About 1,000 AIDS activists massed yesterday at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, demonstrating for more than four hours for increased testing of new drugs and more attention to women, children, minorities and intravenous drug users with AIDS.
Police arrested 82 protesters, including 21 who staged a sit-in at the Rockville office of a top-ranking NIH official and refused to leave when ordered. More than 200 police officers wearing gloves and riot helmets barred the crowds from entering several buildings on the NIH campus off Rockville Pike. No serious injuries or property damage was reported by authorities during the noisy but peaceful demonstration.
Carrying placards that read "We're Fired Up" and "Red Tape Kills Us," marchers walked from the Bethesda Medical Center Metro stop toward the main NIH administration building about 7:30 a.m. As curious workers stared down from windows, the protesters performed skits, erected a mock graveyard and chanted "Storm the NIH" and "Shame, Shame, We Die, They Do Nothing."
"We want NIH to know we don't want AIDS research to be business as usual," said Matthew Burns, spokesman for ACT-UP, a national AIDS advocacy group based in New York that organized yesterday's demonstration. "The government must test other drugs besides AZT."
At a news conference after yesterday's demonstration, NIH officials criticized ACT-UP and its complaints against the agency. "We deeply sympathize with the pain, fears and frustration of the demonstrators," said William F. Raub, acting director of NIH. "But they are sadly misinformed about NIH actions."
Yesterday's protest was the latest in an increasingly emotional effort by AIDS activists to influence the way in which AIDS drugs are researched, tested and approved by the federal government. Despite recent successes, such as securing AIDS patients access to experimental drugs before safety and efficacy tests are completed, many AIDS groups remain unhappy with the government's current strategy.
Last week, a coalition of 25 national AIDS and health organizations called for increased NIH research funding and more development of drugs to treat opportunistic infections and diseases that inflict AIDS sufferers.
Nearly 10 percent of NIH's $7.9 billion budget is spent on AIDS research, which has made unprecedented progress in fighting the disease, said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the AIDS research arm at NIH.
Fauci called yesterday's protest an inconvenience that could undermine the morale of federal AIDS researchers. "It was interesting theater," Fauci said of the march, "but it was not helpful."
Institute officials said the reason more experimental drugs for treating the AIDS virus are not being tested is that very few promising antiviral drugs have emerged from clinical research.
But Jim Jensen, who has been diagnosed as HIV-positive, said research must be stepped up. "We're at the same level we were five years ago," said Jensen, who had a portable intravenous unit. Jensen said he was accepted recently for a three-week experimental AIDS testing program at NIH.
New York resident Kate Tosswill, whose face was wrapped in surgical gauze, said 12,000 "invisible" women are dying of AIDS. "Women are being ignored by the medical community," said Tosswill. "Women get different diseases from AIDS than children or others."
The protesters, from as far away as Oregon, Canada and Puerto Rico, came by bus and plane to the demonstration. A contingent of about 180 students arrived from Oberlin College in Ohio. "We don't want to be silent about AIDS any longer," said junior Kevin McLaughlin. "This disease is affecting students too."
Bob Berry, an NIH budget officer who watched the protest, said, "I think they're at the wrong place. They need to direct their concerns to Congress. We have been directing the money where Congress tells us. The people at NIH are pretty much sympathetic to their cause."
AIDS sufferers in rural communities in the Midwest and South are being ignored in experimental drug tests, marchers said. "People in Kansas are dying of AIDS and no one is doing anything," said Ruth Lichtwandt of Lawrence, Kan.
"The big cities are getting most of the money and research grants," said Orlando resident Alfredo Martinez-Garcia. "Little places are left out in the cold."
But Fauci said the institute is trying to serve smaller communities, noting that the agency recently set up experimental drug treatments in 18 rural areas.
Police began making arrests about 8:45 a.m. when a protester leaped onto the roof of a building.
Of the 82 people arrested, all except one were charged with trespassing and have the option of paying a $50 fine or requesting a court hearing, police said. One protester was charged with resisting arrest. All have been released.
As demonstrators boarded buses for their trip home, many said they felt the protest had raised public awareness of the plight of people with AIDS. "Time is running out for us," said Candido Negron, 27, of Puerto Rico. "I've lost more friends than my parents -- and they're twice my age."