Doctor Placed on Leave Over AIDS Study
The county’s chief epidemiologist Friday was placed on 30 days administrative leave after investigators alleged that he improperly committed the health department’s resources to a federally funded study designed to lay the groundwork for the testing of AIDS vaccines.
The study and its director, Dr. Peter Kerndt, became the subjects of controversy after county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she suspected that poor African Americans in her district might be used as “guinea pigs” in vaccine tests.
In a confidential report presented Friday to the Board of Supervisors, Health Services Department investigators alleged that Kerndt did not request approval from departmental management or the board, thereby circumventing the required authorization process.
In addition, “it appears that Dr. Kerndt has misrepresented and misled community representatives, elected officials, department management and the federal government,” says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
“Of particular concern is that the information provided to the community appears to have lacked complete disclosure of the fact that the vaccine could include components of the HIV virus,” it says.
However, according to internal health department correspondence also obtained by The Times, Kerndt did notify his superiors in the Public Health Division that he was applying for the federally funded project. He planned to run the study through the Health Research Assn., a nonprofit consortium of doctors at County-USC Medical Center. After he won the contract in October, the documents show, Kerndt also informed his superiors that he needed more office space in which to conduct the research.
Health Services Director Mark Finucane dismissed as “ludicrous” any contention that Kerndt had notified his superiors of the project. But in a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Finucane said he is expanding his investigation to see if other officials in the department knew about the county’s role in the study and failed to either stop it or inform their superiors.
Moreover, the confidential report itself appeared to contradict Finucane. According to the department’s investigators, Public Health Division management staff “were aware of and reviewed” the vaccine proposal “and did not exercise the proper oversight, nor did they elevate the proposal and its commitment of county resources to upper management.”
That failure, and other flaws in the health department’s handling of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research grants a year will require a systemwide investigation and a series of reforms, the report concludes.
As it scrambled to contain the controversy Friday, the department put the vaccine study and another AIDS research project on hold, while mounting a public information campaign designed to convince South Los Angeles residents that the tests would not put anyone at risk of contracting the AIDS virus.
At a morning news conference, Burke said she would call for sweeping reforms aimed at ensuring that the county does a better job of approving and monitoring all federally funded medical research in the county, especially if it involves using people in scientific experiments.
“I believe the Board of Supervisors must be kept completely in the picture with regard to medical research trials that take place . . . on county sites, using county equipment and personnel,” Burke said. “We all want to see a vaccine for HIV. But the question gets to be who will be the subjects for the tests of that vaccine, and is it proper for the county of Los Angeles to be involved.”
Kerndt could not be reached for comment Friday, and his colleagues in the HIV Epidemiology Program said the entire staff has been ordered not to comment publicly while the investigations proceed.
Burke, Finucane and other health officials were careful not to criticize the AIDS vaccine project itself, which is being overseen by the National Institutes of Health.
Kerndt denied any wrongdoing in a Times interview last week. And his supporters said Friday that Kerndt--and the entire Epidemiology Program--were being muzzled while department leaders made him a scapegoat.
“Senior management people were apprised of this from Day 1. I’ve seen repeated memos and responses come back praising Peter for getting the grant,” said one senior epidemiologist. “I think someone needs to take the hit for this, and it’s not going to be anyone at the top of the food chain. Peter is the designated fall guy, especially since he is so outspoken.”
Finucane said he will report back to the supervisors by Feb. 24 on all the various probes’ findings.
The documents obtained Friday by The Times show that on April 16, 1997, Kerndt sent a copy of the proposal to a host of community AIDS activists and doctors, and to acting county Public Health Director John Schunhoff and Dr. Shirley Fannin, county medical director of disease control programs.
And Kerndt wrote to Fannin and another top health administrator Oct. 31, saying the Health Research Assn. had won the vaccine study contract and several other federal research grants and would need to expand into larger quarters, the documents show.
On Friday, Schunhoff said he read the April 16 letter but that it said nothing about committing county resources to the project. Fannin could not be reached for comment.
Much of the controversy stems from Kerndt’s leadership in the vaccine study at the same time that he was overseeing another upcoming AIDS project for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tells people immediately whether they are HIV-positive.
Community activists called Burke two weeks ago, saying they were concerned that Kerndt had blurred the boundaries of the two studies, and would “sneak people in” to the vaccine study after approaching them about the far less controversial CDC test, said Homeless Outreach Program Executive Director Mike Neely.
On Friday, Burke said the CDC study also is being put on hold until the investigations are complete.
Although research project administrators at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., said one component of the vaccine study is supposed to use 200 heterosexual women whose lifestyles gave them a “high risk” of acquiring AIDS, Kerndt chose to focus only on African American women, according to documents.
Burke likened that to “scientific racism,” saying black women are at no higher risk of getting AIDS than any other women.
Also, Burke and some activists criticized Kerndt’s handling of the vaccine research project, saying it would simply monitor the 800 participants to see if they get the disease without trying to change their behavior. Kerndt has insisted that “behavior modification” has always been part of the study.