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AZT Maker Launches HIV Testing Drive : Pharmaceuticals: Activist groups have criticized Burroughs Wellcome. They say the drug, which is key in the fight against AIDS, is priced too high.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Against a backdrop of skepticism, Burroughs Wellcome, maker of the antiviral drug AZT, is launching an initiative in the 25 U.S. cities with the highest rates of HIV infection to persuade people who might be infected with the AIDS-causing virus to be tested.

The Research Triangle Park, N.C., pharmaceutical company told The Times Friday that it is instituting the program because hundreds of thousands of Americans who are infected but show no signs of the disease might benefit from AZT therapy if they knew that they were infected.

Burroughs, which has responded to sharp criticism of the high cost of AZT with two price cuts of 20% each, said it will conduct the “outreach program” through local AIDS service organizations and community-based groups. AZT costs about $3,000 a year at the dose that public health officials recommend.

Scientists believe that the average incubation period from the time of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus and the development of full-blown AIDS is about 12 years. Last summer, clinical researchers released a pair of studies demonstrating that early administration of AZT delayed the onset of AIDS. That prompted public health officials to urge people at risk to take the test.

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More than 40,000 Americans are taking AZT for full-blown AIDS and early intervention against HIV. However, the U.S. Public Health Service has estimated that 10 times that number--more than 400,000 of the 1 million believed infected--have immune systems that have been sufficiently compromised to warrant treatment.

The company said the programs it plans to fund will vary according to the needs of each local community. “These may include local information campaigns; sponsored ‘town hall meeting’ with AIDS experts; funding much needed staff positions, such as counselors and case managers, or similar initiatives to communicate and implement early-intervention messages,” the company said in a background statement.

“We’re still in the initial stages of sitting down and chatting with people to determine their needs,” said Lisa Behrens of Burroughs’ corporate affairs department. She said the company, which sold $142 million worth of AZT in the fiscal six-month period ended March 3, hasn’t set a budget for the program.

Sources said Burroughs opted to work through AIDS and community groups after focus groups of gay men in cities around the country revealed a reservoir of ill will toward the company for its pricing practices. Burroughs had earlier planned to bypass the local organizations and conduct its own public service campaign urging people at risk to be tested.

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“One of the things our research showed was that we should be supporting local organizations,” said spokeswoman Kathy Bartlett, though she noted that current plans still leave room for a Burroughs-sponsored advertising campaign.

Reaction of community groups was mixed.

“We believe in early intervention, and a necessary condition for that to occur is for people to know whether they are infected,” said Larry Tate, hot line manager for Project Inform, a clearinghouse for HIV treatment information. “It doesn’t matter what Burroughs’ motivation is,” Tate added. “The cause is good.”

“It is important for people at risk to know their status,” added Jackie Gelfand, director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center’s anonymous HIV testing clinic. “But if they really wanted to increase access to early intervention, they could lower the price (of AZT).”

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