test.

Pasteur lawyers said Friday that they had been granted a meeting with the HHS general counsel, Harriet Rabb, whom they have been trying to see for several months.

Dr. Varmus appeared to take yet another step toward the French position when he acknowledged to Dr. Schwartz that the French had developed an AIDS test independent of the one developed by NIH's AIDS researcher, Dr. Robert Gallo.