Scientists say they have found new evidence that a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses at a Libyan hospital did not deliberately infect hundreds of children with the AIDS virus.
The health care workers are on trial in a Libyan court, where a verdict is expected in two weeks.
In an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from some of the children, researchers conclude that infections had begun at the hospital and the surrounding area well before the five nurses and the doctor arrived in March 1998.
The doctor and nurses had been convicted in an earlier trial of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV and they were sentenced to death. That led to international protests that the original trial was improperly conducted and accusations that Libya concocted the charges to cover up poor hygiene at its hospitals. Libya's Supreme Court ordered the new trial last December.
The judge in the new trial has set the verdict date for Dec. 19.
At least 50 of the infected children have died. The defendants, who say they are innocent, have been held in Libya since 1999.
The available evidence in the case suggests the children's HIV infections resulted from a longstanding problem of poor infection control at the hospital, perhaps involving improper sterilization before injections, said Oliver Pybus of Oxford University.
He is one of the authors of the new analysis, published yesterday on the Web site of the journal Nature.
The work was done because defense lawyers asked for an independent scientific inquiry.
Vittorio Colizzi of the University of Rome, another study author, said he knew of no plans to submit the data formally to the court. Now that the scientists have done their job, he said, "the game is in the hands of politicians and journalists."
The case has drawn wide attention from the scientific community. Nature and the journal Science published separate open letters from scientists last month that said the court in the original trial ignored evidence that the infections arose from poor hospital practices.
The new analysis looked at genetic information from HIV samples from 44 of the children. It concluded that they were part of a single outbreak that began with a virus of a type common in west Africa. Libya has many immigrants from that region, the scientists noted.
The genetic information of HIV changes over time, which provides a "molecular clock" that the researchers used to estimate a time frame for the outbreak. They concluded it must have begun before the accused health care workers arrived at the hospital, perhaps by three years or so.
The hepatitis infections found in some of the children also trace back to before the workers arrived, the researchers said.
Thomas Leitner of the Los Alamos National Laboratory noted that the researchers got consistent results.
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