Vice President George Bush defended President Reagan’s AIDS antibody testing proposals Monday, saying “it is the responsibility of the political leadership to decide among competing principles.”
Bush was booed and hissed by some in the audience when he discussed the testing proposals and later was heard to remark: “Who was that--some gay group out there?”
Opening the third annual international conference on AIDS, the vice president acknowledged that testing for infection with the AIDS virus “puts in conflict the need for more information and knowledge to benefit the majority versus our basic constitutional right to privacy.” But he declared that “ultimately we must protect those who do not have this disease.”
Calls for Confidentiality
Unlike the President, who also was booed Sunday night, Bush called for confidentiality of test records and urged that “help be available to those who test positive.”
“Any mention of testing must be hurriedly followed by the word ‘confidentiality,’ ” Bush said. “If society feels compelled, in some circumstances, to test its citizens, then it is absolutely imperative that those records are kept appropriately confidential.”
At the conference’s opening scientific session later in the day, Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute reported the discovery in Nigeria of a new virus, as-yet unnamed, that causes some symptoms similar to AIDS but is different from the known AIDS virus variants.
The new virus appears to be somewhat less dangerous than the original AIDS virus, and it has been found in the blood of 10 Nigerian AIDS patients, according to Gallo, a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus.
An Encouraging Sign
But he said the discovery of the new virus should not be seen as an ill omen. “That we have the capacity to find others in an earlier stage should be encouraging, not discouraging,” Gallo said.
The new virus is the third type of AIDS virus to be identified. The original virus is now called human immunodeficiency virus type I, or HIV-1. A second virus, designated HIV-2, has been identified in West Africa, but it seems less likely to cause AIDS than HIV-1, Gallo said.
Reagan, in his Sunday night speech before the American Foundation for AIDS Research, drew boos and hisses when he called for greatly expanded “routine” testing and urged the states to offer testing for couples applying for marriage licenses and to those seeking treatment in drug abuse and sexually transmitted disease clinics.
Reagan did not advocate stronger statutes to protect confidentiality of test results or to prohibit discrimination against infected or ill individuals. Nor did he discuss the need for comprehensive counseling to accompany the testing procedure. Health officials regard such counseling as vital in containing the AIDS epidemic and in alleviating the anxiety of those who take the test.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Monday that “it’s obvious that (confidentiality) is one of the issues we want to emphasize.” He added: “Confidentiality is a very important and crucial factor.”
Reaction to Bush
Bush’s reference to gay groups as the possible source of the boos was made to Dr. Robert E. Windom, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department. He made the remark as he concluded his speech and sat down. Windom later claimed that he did not hear what Bush said “over the noise,” adding: “I wouldn’t know how to react to that reaction of his.”
But officials from gay rights groups reacted angrily to Bush’s comment.
“Bush’s aside is a metaphor for the entire posture of the Administration on AIDS,” said Thomas Stoddard, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. “What they say before the cameras is totally different from what they say under their breath.”
Also on Monday, Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.) asked Reagan at the conclusion of a bill-signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden: “You didn’t hear any boos in this crowd, did you?”
“Nope,” Reagan replied. “They’re across the street in Lafayette Park.”
More Funds Asked
About 350 demonstrators had rallied in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, to protest the Administration’s AIDS policies and to urge an increase in funding for AIDS research. Policemen wearing yellow vinyl gloves arrested 64 protesters who sat in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The demonstrators chanted “Money for AIDS” and carried signs reading “AIDSGATE” and “Mr. President, Your Apathy Is Killing Thousands.” They vowed to make AIDS an issue in the 1988 elections and to increase their civil disobedience.
“We will fill the jails if we need to,” said Dan Bradley, who headed the Legal Services Corp. during the Carter Administration. Bradley, who has AIDS, said: “I’m not going to live much longer, but (Reagan) is going to hear from me.”
There also were demonstrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where about two dozen people picketed the federal courthouse downtown at noon. A spokesman for the group, Jim Cortin, criticized Reagan for not speaking out sooner on the AIDS epidemic.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, destroys the body’s immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. In the United States, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. An estimated 36,000 Americans have contracted AIDS, of whom more than 20,000 have died.
Times staff writer Lee May contributed to this story.