May18, 1997

By Gene Gibbons

BALTIMORE - Evoking the memory of John F. Kennedy's challenge to Americans to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, President Clinton Sunday promised that the the United States would find an AIDS vaccine within a decade.

In a commencement address at Morgan State University, his first of this year's graduation season, Clinton announced that a special research center would be established at the National Institutes of Health to spur the effort.

Recalling President Kennedy's May 1961 commitment to send a manned flight to the moon by the end of the decade, Clinton said an AIDS vaccine should be the ``first great triumph'' of the 21st century.

``He gave us a goal of reaching the moon and we achieved it ahead of time,'' Clinton told graduates of the predominantly black college in Maryland's largest city. ``Today, let us look within and step up to the challenge of our time.''

Clinton said to help fulfill the goal a dedicated HIV vaccine research and development center would be established at the National Institutes of Health.

Sandy Thurman, director of the White House Office of AIDS policy, said the center would be fully operational within the next several months and initially involve 40 to 50 scientists. It will add about $17 million to AIDS spending, bringing the annual total to $150 million, she said.

But one AIDS group immediately criticized the president's declaration, saying the goal of finding a vaccine was not backed up with a committment of new spending.

Clinton said also that at a summit in Denver in June, he will ask leaders of the world's other big industrial nations to support the AIDS vaccine initiative. The summit will bring together leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia.

Clinton also challenged the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to increase their investment in AIDS-related research.

An AIDS vaccine should be part of the U.S. industry's ''basic mission,'' he said.

Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, welcomed Clinton's initiative and pledged the industry's support, but said Clinton needed to back tort reform and restore cuts in the Food and Drug Administration budget to make his vision a reality.

About three million people worldwide are infected yearly with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and an estimated 29 million people carry the virus. Without a vaccine, AIDS will soon overtake tuberculosis and malaria as the leading killer disease of people 25-to-44 years of age, experts said.

Morgan State, known for its focus on science and technology, has an enrollment of 6,000 students, and 850 received degrees at the commencement ceremony.