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AIDS Action Weekly Update

December 13, 1996

Welcome to AIDS Action Council's Weekly Washington Update, an on-line newsletter for Handsnet subscribers that reviews what is happening in Washington on AIDS policy issues each week. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact us at the e-mail address listed below.


Recently appointed Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chair, James Jeffords (R-VT), announced Thursday, December 12, that two new subcommittees of his committee will be formed in the 105th Congress. One of the new subcommittees will handle labor and training issues and the other will have jurisdiction over public health and safety. In the past all health care issues have been considered at the full committee level, and in the 105th Congress health care reform issues relating to costs, access, and the Food and Drug Administration will continue to be addressed at the full committee level. AIDS advocates and other health care advocates were concerned about the possible appointment of Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) to chair the new Public Health and Safety Subcommittee as his conservative approach contrasts with progressive public health policy. It appears, however, that Senator Coats will remain in his post as chair of the Children and Families Subcommittee. Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), a medical doctor, is a possible candidate to chair the new public health and safety subpanel. The fate of the remaining subcommittees, Aging; Children and Families; Disability Policy; and Education, Arts and Humanities is unclear at this point.

Also on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-MA), announced that his top health priority in the 105th Congress is to extend health insurance coverage to millions of children in the United States who are currently uninsured. Senator Kennedy also stated that he hopes to continue the bipartisan cooperative relationship with Senator Jeffords that he had established with former Chair of the Labor and Human Resources Committee Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-KS).


The results of the run-off elections in Texas earlier this week resulted in a net gain of nine seats for House Democrats from the 104th to the 105th Congress. Representative Ken Bensten (D-TX) defeated pro-abortion opponent Dolly Madison McKenna to regain his seat in the House. Other victors in the December 10 election are Kevin Brady (R-TX), described as a moderate, and Nick Lampson (D-TX). The ratio of Republicans to Democrats for the 105th Congress in the House of Representatives is 227-207, with one Independent, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who usually votes with the Democrats. The nine-seat gain creates the largest House minority in 40 years.


A panel of experts has declared to National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Harold Varmus, that a controversial study dealing with needle exchange programs is not unethical and should go forward. Existing needle exchange program studies involve provision of sterile needles to intravenous drug users to reduce the transmission rates of HIV and other blood-borne diseases among this population. The study in question would randomly assign drug users to two groups, one with access to needle exchange programs and one without. Critics, protesting that the study will put half of the study participants at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases, have asked that funding for the study be revoked, and the December 1 start date was postponed while the criticisms were investigated. Robert Levine, a Yale University medical professor and chair of the panel which released a report earlier this year evaluating AIDS research at the NIH, concluded in a 17-page report that the study was indeed ethical and would not withhold treatment from drug users because they would have access to syringes sold inexpensively at pharmacies. Varmus has stated that he will make a final decision next week on whether to proceed with the study.

Currently there exists a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs until proven that they reduce disease transmission and do not encourage illegal drug use. Existing needle exchange programs operating in the United States, which are funded through local public and private dollars, report very high success rates in reducing the spread of HIV. Many of these programs also provide participants access to drug treatment programs. The Senate has mandated a study to be done by the Department of Health and Human Services due in February of 1997 to examine this issue more carefully.


Nobel prize winner David Baltimore was appointed head of AIDS vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week. Baltimore, a researcher with experience in virology, molecular biology, and immunology, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is expected to "jump-start efforts to create AIDS vaccines." At present none of the more than 15 candidate vaccines being tested has shown enough promise for efficacy trials. The appointment of Baltimore responds to one of the criticisms regarding the research efforts of the NIH on AIDS vaccines, outlined in the Levine Report which recommended recruitment of new scientists, particularly immunologists. Baltimore will be expected to work with Congress and regulatory agencies to generate interest from pharmaceutical companies in developing a vaccine. A new report from the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition found that companies have lost interest in AIDS vaccines because "research costs are high, the scientific mystery is deep, and the risks of legal liability are severe."

For more information contact:
Lisa White
AIDS Action Council
1875 Connecticut Ave., NW Suite 700
Washington, DC 20009

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This article was provided by AIDS Action Council. It is a part of the publication AIDS Action Weekly Update.