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Spin Raises Questions About AZT

November 23, 1989|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The drug AZT has offered one of the few rays of hope for people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS-related complex, and those infected with the HIV virus believed to cause AIDS.

But an article in the November Spin magazine casts shadows over the encouragement that drug has inspired.

The column, by Celia Farber, tracks arguments by researchers and doctors who believe the drug was prematurely--and dangerously--pushed through the approval process because of political pressures applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"For better or worse, AZT had been approved faster than any drug in FDA history, and activists considered it a victory," Farber writes. "The price paid for the victory, however, was that almost all government drug trials, from then on, focused on AZT--while over 100 other promising drugs were left uninvestigated."

Meanwhile, the tests that won the drug FDA approval, as well as subsequent tests, have been seriously flawed, the article claims.

For two years, Spin has featured a column about the AIDS crisis called "Words From the Front." The columns, many written by Farber, have taken a largely contrarian approach to AIDS treatment, investigating the panoply of "alternatives" to standard medicine, from the cucumber-root extract "Compound Q," which is receiving Establishment attention, to "urine therapy," which isn't.

But this AZT column has generated the most heated response to date, "a mixed, polarized reaction," she said.

Many people with AIDS, who have found cause for optimism in "holistic" treatments, have offered support, she said. Others said they thought the article "was skewed--was biased against AZT and therefore irresponsible."

Contacted by phone, Dr. Robert T. Schooley, a member of the infectious disease unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a principal investigator of AZT in clinical trials, was not so kind in his assessment.

"It's the usual sensationalistic drivel of half-truths and noncritical journalism that sells tabloids," he said. "The unfortunate thing is that magazine articles like this can keep people off drugs that save lives."

Scientific skepticism is unwelcome in the debate over the drug's efficacy, Farber contends. While she acknowledges that the great majority of medical authorities still support AZT treatment, she felt compelled to give voice to those who believe the drug is killing people who might otherwise survive.

Farber plans a follow-up article in a future Spin and has been discussing the subject on the talk show circuit.

Besides, she does allow AZT supporters to voice their views in the piece, she pointed out. If they don't exactly get equal time, that's because "the majority of mainstream media coverage (of the AZT debate) has been overwhelmingly noncritical."

"People get emotional and think I'm saying that no one should take AZT," Farber said. "I'm not saying that."

Rather, she said she hopes to make readers take another look at AZT and at the "creative, imaginative treatments" that the mainstream press "routinely dismisses as quackery."

Farber said that some gay activists have accused her of "using scare tactics to frighten people away from the only drug that might keep people alive."

She denies doing that.

But however much credence one lends to the article's charges of inadequate research by the medical establishment, Farber concludes her piece with a fear-mongering tone that is inexcusable.

No person faced with hard decisions on how best to battle a deadly disease should be subjected to the hyperbolic blather that ends the article. Given the last word, Peter Duesberg, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, refers to AZT users as "people running into the gas chambers" and adds, "Himmler would have been so happy if only the Jews were this cooperative."

Spy Goes Bohemian With Inside Report

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation" stories aren't usually gripping yarns, but Philip Weiss' saga in the November Spy, in which he describes his three-week infiltration of Northern California's exclusive Bohemian Grove last July, is an outstanding exception.

On the list of happy campers who showed up to frolic in the woods, watch silly skits, tell hoary jokes, and, perhaps, make a few deals and a few decisions about the fate of Western Civilization: French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who allegedly arrived unbeknown to the French people; former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger; former Atty. Gen. William French Smith; former Secretary of State George Schultz; game show mogul Merv Griffin; publisher Malcolm Forbes; billionaire John Kluge; pundit William F. Buckley Jr.; newsman Walter Cronkite, and Tom Johnson, then-publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

By wandering from what many professionals would consider the right road of ethical journalism and misrepresenting his identity, Weiss went in and got a story that has never been told so fully--and has, he asserts, been killed on most of the rare occasions when other newsmen managed to slip in (we do mean men--women are decidedly unwelcome at these retreats).

So it is that Weiss writes about ambling up for a friendly chat in a rustic cabin with former President Ronald Reagan ("the first thing I noticed was that he had finally let his hair go gray") and reports watching former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger outrage his Bohemian brothers by cutting in line to make a telephone call.

It's must-read stuff for anyone who tracks the power elite and for anyone who relishes rollicking tales of buffoonery on the old boys network.

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