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Sad Song

Planning an entertainment-industry event in L.A. on the first night of Passover takes a certain amount of chutzpah, but Outfest film festival and the studio-employee organization out@warnerbros figured the subject matter would be a draw, at least for the gentile or non-practicing Jew who wanted to learn more about the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

In honor of the movie’s 10th anniversary, the two groups sponsored a screening of HBO’s And the Band Played On, the adaptation of Randy Shilts’ Pulitzer Prize–winning book that mapped out the hellish journey humanity took from a half-dozen cases of "gay cancer" to a world where whole continents are teetering on the brink of AIDS oblivion. About 70 people sat in the Renberg Auditorium at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and watched AIDS swirl its way out of 1980s bathhouses like the last of Pandora’s ills. Sitting in the back row was Dr. Don Francis, one of the first people to suggest AIDS was caused by an infectious agent. Francis is an unassuming man with a vague resemblance to actor Matthew Modine (albeit shorter and less naively expressive), who plays the doctor.

Like all disease-of-the-week TV movies, And the Band Played On has plenty of scenes with earnest do-gooders standing up to scream during hospital board meetings, but the film avoids the treacly shtick by sticking to the AIDS story. It’s a fascinating, almost unsolvable medical mystery and the ultimate cautionary tale about institutional rivalry and well-meaning denial. Modine is good, but Alan Alda, in his role as HIV’s controversial co-discoverer, Dr. Robert Gallo, chews it up while skewering every arrogant doctor with a God complex.

After the film, Francis came to the front of the stage, warily taking a standing ovation. He has no desire to be the Erin Brockovich for the T-cell set, but admitted he was in the right place at the wrong time. He worked on the 1976 Ebola outbreak in Sudan and the mid-1970s hepatitis B vaccine trials, but also presciently took an interest in feline leukemia, a disease started by a virus eerily similar to HIV. Plus, the young Francis was sitting at his desk at the Centers for Disease Control when reports of the first pneumocystis deaths rolled into Atlanta.

Surprisingly honest for a man who worked for the government for two decades, Francis didn’t shy away from answering questions about how accurate Alda was in his take on Gallo. "The portrayal was kind to him," he said.

The next night out@warnerbros hosted "How Long Will the Band Play?" at the West Hollywood Park Auditorium, where Francis spoke on the future of AIDS research and prevention to a small audience. He talked about his attempts to develop an AIDS vaccine through his company, VaxGen, which in February released the results of its 5,000-volunteer, three-year Phase III AIDS vaccine trial. "Sadly, the overall protection of the vaccine was trivial," he explained. But even sadder is the fact that his company’s trial may be the first and possibly last comprehensive AIDS-vaccine endeavor in the U.S. for a long time.

Francis said he was initially shocked that both AIDS activists and pharmaceutical companies rushed so quickly to make incredibly complicated antiviral drugs rather than go for a vaccine, which he says we could have in five years "if we put our pedal to the metal." But with the dismal return on investment for vaccines and the sight of so many people dying horrible deaths visible everywhere, the overall public-health strategy was for the short-term fix instead of the long-term solution.

The socioeconomic realities of a vaccine are bad enough, but Francis said the opposition to comprehensive sex education is a bigger non-starter than it was back in the mid-1980s when conservatives first made it clear that talk of condoms and anal sex was taboo: "You spend all your time dealing with these extremists so that, ultimately, public-health departments and leaders give up because it’s just not worth it. And they know that."

VaxGen, with its reeling stock price, has enthusiastically jumped into the smallpox and anthrax markets, which are flush with federal cash and hopped up on a government mandate to have vaccines in two and a half years. Still, Francis hopes a private-public partnership for another shot at the AIDS vaccine gets worked out within the next few months, but he’s not holding his breath.

"It is much harder to move the AIDS wagon down the road than it would be for SARS or something like that, where the whole community is committed to do something about it," Francis warned. "Because AIDS is ‘them’ and we are ‘us,’ and the politics of this country has been thriving on ‘them and us’ for the last 20, 30 years or so. It’s discouraging."