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New Evidence Exonerates Foreign Medics in Libyan AIDS Trial

New biological evidence casts more doubt on Libyan government charges against six imprisoned Bulgarian and Palestinian medical workers accused of deliberately infecting several-hundred Libyan children with the AIDS virus. The medics face the death penalty if convicted, but as VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington, laboratory tests support their claims of innocence.

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Rome provide an alibi for the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian physician.

Libya says the six purposely injected 426 children with HIV in 1998 at Al-Fateh hospital in Benghazi, shortly after they arrived in the country. Their trial ended in Tripoli on November 4 and a verdict is expected December 19.

But the British and Italian scientists say their laboratory analysis of virus samples from several of the children indicate that the Libyan accusation is untrue.

University of Oxford co-researcher Oliver Pybus puts it this way.

"We tried to do the analysis in lots of different ways and use lots of different approaches, but pretty much every way that we tackled the problem, we were getting a probability of pretty close to zero that these outbreaks had actually started since the arrival of the Bulgarian medical staff," he explained.

Pybus and his colleagues came to this conclusion by studying the genes in the Libyan children's AIDS virus samples. They looked at the genetic sequences, the particular patterns of genes, to reconstruct the exact history of the outbreak. Analyzing genetic mutations that had occurred over time allowed them to work out when different outbreaks took place.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature, indicate that by 1998 about 40 percent of the children were already infected by an HIV variant that had been spreading locally for several years. Pybus's team says it is related most closely to strains from West Africa, suggesting it came from the many migrant workers in Libya.

"This shows that the strain that had given rise to the outbreaks at Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi had been circulating for some time prior to the arrival of the Bulgarian medical staff in 1998," said Pybus.

An expert who has provided forensic HIV evidence in more than 30 such cases in the past 15 years praises the research. Thomas Leitner of the U.S. government's Los Alamos National Laboratory issued a statement calling it compelling evidence that the outbreak had occurred before the accused could have started it.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence exonerating the six. For example, a European study of blood samples from several of the Libyan children found that many were also infected with hepatitis B and C, suggesting poor hygiene at the Libyan hospital.

"These kinds of infections are most like to have been hospital acquired infections for which there is no evidence to link any specific individuals," said epidemiologist Janine Jagger, who heads the University of Virginia's International Healthcare Worker Safety Center, and calls the Libyan trial very troubling.

"What is really needed at this point is as loud an international outcry as is possible to save these people from the firing squad," she concluded.