Harvard University, sponsor of the 1992 International AIDS Conference, will move the prestigious scientific meeting from Boston to a location outside the United States to protest U.S. AIDS immigration policy, university officials announced Friday.
Harvard's decision, announced after months of agonizing, calls into question whether the annual conference will ever take place in the United States again.
"I think it's important that this meeting be in the United States," said Dr. Paul Volberding, president of the International AIDS Society, which oversees the conference. "The major research is being done here. The major people doing the research are here. It's crazy not to be able to have it here."
The Bush Administration still has not announced its final AIDS immigration policy. But Harvard conference planners said that they believed they could delay no longer, because the meeting is only eight months away and current immigration regulations continue to bar the entry of all AIDS-infected persons for any reason.
Harvard had threatened last year to abandon the conference if the immigration rules were not changed. The 1992 conference was expected to attract about 15,000 people from around the world to Boston.
"This conference is critical in the fight against AIDS," said Dr. Max Essex, chairman of the Harvard AIDS Institute. "The exchange of information . . . must be preserved. It is essential to ensure the ready access of scientists and citizens from all over the world to the International AIDS Conference. Unfortunately, it is not possible at this time to offer assurance that U.S. immigration policy will allow individuals with HIV . . . to attend."
Essex said that the planners of the 1992 conference could not wait any longer for the U.S. policy to be clarified. "This crucial scientific meeting must not be canceled," he said. "We have, therefore, reluctantly decided to find another location for the conference, despite the difficulties involved."
President Bush, speaking to reporters before beginning a round of golf at his vacation retreat in Kennebunkport, Me., said that it is "too bad" that Harvard has decided to shift the meeting. "But they'll find other ways to get together, so it doesn't bother me," he added.
Bush called the immigration rule "good, sound policy" and said that "the American people, I think, are supportive of it."
In addition, he defended his Administration's AIDS programs, saying that the federal government "is spending $4 billion a year on AIDS research and our scientists are by far the most prestigious and most forward-looking in the research department."
"We'll continue to lead in AIDS research," Bush said. "We'll continue to be compassionate . . . . We'll continue to treat AIDS as a health problem."
However, some observers believe that the Administration would be just as happy to see the meeting take place as far from the United States as possible, so that it does not call attention to AIDS at a time when a presidential campaign is only weeks away.
"It's very clear that the Administration is more interested in politics than public health," said Dr. Mervyn F. Silverman, president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "I'm sure that somewhere is that secret hope that a conference such as this would not take place in the United States in an election year."
Silverman called it a "sad commentary" that "a university such as Harvard finds it necessary to move a conference it is sponsoring to foreign soil."
Harvard officials said that they have not yet found a suitable site for the 1992 conference but expect to announce the new location within a month.
The university announced also that Dr. Jonathan Mann, former director of the AIDS program for the World Health Organization and currently head of the international AIDS center of the Harvard AIDS Institute, would be chairman of the conference.
Harvard's action marks the latest development in a lengthy and rancorous international debate over the U.S. government's AIDS immigration policy.
In 1987, Congress passed legislation, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, prohibiting the entry of individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus into this country, either to visit or to live.
The rule, attacked by the world health community as discriminatory and medically unnecessary, was amended by Congress last year. The change gave the secretary of health and human services the authority to determine which diseases create a public health hazard and should be the basis for barring entry into this country.
In January, Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan proposed tuberculosis as the only such disease, effectively removing AIDS from the list.
But, before the new regulation could become final, the Administration, under pressure from conservatives and from its own Department of Justice, reversed itself and allowed the existing restrictions to remain in force while the debate continued.
Administration sources said that the final policy is likely to allow unrestricted short-term travel in the United States for HIV-infected individuals and deny entry only to those who wish to remain for long periods or to live here permanently.
The restrictions would be based only on economic grounds, sources said. AIDS is among the most costly diseases to treat, and some officials have argued that allowing infected individuals into the United States would create an undue financial burden on this country.
Such a compromise would satisfy conference planners and other interested parties, such as the World Health Organization. For the 1990 conference, which was in San Francisco, the Administration issued special waivers allowing HIV-infected individuals to attend. But the waivers, which became part of each traveler's record, were attacked as stigmatizing and discriminatory.
"I think the IAS and WHO would endorse a meeting in the United States if the travel restrictions were lifted," Volberding said. "We want the meeting to be in the United States. The meeting should come back to the United States."
The 1993 meeting is scheduled for Berlin and the 1994 session is slated for an as-yet unselected city in Japan. After 1994, the conferences will take place every other year.
AIDS Action Council, which represents more than 500 community-based AIDS services organizations around the country, praised the university for its "principled" decision.
"We know this was a difficult decision for Harvard, and we appreciate their doing the right thing," the council said in a statement. "People with AIDS are under attack now like no other time since the mid-1980s. Harvard's decision is a decision to draw the line against discrimination."
Harvard officials said that they must now settle accounts with at least 100 hotels in the Boston area that had been booked for the June meeting and predicted that organizing the conference at an as-yet unknown site would be a "logistical nightmare."
Nevertheless, they expressed optimism that the 1992 conference will be successful. "We are at a pivotal moment in the history of the HIV epidemic," Mann said. An international AIDS conference at this time, he added, "is more important than ever."
The annual AIDS conference is co-sponsored by the International AIDS Society and the World Health Organization, which designate a local site and sponsor each year. The forum is the largest gathering of AIDS authorities in the world. About 15,000 participants from 120 countries were expected in Boston. The rule barring AIDS-infected individuals from the United States was imposed four years ago but was temporarily suspended during the conference last year in San Francisco.