Senior federal health officials said yesterday that they remain uncertain about the extent of AIDS infection in the United States and renewed an attempt to gather more comprehensive data.
Speaking at a White House news conference, Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen said the most recent evidence indicates that, consistent with earlier predictions, about 1 million to 1.5 million Americans carry the HIV virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
But Bowen and retired admiral James D. Watkins, chairman of the presidential AIDS commission, which released a preliminary report yesterday, said that those numbers are rough estimates and that researchers need to know far more about the number of those infected. Watkins said his panel would examine the implications of the number.
Since June 1986, the Public Health Service has estimated that as many as 1.5 million Americans were infected with the virus, a number disputed as high or low by critics.
The public-policy implications of knowing how many people are infected have resulted in increasing pressure to provide firmer numbers. If fewer people become ill with AIDS, the government is considered less likely to shoulder added costs for treatment.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has experienced great difficulty in creating a testing strategy that would accurately reflect the number of Americans carrying the virus, in part because many people have said they would not participate.
In their report yesterday, CDC officials said more information is essential in order to understand the disease and devise better policies to treat and prevent it.
"The estimation of the total number of persons infected will remain complex and inexact," the report said, adding that the numbers of those infected could range between 420,000 and 1,649,000.
"Procedures that produce such a wide range of results from the same data indicate . . . either insufficient data or insufficient models or both," the report said.
The need for a national survey has been hotly debated within the Public Health Service for more than a year, when CDC officials first assured President Reagan that they could do one. Since then, CDC officials have encountered such a hostile response to the idea of a survey that many CDC researchers have expressed doubt that one can be completed successfully.
Dr. James O. Mason, CDC director, said the agency would continue with its plan to conduct random anonymous tests in 30 cities, 20 of which are in high-risk areas for AIDS. In addition, three cities will be selected as prototypes for more comprehensive surveillance studies.
The need for better AIDS surveillance was echoed by Watkins, who said his panel will address the issue within the next month.
Watkins, a former chief of naval operations, is scheduled to appear today before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee examining the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which governs such presidential commissions.
Last month, committee Chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio) asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the AIDS panel, which is the subject of a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court here.
A coalition of public-interest groups filed suit against the commission last month, charging that it lacks ideological balance and members directly affected by AIDS.
Since Reagan appointed the panel last July, it has lost a staff director, and its former chairman and vice chairman resigned, citing infighting and ideological differences.
A GAO official is scheduled to testify at today's hearing, but congressional sources said the probe had not uncovered "anything significant."
Much of the panel's 25-page report summarizes meetings and testimony from 200 witnesses who have appeared before the panel, which is charged with advising the president about the legal, ethical, moral, economic, social and medical implications of AIDS.
Watkins said the panel, which is to meet twice a month, will immediately focus on four issues: insufficient data about the extent of the AIDS infection, need for home health care, drug development and lack of programs for intravenous drug users.
The commission's final report is due in June, and Watkins said the panel plans an interim report in February.
Officials of civil liberties and homosexual rights groups who have criticized the panel said the report "contained no surprises."