Frustrated with the pace at which experimental AIDS drugs are being made available to the public, scores of gay activists and their supporters were arrested Tuesday as an estimated 1,000 demonstrators attempted to shut down the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Chanting “the whole world is watching” and “guilty, guilty, guilty,” protesters lay down in front of the agency’s building or tried, wearing white lab coats they made themselves, to enter it. One by one, they were carried off to waiting buses by police, some of whom were wearing latex surgical gloves.
Business inside the FDA, located about 20 miles from downtown Washington, went on as usual, although many employees had difficulty leaving and entering the building and were unable to park their cars in the agency lot, which had been taken over by demonstrators. The protest was nonviolent, although several windows of the building were smashed, in part the result of pushing.
Demonstrators From 15 States
“We don’t have time for the FDA’s usual time line,” said Kevin Cathcart, an attorney and executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, explaining why protesters had come from 15 states to demonstrate.
“The frustration is that there are things that might work and that everyone out there is not getting the opportunity to try them,” he said.
FDA officials said in a statement that they were “very supportive” of the demonstrators’ concerns and that the agency “has given all potential AIDS products the highest possible priority for review.”
FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young said that the agency regards the demonstration “as another opportunity for information exchange and outreach. I believe that the FDA is part of the solution to the AIDS problem and that well-informed activist groups, health organizations and citizens groups also contribute to the fight against this deadly disease.”
Charged With Loitering
The demonstration was organized by the AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize and Win (ACT NOW). About 150 participants were arrested by Montgomery County police and charged with loitering, a misdemeanor that carries a $30 fine.
Vito Russo, a film critic from New York who has AIDS, said: “I’m here because I want to live. I don’t want a quilt with my name on it to be in front of the White House next year.” It was a reference to the huge quilt commemorating those who have died from AIDS that has been on display in Washington this week.
Michael Cherry, a word processor from Los Angeles, said that he believes the agency should release the drugs with warnings--"like cigarette packages"--if there is concern that they will harm AIDS patients. “There should be an option” for AIDS patients “to take something,” Cherry said.
Demonstrators said that they were demanding, among other things, prompt release of promising, safe drugs and the establishment of a national registry of data on all AIDS drug programs.
The agency said that it announces new research activities and AIDS developments every month and that it lists as much information about clinical trials as is permitted under the law. A complete registry is “impossible,” the FDA said, because federal law prohibits the disclosure of confidential commercial drug development information.
Doesn’t Do Clinical Tests
Further, the FDA said, “a widely held notion--that the FDA actually does the clinical testing of drugs before they are marketed--is incorrect.”
Pharmaceutical manufacturers, the National Institutes of Health and other research institutions across the country do the testing, the agency said. It is the FDA’s role to review and analyze the results “to see if a drug is safe and effective for commercial use by the general public,” the agency said.
The FDA “cannot create breakthrough drugs where they don’t exist,” the agency said, “but can and has been removing certain regulatory requirements . . . to help capitalize on breakthroughs when they do occur.”
Caused by Virus
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body’s immune system, making it vulnerable to rare cancers and other opportunistic infections. The virus can also invade the central nervous system, causing serious neurological disorders. It is commonly transmitted through anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, through the sharing of contaminated hypodermic needles and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.
In this country, it has afflicted mostly homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug abusers and their sexual partners. More than 70,000 Americans have contracted AIDS, of whom more than 40,000 have died.