WASHINGTON, D.C.--The most influential annual AIDS meeting in the United States kicked off here last night under tight security in response to threats from activists to interrupt the gathering.
Activists were upset that meeting organizers had strictly limited the number of people allowed to attend the 4th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, which will run through Sunday. Meeting chair Douglas Richman of the University of California, San Diego, explained at the opening ceremony that organizers decided to keep the meeting small because of the unwieldy nature of larger AIDS gatherings. "There's always a trade-off to having a meeting of unlimited size, with all of the circus-related activities that we've come to experience," he said. That circus atmosphere has included activists throwing fake blood at researchers, commandeering the podium, and drowning out speakers. Admission was granted on a first-come, first-served basis to an estimated 2300 AIDS researchers, clinicians, and community advocates, and 125 members of the press.
Bill Bahlman of ACT UP New York, an activist group, criticized the attendance limits. "The policy of this conference to exclude people with AIDS and their advocates represents a major setback to the principles of inclusion that advocates have developed over the last several years," he said in a statement. Earlier today, seven AIDS grassroots groups, including Project Inform and Gay Men's Health Crisis, issued a statement also criticizing the exclusion of their members and according to their estimate 3000 scientists. "This shortsighted policy can only undermine that national AIDS effort," they stated.
The conference became renowned in its first 3 years as a venue for reporting major advances in both basic and clinical research. Expected to grab the limelight this week include reports on new drugs and updates on combination drug therapies, which have made dramatic inroads over the past year in reducing levels of HIV, the AIDS virus, in infected people--in many cases to the point where the virus cannot be detected. Also anticipated are debates about the long-term effectiveness of these regimens.
The omnipresent security guards at the conference last night apparently did their job: No activist demonstrations occurred. But this morning tensions remained high, in part because insiders say the activists have threatened to interfere with the proceedings if not admitted to the conference hall. Indeed, moments ago activists attempted to disrupt a lunchtime press conference.