AZT, it is admitted by its manufacturers, Burroughs Wellcome, is toxic and suppressive to the immune system. It sounds absurd that something of a toxic and immunosuppressive nature could help someone who is already terribly immuno-compromised, but the theory is that by the drug's effect of inhibiting the action of HIV there is achieved a net gain, so enabling the AIDS patient--supposedly already doomed--to live a little longer.

Now, if HIV was indeed the cause of AIDS, and if indeed AZT worked in the way intended, there would indeed be a case for its use, but leaving the HIV argument right out of it, tests have shown AZT to be at best useless and at worst harmful. On 13-14 February 1991, in Washington DC, a special meeting was held of the Anti-viral Drugs Committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discuss the validity of AZT use. The first thing that was agreed upon was that the P24 antigen test, upon which AZT effectiveness was assessed, was useless and meaningless, which of course meant that the grounds upon which AZT was approved in the first place were spurious. The main focus of the meeting was the Veterans Administration Co-operative Study 298, the preliminary findings of which were presented by Dr John Hamilton MD. The study was of 338 HIV-positive individuals with AIDS, divided into two groups, both groups given AZT but in different dosage. Dr Hamilton reported that no benefit for either treatment group was detected for survival or the combined chemical end points of AIDS and death. He said that early AZT resulted in transitory benefits in whites, and neutral or harmful effects in black and Hispanic patients. No mention was made of the high risk of cancer for those taking the drug.

The very next day the shares of the Burroughs Wellcome parent company fell* by ten per cent, but Burroughs Wellcome responded quickly the same day with a letter to physicians which they drafted in such a way to indicate the Washington meeting had re-affirmed the previous support for AZT, which was not the case at all. But not to incriminate themselves, they put the onus on the FDA by including a copy of the FDA Talk Paper on the subject. Reporter John Lauritsen described the FDA paper thus:

"The FDA Talk Paper dated 14 Feb, 1991, reads as though it had been drafted by Burroughs Wellcome. A more false and distorted version of the meeting could hardly be imagined. The first sentence claims that the committee 're-affirmed the drug's usefulness in treating individuals who are at less advanced stages of infection with the AIDS Virus.' Then the Talk Paper goes on to summarize the VA study in such a way as to obliterate the most important finding: that AZT conferred no benefit in terms of survival."

*The author wonders how much further the shares would have fallen if the 50:50 chance of cancer had been mentioned.

This is how the FDA Talk Paper was worded:

"One study presented to the committee was conducted by the Veterans' Administration. Preliminary results from this study, in general, confirmed that earlier use of zidovudine was beneficial in delaying the onset of AIDS. However, the study when analyzed by various demographic factors also indicated that zidovudine's effects might vary significantly among different patient groups. For unknown reasons, among the African-American and Hispanic patients in the study, those who received zidovudine at a later stage of their infection may have fared better than those who received earlier treatment with the drug. The results regarding the outcome of African-American and Hispanic patients were not conclusive however, and thus no definite changes in practise were deemed appropriate by the Committee."