'I am a scapegoat, I am innocent': Steve Connor talks to the Cambridge professor facing two years in a French jail for his part in the Aids-in-blood case

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JEAN-PIERRE ALLAIN has the uncomfortable honour of holding a senior academic post - professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge University - and being head of an NHS centre while facing two years in a French jail.

On Friday he was found guilty of knowingly distributing Aids-tainted blood to haemophiliacs in France. Immediately after the verdict, he temporarily stepped down as director of the East Anglian Regional Blood Transfusion Service while maintaining that his conscience is clear.

To the haemophiliacs who gave evidence to a Paris court, he is the man who knew the most and the earliest about the risks to the blood supply of contamination with the Aids virus. He sees it differently: 'I consider that I have been selected as a scapegoat and that nothing like a fair trial has taken place. For the press, the public and the judicial system, I was guilty before I was tried. The basis of the judgment still escapes me and raises questions as to the real forces at work here.' He was sentenced to four years' jail, two of which were suspended.

Just how much did he know and could anyone else in his position have done any better?

The case centred on events between 1983, when the Aids virus was first identified, although not universally accepted as the cause of the lethal syndrome, and the summer of 1985, when all the factor 8 blood clotting agent needed by haemophliacs was heat-treated to kill contaminants. At that time, Allain was head of research and development at the French national blood transfusion centre whose director, Michel Garretta, was also sentenced to four years on the same charges.

In essence, the prosecution said that Allain had known about the risks of factor 8 being contaminated with the Aids virus but had done nothing to warn haemophiliacs of the danger. He says he did.

Of the 1,200 French haemophiliacs who received blood products in 1985, 250 have since died of Aids, and others are now HIV positive.

A key allegation against Allain is that in a research study comparing heat-treated factor 8 with unheated factor 8 he failed to inform his patients and continued to give them contaminated products. Speaking at his home near Cambridge, he said: 'What really hurt me during the trial was patients coming forward and saying they were not informed about the study. I've been absolutely open with my patients telling exactly what this study was about.'

The study monitored more than 400 haemophiliacs known to be at risk of Aids. A small sub-group, 46 patients with signs of immune deficiency, was chosen in an attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of four different factor 8 products in preventing further deterioration.

As is normal in such trials, the patients received the products on a random basis and, Allain insists, all were told what was going on. By chance, two brothers in the group received different products: unheated factor 8 made in France and heat-treated factor 8 from abroad. This gave rise to allegations that Allain was using them as unwitting guinea-pigs in a perverse experiment.

'It was the first attempt at treatment and in my view was an extremely positive move,' he said. It took place between September 1983 and March 1984, before a test for HIV was properly developed and before scientists knew definitively what was safe and unsafe. From the results of the study, in December 1984, he learnt that unheated factor 8 was clearly implicated in the onset of Aids: 'Between January '85 and May '85, verbally or in writing, I pushed the opinion that we knew the French products were contaminating and we knew that there was about a 50 per cent rate of seropositivity (infection) among haemophiliacs.'

On 16 January 1985, he says, he wrote to Garretta urging him to introduce heat-treated products, had meetings with him saying the same thing, and, in April, wrote a report saying: 'Haemophiliacs are at high risk of Aids. They are also a potential source of heterosexual transmission. It is therefore essential to limit the infection of the 50 per cent of French haemophiliacs who are still (HIV) negative by the immediate introduction of heat-treated concentrate and/or cryoprecipitate from (HIV) negative donors.'

It was not until July 1985 that the French transfusion service acted. But the French were not alone. In Britain, it was only in August 1985 that the Department of Health forbade health authorities to use unheated factor 8. A survey in May 1985 of 109 haemophilia centres in the UK found that many were still using unheated factor 8, mainly because it was cheaper. Not until June 1985 did haemophilia centre directors say, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, that the use of unheated factor 8 was no longer justified.

Meanwhile, Allain intends to appeal against the verdict that could end his career and put him behind bars.

(Photograph omitted)