http://www.aegis.com/pubs/aidswkly/1997/AW970313.html (AW) Special Report: Organizers Appear Ready to Expand Next Year's Retrovirus Conference AIDSWEEKLY Plus, Monday, 31 March 1997 Salynn Boyles, Senior Editor Widely criticized for elitist and restrictive registration policies in the past, organizers of the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections appear to be ready to bow to pressure and expand next year's meeting. Details on just how big the conference will be, and who will be welcome, are yet to be worked out, but it seems certain that the conference, regarded the most important AIDS meeting held in the United States, still will not be open to everyone who wants to attend. "We're not going to have an unlimited open meeting because there is an absolute consensus that we don't want to make it into a big circus," Scientific Program Committee chairman Douglas D. Richman told AIDS Weekly. But other organizers, stung by the avalanche of criticism, say they are just as determined to avoid the controversy surrounding the fourth annual conference held in January, 1997. As many as 3,000 clinicians, journalists, community AIDS representatives, and others were denied access to the meeting. "I think everybody felt that the meeting would have to be expanded. Even though we liked having a small meeting, there were too many people who wanted to get in who couldn't," Scientific Program Committee member Harold W. Jaffe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told AIDS Weekly. The Scientific Program Committee, which will determine the size of the 1998 meeting, is scheduled to meet in the spring. Jaffe said committee members will discuss a series of options, including splitting the single-venue meeting between two hotels in Washington, D.C., where all previous Retrovirus conferences have been held, or moving the meeting to a larger hotel in another city. Organizers have said repeatedly they do not want to move the Retrovirus conference out of Washington, but none of the city's hotels could accommodate an increased attendance. "Most (attendees) like the conference small, but there is just too much pressure to make it a bigger meeting," Jaffe said. "I very definitely believe the size of this meeting will be increased. I would be very surprised if it wasn't." The official registration for the January 22-26, 1997 Retrovirus conference was just 2,100, with the attendance list weighted heavily toward researchers. Certain groups, such as financial analysts and community press, were excluded. Activists say the press exclusion was particularly troubling because many AIDS community workers register under this banner. Organizers contend they have a right to determine which and how many people attend the conference because it is an independent meeting. Public organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the CDC, and a number of public universities, however, are associated with the conference. Although these organizations have come under fire from those angry at the restrictive nature of the Retrovirus conference, it appears they did not have significant influence regarding registration. A CDC press officer was among those denied entry into the press room at the conference, and efforts by NIH officials to intervene on behalf of excluded press organizations - including AIDS Weekly - were ignored. Program committee chairman Richman dismissed charges that organizers have been unnecessarily restrictive. He said that no group, including researchers, has been given free access in the past. "We're the victim of our own popularity," Richman said. "The implication that this is some kind of sinister mechanism to deprive people of access to this meeting is unfair. "We've been assured by a lot of basic scientists that if (the conference) turned into a circus they'd disappear in a minute. There is a price to letting anyone in who wants to come. The quality of the meeting is related to the size." Critics contend the annual conference has become too important to allow it to remain essentially a researchers-only meeting or to exclude so many people who have an interest in attending, especially when public organizations are involved. "It's not just community groups that are being excluded," Gary Rose of the community organization AIDS Action Council said. "Many other people who also have a critical need to hear this research are being excluded, including doctors who control a lot of treatment policy in different regions of the country and those who are treating AIDS overseas." The dispute may cause one professional organization to sever ties with the Retrovirus conference. The Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) was contracted by the conference Program Committee to perform managerial duties for the meeting. These duties were performed by IDSA Executive Director Melissa Sordyl, who was widely criticized for mismanaging the registration process. Repeated attempts by AIDS Weekly to interview Sordyl by telephone were ignored. At the direction of Sordyl's secretary, questions regarding the Retrovirus conference were submitted in writing. These questions were not answered. IDSA President Frederick Sparling told AIDS Weekly that the group's participation in future meetings is very much up in the air. "We had a very minor service role in the meeting and were not involved at all in decisions about content, attendance, or anything else," Sparling said. "I have had to get involved after the fact because so many people within the HIV and infectious disease communities have gotten so upset. Because this has become so confusing and so controversial, we have to ask ourselves if, in the future, we should either be involved directly, where we do have some management control, or not be involved at all." HISTORY Although the extent of the criticism may have caught conference organizers by surprise, they were well aware before the 1997 conference, and even the 1996 Retrovirus conference, that they were headed for trouble. As early as 1995, it became obvious that far more people were interested in attending the conference than could be accommodated in the meeting's single-venue format. Several of those interviewed, from both sides of the issue, said the determination to keep the Retrovirus conference small dates back to before its inception - to the 1990 International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco, California. Numerous demonstrations were held at that meeting by those angered at the Congressional decision to exclude persons with HIV from entering the country. It was at this meeting, and some say largely due to these demonstrations, that International Conference organizers decided to hold their meeting every other year instead of annually. The Retrovirus conference was conceived, in part, to replace the International Conference during these odd-years and to serve as a forum for U.S. government researchers to present their findings. In questionnaires circulated after the 1995 and 1996 meetings, attendees voted "overwhelmingly" to keep the meeting small, "to allow for meaningful scientific interchange," according to a correspondence written by the IDSA's Sordyl. "I think this is more a matter of scientific egos than malice," the AIDS Action Council's Rose said. "They want their own little club where members can come and where there is no chance that anybody is going to ask them any hard questions. "It felt to me like they were telling (community groups), 'This is a meeting for scientists. We don't need your kind.' That's somewhat amusing, but it's also very sad because you would think after all these years in the trenches we wouldn't have to keep fighting this battle." According to the official registration list for the 1997 Retrovirus conference, 46 percent of attendees were authors of presented abstracts, 43 percent were general registrants within the research community, and 11 percent included invited speakers (61), press (120), community scholarship recipients (20), marketing personnel (48), and Program Committee and Liaison Committee members (27). According to Richman, 3,000 questionnaires were sent out following the January 1997 meeting, with 2,400 sent to conference attendees and 600 sent to those who were not granted admission. Rose said, however, that many people upset about the restricted size of the meeting who expected to receive questionnaires did not get them. And with just one-fifth of the queries going to those who were excluded from the Retrovirus conference, it is unlikely that the responses will show an overwhelming sentiment toward increasing the size of the meeting. "If they want to have a closed meeting let them go ahead and do that, but it needs to be a focused meeting and not the major AIDS meeting in the country," said John James, publisher of AIDS Treatment News. "There are closed meetings that happen every year, and there has been very little protest about them. The difference is that the topics of these meetings are very focused. I don't object to closed meetings on principle, but this is not an appropriate meeting to be closed." In an editorial published in the February 3, 1997 issue of AIDS Weekly, publisher Charles Henderson and Senior Editor Daniel J. DeNoon expressed similar sentiments. "Artificial limitations on the size of the conference excluded thousands of interested researchers," Henderson and DeNoon wrote. "Artificial restrictions on who could attend the conferences excluded non-researchers with a professional interest in the proceedings. "Extreme limitations on press coverage - extraordinary for a conference ostensibly sponsored by federal agencies - greatly limited access to information presented at the most important AIDS meeting of the year." 1998 Following the 1997 Retrovirus Conference, several AIDS organizations, including the AIDS Action Council, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the AIDS Research Alliance launched a campaign to expand the 1998 meeting. In a press release the coalition said, "the current attendance restrictions, with so many qualified individuals unable to attend, are unprecedented in the history of medical conferences and have created an uproar in the AIDS community." In part, the coalition is asking that next year's conference be moved to a facility that can accommodate 5,000 to 6,000 people; and that future conferences be open to all qualified AIDS researchers, including scientists and clinicians in the pharmaceutical industry, physicians in clinical practice, HIV patient advocates, and other qualified experts in the HIV community. The AIDS organizations called upon the NIH and the CDC to reassess their participation in future Retrovirus conferences. In the three months since the Retrovirus conference, Rose said, there has been no communication between the coalition and the conference's Scientific Program Committee. "No one in the coalition has been contacted by them," he said. "We have approached them and asked them as loudly as we can to get back with us.' The AIDS activist said he is hopeful the Retrovirus conference will be expanded, perhaps to double its 1997 size. "I think they are sincere in trying to come to a reasoned position on their own," he said of the Program Committee. "When they do that, we're hoping they work with us." He appears less certain that organizers will open the conference to the people who have been largely excluded in the past, such as the community groups, clinicians, and press. He added that a dialog regarding the restrictive tenor of the meeting is also badly needed. He cited a blackout imposed on day-to-day reporting at the 1997 Retrovirus conference as an example of unreasonable restriction. "If they increase the size of the meeting to 4,500, we still have to have a conversation about how many of those are going to be the people we're representing," Rose said. "If the meeting is still open to just 50 or 75 of us we haven't gained anything."