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Minister is 'fuelling Aids panic' in Germany: Health Minister Horst Seehofer has been accused of creating mass panic in order then to present himself as the saviour

ALREADY, four people have been arrested, and one plasma company has been closed. But few expect things to stop there. The scandal over HIV-infected blood in Germany has spread steadily, in recent weeks, and shows no signs of dying down.

The main government institute with the responsibility for supervision and for keeping the government informed has, in effect, been disbanded, after its bosses were sacked. Meanwhile, millions of Germans who have had blood transfusions have been encouraged to take Aids tests by the Health Minister, Horst Seehofer.

Other German companies may become further embroiled. And the fears are spreading beyond Germany's borders, with the revelation that infected blood may have been exported to the UK and several other European countries, including Austria, France and Italy.

The scandal exploded after an incident late in the evening of 5 October. Mr Seehofer had held a meeting with officials from the federal health institute about the dangers of HIV- infected blood, and how to minimise those dangers. Then, just before 11pm - after the meeting had finished - he was unexpectedly given a list from the institute showing 373 cases of HIV-positive blood transfusions. In Mr Seehofer's words: 'Suddenly, it went click.'

Mr Seehofer, furious that his ministry had not been kept fully informed, swung into action in a high-profile campaign which cynics saw as a damage- limitation exercise, and which some doctors criticised for unleashing panic. Mr Seehofer insisted: 'I am personally very affected by the affair, because it is a matter of life and death.'

The scandal centres on the small company UB-Plasma, in Koblenz, just down the Rhine from Bonn. Of the 10 employees, four are under arrest, accused of fraud and of causing injury through culpable negligence. UB-Plasma has been closed. The company, which supplied blood to hospitals and clinics throughout Germany, stands accused of failing to test many batches of donated blood, so precipitating an unknown number of Aids infections.

At the heart of the problem was the commercial nature of blood-testing and blood donation in Germany, which has two disadvantages. First, paid blood donations mean drug addicts have an obvious incentive to donate blood frequently. In some cases, addicts have continued to give blood even when their injecting habits were known. Second, plasma companies can have an obvious financial interest in testing less thoroughly than they should under law.

UB-Plasma which faced financial problems, had apparently mass-tested some of its blood, rather than testing each sample individually. In addition, some blood appears not to have been tested at all, or only by very rudimentary methods.

Part of the reason that the scandal has come to light is that one of the employees at UB- Plasma, shocked at the laxity of procedures, recently blew the whistle. One former lab worker also told the authorities that contaminated blood was 'treated with hydrochloric acid before being distributed in the public system'.

Tomorrow's edition of the weekly Der Spiegel reports that state authorities knew about negligence at the lab as far back as 1987 but failed to react. Der Spiegel also alleges that a doctor at the Bonn university clinic, one of the largest centres in the world for treatment of haemophiliacs, took more than 2m marks ( pounds 800,000) in bribes in connection with the scandal.

In several areas, there has been a special alert, where high numbers of patients received blood from UB-Plasma. In the district hospital in Bruchsal, south of Heidelberg, 95 per cent of plasma used between 1988 and March 1993 is said to have come from UB-Plasma. Up to 3,000 patients from that one hospital may thus be affected: all will be offered an Aids test.

Tests for anyone who thinks they might be at risk are now being recommended. The result has been jammed phone- lines to advice numbers throughout the country; there are 3 million blood transfusions in Germany each year.

The hospital doctors' association has complained of Mr Seehofer's 'over-hasty and scientifically inaccurate statements'. The president of the German medical association, Karsten Vilmar, has complained of an 'HIV show', and accused Mr Seehofer of creating mass panic, in order then to present himself as a saviour. For many, one of the main lessons is the urgent need to tighten up existing regulations. In the words of the Suddeutsche Zeitung: 'A pub landlord serving beer or a laboratory producing plasma - as far as the supervising authorities are concerned, there's more or less no difference . . . (but) whoever is served bad food or drink, throws up - and then feels better. Anybody receiving contaminated blood, will die.'