Randy Shilts, 36, has covered AIDS for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1981. His current book, "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic" (St. Martin's Press, $24.95), is a chronological account of the disease's spread and a critical analysis of the medical, civic and social response to it. Shilts is interviewed by Washington medical writer. Q. One theme in your book is that early on, scientists knew the AIDS epidemic was much more serious than the public was being told. Why didn't they ring the alarm bells?

A. There was nobody who was willing to listen.

Q. But it seems that federal officials in the early days would publicly make very mild statements about AIDS while privately having much stronger viewpoints. Why the disparity?

A. CDC {the Centers for Disease Control} was worried that it would seem like they were shooting from the hip if they went public with all the things they were worried about and that their position would be undermined within the federal health bureaucracy. This gets to the extent of the competition and backbiting between all these federal agencies. The NCI {National Cancer Institute} hates the CDC, and NIAAD {the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases} hates the NCI. So they're always at each other's throats. . . . There should have been someone at the top who put his foot down and said CDC and NCI, you two guys get along because tens of thousands of Americans are going to be dead in a couple of years.

Q. Didn't this type of backbiting happen with other diseases, like swine flu?

A. People in the agencies say this happens all the time. That's the problem. What does not happen all the time is the invasion of a new infectious disease into the population. {The title of my book} "And the Band Played On" is simply a snappier way of saying "business as usual." Everyone responded with an ordinary pace to an extraordinary situation.

Q. In an article in The New Republic, Charles Krauthammer said there has been too much hyperbole around AIDS. His theory is that AIDS really isn't the most serious epidemic we've ever faced and that black death really was worse.

A. Back in the days when everyone died of infectious diseases. Compared to then, {AIDS} is not {worse}. But we expect to live better than people did in the 14th century.

Q. There's also a quote in the Krauthammer piece: "We've identified and isolated the offending organism, one of the fastest such discoveries in history."

A. That's the Reagan administration line. Indeed, it was one of the fastest discoveries. But what that ignores is that we don't live in the day of Leuwenhoek or Louis Pasteur. We've got the largest health and scientific bureaucracy in the history of mankind. And yes, it was fast, but this wasn't a race for newspaper headlines, it was a race against time. And the fact is we lost. The NIH {National Institutes of Health} dawdled, dragged their heels. It was almost two years into the epidemic before they even started looking.

In fact, this virus was not difficult to find. It did not take any laboratory longer than seven months to find this virus. The National Cancer Institute did not begin its search for the AIDS virus in earnest until April 11, 1983, and this is the account of the NCI chieftains themselves.

. . . I'm not some gay activist who's making wild assertions. What I show, again and again, is that at every step of this epidemic since 1981 the administration's own doctors and own experts were pleading for funds and the administration ignored them. Not only that, then they'd go public and tell everybody that they were giving the researchers all the resources they needed. Therefore, I think the policy of the Reagan administration on AIDS could be summed up in one sentence: They did the least they possibly could do and then they lied about it.

Q. There are a lot of villains in your book but also some heroes, such as a woman in CDC who tracks drug orders.

A. Here we have a GS-7, I believe, a drug technician named Sandra Ford, who was just a competent and thorough woman who starts seeing an unusual number of orders of pentamidine, a drug used to treat pneumocystis . . . She's able to first alert the CDC to the existence of an epidemic of pneumocystis . . . Or someone like Dr. Selma Dritz, who was assistant director of communicable diseases at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. She'd interview everyone in her quiet, methodical way, and then she started drawing little circles between patients and little arrows. She really helped alert the medical establishment and the CDC that this was a sexually transmitted disease.

Q. How has covering this story changed your approach to journalism?

A. It's just made me more committed. I think the media's shallow and superficial dealing with the policy aspects of this epidemic represents one of the darkest chapters of American journalism.

Q. You refer in the book to The Washington Post's "deplorable coverage of the politics of AIDS."

A. The Washington Post is still doing a very shallow job. I compare the coverage of AIDS to the Mississippi River. It has tremendous breadth and surface, but it has no depth. And The Washington Post, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, the national news magazines and the networks still are not doing anything resembling tough, adversarial, investigative reporting on this administration's AIDS policy.

Look, we've got the search for AIDS treatments -- that program is in a shambles. Nobody wants to report on it. Doctors are dying to talk about it and nobody cares . . . It astounds me, because within a few months, as many Americans will be dead or dying of AIDS as were killed in the Vietnam War. And by this time in the Vietnam War, every news organization in the country was tearing into and examining every part of the Vietnam policy. What's the difference? Well, it's who is dying. That's the common denominator of AIDS. It's prejudice.

Q. What has been the reaction to your book?

A. That's the great irony. Here I've done 630 pages of serious AIDS policy reporting with the premise that this disaster was allowed to happen because the media only focus on the glitzy and sensational aspects of the epidemic. My book breaks, not because of the serious public policy stories, but because of the rather minor story of Patient Zero.

Q. What about Gaetan {Gaetan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant who was dubbed Patient Zero because of his link to 40 of the first 248 AIDS cases in the U.S.}?

A. The Canadian press went crazy over that story. First it came out in the New York Post with war headlines, 100-point headlines, saying, "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS." Then the New York Daily News did "The Man Who Flew Too Much." So that broke the story in the East. It had been out in excerpt for three weeks in California magazine and no one had paid attention to it. It went all over on front pages in Canada, and Canadians . . . saw it as an offense to their nationhood.

Q. Is AIDS reporting what you're going to be doing for your life's work?

A. I don't know for my life's work. As a gay man, you just hope you're going to live a whole life.

Some people advise me you're going to pigeonhole yourself, be stereotyped as an AIDS reporter. Nobody would ever say that to me if I were reporting on a war that was killing this many people . . . For me this is not just a story that's happening to "those people." This is something that's killing and has killed people I care about . . . I've seen the dead bodies and they're people I know.