WASHINGTON — A leading AIDS researcher, cited in the Justice Department's recent controversial memorandum supporting the possibility of casual transmission of AIDS in the workplace, has accused the department of misrepresenting his views, calling the quotes a "distortion" of his position, The Times has learned.
"What is called casual transmission such as is likely to occur in workplace settings will never pose a significant risk to uninfected co-workers," Harvard Medical School researcher William A. Haseltine told Justice Department officials in a June 30 letter obtained by The Times.
"The remarks as cited misrepresent my views," he added. "I request that you correct this error."
The memorandum, issued by the Justice Department on June 23, ruled that, if based on fear of contagion, firings of people with AIDS by federally funded employers--ranging from government contractors to public schools and hospitals--may not be challenged under U.S. civil rights laws protecting the handicapped.
In referring to statements by the federal Public Health Service that casual contact with AIDS patients does not pose a risk, Assistant Atty. Gen. Charles J. Cooper, director of the department's office of legal counsel, wrote in the ruling: "It has been suggested, however, that conclusions of this character are too sweeping."
In the opinion, Cooper then said: "Harvard researcher Prof. William Haseltine, for instance, was recently reported to have declared that ". . . anyone who tells you categorically that AIDS is not contracted by saliva is not telling you the truth . . . . There are sure to be cases . . . of proved transmission through casual contact."
The Justice Department comments regarding transmission of AIDS through casual contact have been widely criticized by the medical community inside and outside government, including the Public Health Service and the American Medical Assn.
Haseltine, who has conducted major research on the AIDS virus at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, further wrote in his letter to Cooper: "To my knowledge, there is no evidence that transmission of the AIDS virus other than by intimate sexual contact or exchange of body fluids and/or organs has resulted in infection."
He added: "The evidence that such transmission does not occur is drawn from studies of families in which one member is infected and studies of health care workers who treat AIDS patients. These studies demonstrate that casual transmission has not and will not occur to any significant extent."
Dragged Into Controversy
Justice Department officials, asked Monday about Haseltine's criticism, released to The Times a July 16 letter Cooper wrote to Haseltine in response. "We did not intend to misrepresent your views and I'm sorry if you have been dragged into a controversy not of your own choosing--or of ours," Cooper wrote.
"Perhaps we are naive, but we are frankly surprised by the attention that has been focused upon the portion of our opinion in which . . . (you are) cited," he added. "To be sure, we expected to be roundly criticized, but not for that."
Further, Cooper wrote: "The important point is that our reading of your views had no bearing on the legal analysis of the opinion. The fact is that the medical evidence concerning risk of transmission through casual contact is fundamentally irrelevant to the question put to us with respect to the federal handicap discrimination laws."
Haseltine's statements regarding transmission by casual contact first appeared in the Harvard Crimson last February after the school newspaper reported on an address he had delivered on AIDS.
Cites Errors in Story
However, Haseltine said that the Crimson coverage "contains errors" and quotations "out of context." He wrote the school newspaper: "The lecture emphasized that transmission by means other than sexual, maternal, blood transfusion, organ donation or intravenous drug abuse was so low as not to be measurable . . . . Even if documented, such cases would not alter the overwhelming fact that infection is not casually transmitted."
Haseltine's comments, as printed in the Crimson, later appeared in a March 18 New York Times column written by Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz. The Justice Department, although it never contacted Haseltine directly, cited those same statements in its memorandum and cited Dershowitz as its source.
Dershowitz, however, at Haseltine's urging, later clarified the quotes in a letter to the New York Times, which the newspaper printed.
"Although laboratory research establishes that it is theoretically possible . . . for AIDS to be transmitted by saliva and casual contact, epidemiological data strongly suggest that infection has very rarely, if ever, been casually transmitted in this country," Dershowitz wrote.