University Threatens To Nix Sponsorship Of AIDS Conference

As a protest against a U.S. immigration law which restricts the travel of those infected with the AIDS virus, the University has threatened to withdraw its sponsorship of an international conference on AIDS scheduled for 1992.

In a June 13 letter to the president of the International AIDS Society, the Harvard professor who is slated to chair the Eighth International Conference on AIDS said that it will not be held here unless the federal government changes a policy which bars foreigners who have tested positive for the AIDS virus from entering this country without a special waiver.

"This policy imposes a discriminatory burden on those infected with the AIDS virus," Max Essex, who is a professor of microbiology at the School of Public Health and chair of the Harvard AIDS Institute, said in the letter. "In doing so it threatens the free and open exchange of information which is critical to international efforts to conquer the AIDS epidemic, and it undermines the international conferences which have been so important in coordinating efforts to combat AIDS."

Lifting the travel restrictions would require a vote of Congress, which in 1987 added the AIDS virus to a list of "excludable diseases," according to Richard Kenney, a spokesperson for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"There is no sound public health justification for these restrictions," Essex said in his letter.

Although a repeal of the law--which was sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--is unlikely, AIDS Institutes affiliates said Harvard's withdrawal from the conference would be an important symbolic gesture.

"We have a tradition of free and open access to scientific meetings in this country," said Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry Elkan R. Blout, who sits on the institute's policy board. "Unless we maintain that tradition, we're not living up to our code as scientists."

Blout said the 1992 conference will likely be held in a foreign country with a freer entry policy.

According to Kenney, all foreigners applying for entry visas at American consulates abroad are required to reveal whether they are infected with a number of diseases, including AIDS. Those who reveal they are infected are forbidden from entering the U.S. without a waiver, Kenney said.

The Sixth International Conference on AIDS, which ended yesterday in San Francisco, was boycotted by some scientists and organizations protesting the law.

Besides withdrawing its sponsorship of the conference, Harvard is exploring other ways of urging that the restrictions be lifted, according to University spokesperson Peter Costa. Costa said Vice President for Government and Community Affairs John Shattuck is coordinating an effort to put pressure on officials in Washington. And Essex promised in his letter that "we will continue to try to effect change in U.S. policy through all avenues available to us."

Essex's letter was written with the approval of Harvard's top administrators, including President Derek C. Bok, who is chair of the AIDS Institute's policy board, Costa said.