At the conclusion of the Ninth International Conference on AIDS, Dr. James Curran said he was "more impressed with the progress of the virus than the progress of the science."
"The virus continues to be the focus, in terms of its march through the world population," said Curran, who directs the AIDS program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Health Organization released a new report showing that 14-million people are now infected with the AIDS virus and 20-million more will be infected by the end of the decade.
That represents about 3-million new infections per year, or 60,000 during the weeklong AIDS conference alone. The conference ended Friday.
"We must accept that scientific progress is coming in small steps, not leaps and bounds," said Dr. Michael Merson, director of the World Health Organization AIDS program.
Gloom about the pace of scientific progress was widespread, but some suggested that scientists are on the verge of a second wave of AIDS research.
"I would urge people not to come out of here with a sense of hopelessness," said Martin Delaney, director of Project Inform, an AIDS treatment and advocacy organization in San Francisco.
He pointed to conference reports on two impending advances.
One was the development of new drugs, including "anti-sense" drugs intended to confuse the virus and stop its reproduction. The other was a trial to begin this year in which genes will be inserted into human cells to make them resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that causes AIDS.
Although Merson sketched a grim picture of the future of the epidemic, he also released a study indicating that an ambitious $3-billion-a-year prevention program could halve the number of AIDS cases in developing countries by 2000.
"The world cannot afford not to find this money," he said at the conclusion of the conference. "We can save 10-million lives, and we must."
Many notable reports, promising or discouraging, were presented at the conference:
Participants had eagerly awaited the first results of a study that used two anti-AIDS drugs in combination to fight the virus. Excitement faded when Dr. Margaret Fischl of the University of Miami reported only slight improvements in patients given the combined therapy.
A French study known as the Concorde trial suggested that the drug AZT was of no benefit in forestalling AIDS symptoms in people infected with the virus. Other studies have found value in early use of AZT. Researchers have yet to sort out the contradictory results.