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NIH Head Vows He'll Follow Panel's Advice on Research to Produce a Vaccine for AIDS Virus

By Laurie Garrett

Saying he will "move quickly to implement sweeping reforms in the nation's $1.4 billion AIDS research," the director of the National Institutes of Health vowed Thursday to follow the controversial recommendations of a panel that has sharply criticized the agency's AIDS efforts.

That committee, established by the NIH's own Office of AIDS Research, concluded that the drive to find vaccines, treatments and cures for AIDS has been stymied by the diversion of tens of millions of dollars to non-AIDS research, as well as by mismanagement and the NIH's failure to adequately fund the most crucial areas of scientific investigation.

Implementing the many recommendations of the panel's report, which was officially released Thursday, will entail shifting millions of dollars, personnel and other resources away from some research areas to others.

And that will be difficult, Dr. Harold Varmus, the NIH's director, conceded in a news conference, because some powerful administrators and scientists in the 24 health institutes that comprise the NIH will be required to give up funds, personnel and lab space, losing clout in the process.

"We can't expect the same time course for response and implementation of every one of the (14 committee) recommendations," Varmus said. "Some things, such as structural changes inside the institutes, will take longer but we believe there is room for some course correction even in 1996.

"People will have to live with whatever changes are made," Varmus warned.

Dr. William Paul, director of the Office of AIDS Research, announced that he would immediately act on one of the report's primary recommendations - shifting funds from staff scientists at NIH to scientists working in universities and research institutes around the country. Paul said he will channel his office's full $10 million discretionary fund to such efforts.

The committee recommended more sweeping changes as well, including a complete overhaul of the nation's AIDS vaccine effort and an end to funding of non-AIDS research with money Congress designated for AIDS.

Paul and Varmus said that, over the next two weeks, they will meet with all 24 institute directors, starting the needed negotiations.

The committee that made the recommendations was led by Princeton biologist Arnold Levine, who Thursday conceded that implementation of its recommendations "will create a certain amount of friction." He urged a cautious, go-slow approach.

But AIDS activists and many scientists working outside the National Institutes are in no mood to be patient.

The New York City-based Treatment Action Group, for example, issued a statement calling for all NIH institute directors to agree on a plan within three months.

"I think we (activists) have to start meeting with the institute directors immediately," the group's Mark Harrington said in an interview.

"It's critical that we quickly agree and move forward," said Jane Silver, Washington lobbyist for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "There's no time for pointing fingers."

But Silver did criticize Congress, where the issue has become a partisan one.