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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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)