Federal health officials yesterday angrily denied a press report that they had dragged their feet in notifying doctors of a highly effective treatment for AIDS-related pneumonia.

A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times stated that the National Institutes of Health delayed from May to October this year in making public the benefits of using steroids to treat a type of pneumonia that is one of the leading killers of people with AIDS because the researchers could not agree on how to word their recommendation.

The story also said the scientists involved were afraid that announcing their finding would jeopardize their chances of having the data published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But AIDS researchers said yesterday that the account was riddled with inaccuracies and distortions.

"The idea that we had all the answers in May and suppressed them is completely factually incorrect," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute on Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

The question of how quickly new information about new therapies is made public by AIDS researchers is controversial because many AIDS advocates have felt that scientists have been reluctant to abandon the methodical pace of scientific protocol in the face of an epidemic as urgent as AIDS.

In the Times story, AIDS activists are quoted as calling researchers "murderers" because many AIDS patients died who could have been saved during the alleged delay in making the new findings public.

But NIH officials said that far from being suppressed, the news that steroids were a promising pneumonia treatment was publicized repeatedly: first at a major international conference in Houston a year ago; then in a paper presented at the international AIDS conference in San Francisco in June, which was reported in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times; then in a scientific article and editorial published in the widely circulated Annals of Internal Medicine July 1, and finally on July 13 at the NIH's regular AIDS clinical trials group conference in Bethesda.

NIH officials said the only delayed statement about steroids was the committee's final verdict on the drug, which took from May to August to hammer out because of difficult safety questions. For example, there is evidence that even as they battle pneumonia, steroids may deepen HIV infection in other parts of the body and cause life-threatening side effects that would negate the therapy's usefulness.

"There was not much consensus about exactly which populations should be treated, what steroid regimen ought to be used, what ought to be done about special populations and what the adverse effects were," said Henry Masur, chief of the critical-care department at the NIH Clinical Center. "Much of what went on {throughout the summer} was a reassessment of the data. . . . We wanted to be absolutely sure before we went out on a limb."

The New England Journal also issued a statement saying the Times erroneously reported that early release of the data would have jeopardized publication of the study. In fact, the magazine stated, it has a policy explicitly allowing such statements in AIDS-related research and had given permission to make this report public within two weeks of receiving the paper.

Nicholas Wade, Times science editor, defended the story, saying it was the scientists' interpretation of the Journal policy, rather than the policy itself, that led them to delay public notification.

Fauci said the committee wanted to submit the research to the Journal for review because of earlier criticism that AIDS recommendations from the NIH were not scrutinized adequately by outside experts.

"We're damned if we do, damned if we don't," Fauci said. "If we wait for peer review, we're 'delaying.' If we go ahead, we're 'reckless.' "