PARIS--One of the most highly publicized court cases in modern French history got underway here today: The trial of former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and two former ministers, who are accused of "involuntary homicide" and "involuntary assault on the physical integrity of persons" for having allegedly delayed measures to protect the nation's blood supply and blood products from contamination with HIV. Pasteur Institute virologist Luc Montagnier and other top AIDS researchers are expected to be called to the stand to testify.
The case concerns the actions of Fabius and his two co-defendants--former Social Affairs Minister Georgina Dufoix and former Secretary of State for Health Edmond Hervé--during the critical period between 1983, when HIV was first isolated, and 1985, when measures to test and protect the blood supply went into effect in France. All three ministers are accused of having held up approval of an HIV test in France for several months in 1985. Dufoix and Hervé are also accused of delaying HIV-destroying heat treatment of blood products destined for hemophiliacs until the existing supply of untreated products was exhausted. In previous trials, several physicians have already been convicted of related charges, and more than 30 other defendants may face trial in the scandal, which has been dragging on for nearly 12 years (Science, 16 June 1995, p. 1563).
In all, several dozen scientists, physicians, administrators, and politicians are expected to testify before the Justice Court of the Republique, a special court composed of jurists and parliamentarians that was created for trials of former ministers. The testimony of AIDS researchers is intended to shed light on the key scientific issues in the case: What did the ministers know about the AIDS epidemic, and when did they know it? In particular, the court will probe whether French authorities delayed the use of a blood test made by the U.S. company Abbott Laboratories, based on work by Robert Gallo and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute, to give the French company Diagnostics Pasteur time to market its own version, based on the Montagnier group's work.
"We have been called to put things in the context of the knowledge of the time," says immunologist Jean Claude Gluckman of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, who was a member of the team that first isolated HIV. But some of the researcher-witnesses have sharply differing views about the critical questions in the trial, which may make for contradictory testimony. "Even if this testimony is at odds, it will shed light on the information available to the political leaders of the time," says Axel Kahn, a geneticist at the Cochin Institute. The trial is expected to last several weeks; if convicted, the defendants face up to 3 years in prison and heavy fines.