Twenty AIDS activists were arrested for trespassing at a vigil and hunger strike outside the Federal Building at the Los Angeles Civic Center on Wednesday night, dramatizing their demand for widespread distribution of the experimental antiviral drug DDI.
"Time is running out for me and tens of thousands of men, women and children for whom AZT is no longer an option," said AIDS patient Wayne Karr, who vowed to consume only juice, water and protein powder until DDI is made widely available.
Federal officials ordered Karr and other members of the newly formed Coalition for Compassion arrested after the protesters refused orders to vacate the North Los Angeles Street sidewalk, where the activists had originally planned to spend the night.
Chanting "No More Needless Deaths" and "Release the Drugs Now," the protesters were led away by Los Angeles police officers. Some went limp and had to be carried. There was no violence.
The arrestees were booked for investigation of trespassing and released on their own recognizance, authorities said.
"The mayor supports their efforts (to win access to promising drugs), but the laws of the city must be upheld and will be upheld," said Bill Chandler, press secretary to Mayor Tom Bradley.
AIDS activists in San Francisco have been encamped in six tents for nearly four years in a similar vigil outside a federal office building. Mayor Art Agnos intervened to protect the vigil two months ago after an occupant in a nearby office building filed a complaint with police.
The Los Angeles vigil was spurred by a new federal initiative to make experimental AIDS drugs available on a so-called "parallel track" even as they continued to be tested.
In the first major test of the new concept, researchers, regulators, doctors, patient advocates and the drug's manufacturer have been meeting in Washington to hammer out details of a compassionate use program to provide DDI to patients who become resistant to or cannot tolerate AZT, the only federally approved antiviral for AIDS.
Bristol-Myers, which makes the drug, has pledged to make DDI available to patients "for whom the drug is critical" beginning next month. But demonstrators such as Randy Wendelin said they are afraid that "if we don't keep the pressure up, the program will be extremely limited." Wendelin, Los Angeles City AIDS Coordinator Dave Johnson and others are fasting for 24 hours in sympathy with Karr.
AZT is so toxic that up to 50% of AIDS patients cannot tolerate full doses of the drug. And many patients develop resistance to the drug after 12 to 18 months.
Meanwhile, Dr. Neil Schram, a Harbor City physician who attended a meeting in Washington on Tuesday to develop plans for DDI distribution, said Bristol-Myers plans to give the drug to up to 5,000 people under the compassionate use program.
Another 1,800 AIDS and AIDS-Related Condition patients will be entered into formal clinical trials; of these, half will receive DDI and half will get AZT. Both programs are expected to begin in September.
Schram said the hunger strikers are misguided. "There really is no enemy here," he said. "The Food and Drug Administration wants this to happen, the National Institutes of Health wants this to happen, and Bristol wants it to happen.
"What has to happen next is for the parties to agree to a definition on AZT-intolerant and AZT-resistant," Schram added. "I hope those definitions are not overly restrictive."
Schram said the clamor for DDI may be premature, at least for patients for whom AZT continues to be effective. At this point, he said, "nobody knows whether DDI is less good, as good or better than AZT."