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Study disputes
case in Libyan HIV trial

Study disputes
case in Libyan HIV trial

Racing against a courtroom deadline, scientists have produced new evidence that a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses at a Libyan hospital did not deliberately infect hundreds of children with HIV.

A trial of the health care workers concluded November 4 in a Libyan court; a verdict is expected in two weeks.

In an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from some of the children, researchers conclude that the viral strains were circulating at the hospital and the surrounding area well before the five nurses and the doctor arrived in March 1998.

The doctor and nurses had been convicted in an earlier trial of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV, and they were sentenced to death. That led to international protests that the original trial was improperly conducted, and accusations that Libya concocted the charges to cover up poor hygiene at its hospitals. Libya's supreme court ordered the new trial last December.

The judge in the new trial has set the verdict date for December 19.

At least 50 of the infected children have died. The defendants, who say they are innocent, have been held in Libya since 1999.

The available evidence suggests the children's HIV infections resulted from a long-standing problem of poor infection control at the hospital, perhaps involving improper sterilization before injections, said Oliver Pybus of Oxford University.

He is one of the authors of the analysis, published Wednesday on the Web site of the journal Nature.

The work was done because defense lawyers asked for an independent scientific inquiry. Pybus said the researchers worked far into the night for 10 days to get the work done and published before the verdict.

Vittorio Colizzi of the University of Rome, another study author, said he knew of no plans to submit the data formally to the court. Now that the scientists have done their job, he said, ''the game is in the hands of politicians and journalists.''

The case has drawn wide attention from the scientific community. Nature and the journal Science published separate open letters from scientists last month that said the court in the original trial ignored evidence that the infections arose from poor hospital practices.

The new analysis looked at genetic information from HIV samples from 44 of the children. It concluded that they were part of a single outbreak that began with a virus of a type common in western Africa. Libya has many immigrants from that region, the scientists noted.

The genetic information of HIV changes over time, which provides a ''molecular clock'' that the researchers used to estimate a time frame for the outbreak. They concluded it must have begun before the accused health care workers arrived at the hospital, perhaps by three years or so.

The hepatitis infections found in some of the children also trace back to before the workers arrived, the researchers said.

Thomas Leitner of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who has done similar analyses but did not participate in the work, noted that the researchers got consistent results under a variety of molecular clock approaches.

That makes their conclusion ''pretty convincing,'' he said.

But Idriss Lagha, the head of the Libyan Union for Children Infected With HIV, a nongovernmental organization, called the study ''baseless and nonsense.''

Lagha, the father of a 9-year-old who was infected with HIV and is receiving treatment in France, said the work depended on a previous study conducted by Colizzi and French AIDS expert Luc Montagnier. That report was rejected by the Libyan judge in the first trial.

Pybus said the new work was independent of that report. (AP)

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