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By Neville Hodgkinson
The Sunday Times (London) 30 May 1993

WELLCOME, the giant drugs company that makes the controversial anti-AIDS drug AZT, is facing growing criticism over the pervasiveness of its influence on AIDS education, treatment and research.

The company stands accused of using its unique position of power in the British medical establishment, via its close links with the Wellcome Trust, the world's richest medical research charity, to establish AZT as the "gold standard" of AIDS treatment, even though research suggests the drug is not the breakthrough it was thought to be.

As sales of AZT have grown last year reaching Pounds 213m the company has extended its own funding to a huge range of AIDS organisations, including a parliamentary group to which it has contributed Pounds 65,000.

Critics say the result has been to foster a climate in which the anti-viral approach to AIDS has squeezed out almost all other lines of inquiry. This is despite scientific evidence from a recent Anglo-French trial, named Concorde, that AZT does not help in the early treatment of people who have HIV, and despite strong question marks over its safety and effectiveness in dealing with AIDS.

The issue is being taken up in parliament by George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow, Hillhead. "The British health service rolled over on its back for Wellcome, spending millions of taxpayers' money on this drug," he said. "In my opinion the health service has been well and truly shafted. The hegemony Wellcome have built up ... may turn out to be one of the greatest medical scandals of the century."

A campaigning group, the Steering Committee Against AZT Malpractice (SCAM), which wants the drug withdrawn, is holding a one-day inaugural conference in London next month at which Professor Peter Duesberg, a world expert on viruses, will participate. He argues that destructive lifestyle factors, especially drug abuse, are the commonest cause of AIDS in Western countries.

Another anti-AZT group, called Gays Against Genocide (GAG), is to picket the Great Ormond Street children's hospital in London on Wednesday to protest against the experimental use of AZT on HIV-positive babies. GAG has been picketing for six weeks the offices of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the most prominent AIDS charity, because it is annoyed that the trust has been producing pro-AZT papers with the company.

Wellcome rejects the criticisms, arguing that funding has not been confined to people who hold particular views on AIDS. Dr Martin Sherwood, group public relations manager, said: "I don't see that our support for community organisations is doing anything other than trying to get to a better understanding of disease management."

According to Martin Walker, a research worker who is to open next month's SCAM conference, part of the problem lies in the special relationship between the drugs company, known as the Wellcome Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust. He believes the trust's enormous power of patronage it has more than Pounds 200m a year for distribution helps to open doors at the highest level.

The trust is forbidden from supporting the activities of the company, and there is no suggestion that it has distorted its funding to benefit the firm. However, some of the trust's work has a direct bearing on HIV and AIDS. It recently set up the Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, which this month ran an AIDS conference for teachers and school governors. The main scientific speakers were Professor Anthony Pinching, who conducted early AZT trials, and Professor Roy Anderson, a Wellcome grant recipient and a governor of the Wellcome Trust.

Walker's inquiries have shown that academic institutions at the forefront of AIDS research have been long-term recipients of trust money. These include the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University College and Middlesex School of Medicine.

The trust is also funding an important study of sexual behaviour and lifestyles, one aim of which is "to provide data for ... mathematical models of the spread of HIV in the population". The study is being conducted through Imperial College, London, whose biology department is headed by Anderson.

Anderson, an outspoken advocate of the view that AIDS is set to explode internationally, has contributed extensively to the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS, which has a membership of more than 150 parliamentarians. Over the past five years, the group has received Pounds 65,000 from the Wellcome Foundation, plus extra help for specific projects.

Another opinion-forming recipient of Wellcome Foundation cash is the British Medical Association Foundation for AIDS. It received a grant of Pounds 144,000 in 1988.

The Wellcome Foundation helped the Terrence Higgins Trust to set up a fund-raising division, and backed production of four AIDS "health education" booklets. The first describes AZT as "the first drug shown to be effective against HIV". The fourth contains nine pages about the purported benefits of AZT.

The foundation says in its annual report that it has been "active and imaginative" in promoting its products to opinion-leaders and prescribing physicians, and adds: "Through our work with HIV and AIDS groups in many countries, we are learning to communicate effectively with wider audiences." *

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